How the Black Vote Became a MonolithHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, Democratic Party, voting rights, political parties
Theodore R. Johnson is a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is the author of When the Stars Begin to Fall, to be published by Grove Atlantic in the spring, which lays out a case for national solidarity as one counter to the effects of racism. He is a retired military officer and served as a White House fellow during the Obama administration.
The ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments codified freedmen’s participation in the electoral process at a time when upward of 90 percent of Black Americans lived in the Southern states, constituting actual or near majorities in more than a few. This led to more than 300 Black state and federal legislators in the South holding office in 1872, a level not seen again for more than 100 years. These elected officials were overwhelmingly Republicans swept into office by the unity of Black voters, who assembled to demand equality and liberty that hinged on keeping white segregationists from power.
This was the Black monolith’s forceful debut. In a thriving democracy, one aligned to the nation’s professed values, a competition for these new voters would have ensued. The monolith would have dissipated as individual Black voters sought out their ideological compatriots instead of being compelled to band against segregation and racial violence.
Instead, a campaign of white nationalist terrorism swept across the South, targeting Black Republican legislators and voters. In Georgia, the 1868 State Legislature voted to expel its Black members, all of whom were Republican. They were eventually reseated, but not before white racist vigilantes in the town of Camilla opened fire on Black marchers attending a Republican rally, killing, by some accounts, nearly a dozen and wounding dozens more. That same year in South Carolina, white vigilantes killed a number of Black legislators. One of them, Benjamin F. Randolph, was shot in broad daylight at a train station. No one was ever tried for the crime, let alone convicted of it. In the Colfax Massacre of 1873, dozens of Black Republicans and state militiamen were killed during an attempt to overturn election results in Louisiana.
Federal forces kept some of this racial terror in check, but not all of it. And white Republican leaders occasionally bowed to the violence out of political expedience. In the 1876 presidential election, 19 electoral votes in three Southern states were disputed and accompanied by voter intimidation and widespread voter fraud. In South Carolina, according to the University of Virginia historian Michael F. Holt’s book “By One Vote,” voter turnout was an absurd 101 percent.
The moderate Republican Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote that year, but appeared to have an edge in obtaining the disputed electors, and Republican Party leaders struck a deal with Democrats that would make him president in exchange for a promise that federal troops would not intervene in Southern politics. Once in office, Hayes followed through on his pledge. The Compromise of 1877, as it is now known, effectively traded Black people’s rights for the keys to the White House. It brought Reconstruction to an end, paving the way for the Jim Crow era.
In the first century of American politics, the word “compromise” — Three-Fifths, Missouri, 1850, 1877 — was often a euphemism for prying natural and constitutional rights from Black Americans’ grip. Perhaps betrayals of one group can be labeled compromises by the others, but racial hierarchy and equal rights cannot touch without bruising. These political arrangements underscored the paradox that plagued Black America from the outset: The same federalist government charged with the delivery and defense of constitutional rights was often the means of denying them. On matters of race, the state was at once dangerously unreliable and positively indispensable.
The contours of Black politics were shaped by this quandary. The lack of faith in American democracy’s ability to do what was right undergirded Black conservatism, producing economic philosophies like Booker T. Washington’s bootstrapping self-determination; social efforts toward civic acceptance like the respectability politics of the Black church; and separatist politics like the early iterations of black nationalism. A recognition that achieving racial equality required a strong government fueled Black progressivism, which demanded anti-lynching federal legislation; eradication of the poll tax and other barriers to voting; and expansion of quality public education. Elections might have brought these strains of Black politics together, out of necessity, but did not erase the differences between them.
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