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Today’s election denialism and violence has a dark echo in the Jim Crow South

As in 1877, the U.S. has to decide whether it wants to be a multi-racial democracy

- January 14, 2021

When Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) argued for delaying the confirmation of the 2020 election, he invoked the 1877 Hayes-Tilden compromise as a precedent. But as even Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) noted the evening of the Jan 6. insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, there are deadly historical shadows of 1877 that loom over Cruz’s reference. The 1876 election and its aftermath led to a dramatically new political landscape — ending the nascent multiracial democracy of the Reconstruction, which sought to enfranchise Black people and remake Southern politics, and replacing it an authoritarian enclave predicated on white racial violence. Although Cruz’s effort last week failed, the U.S. still faces a similar choice between multiracial democracy or the rise of a partial democracy afflicted by its own specter of white racial violence.

The 1876 election was conducted amid the ongoing sectional conflict of Reconstruction. white Southerners’ fiery rhetoric focused on their military defeat and what they claimed was the injustice of Reconstruction and the illegitimacy of the 14th and 15th Amendments that gave equal protection, due process and voting rights to all Americans regardless of race. Leading up to the election, white Southern Democrats sought to disenfranchise Blacks and to permanently drive these voters, the Republican Party and the federal government out of the South. Black elected officials, leaders and their white allies were executed as a means to intimidate voters. These violent elections gave white Democrats the opportunity to claim — like the arsonist suspected of burning down a building — that these suspicious events and contested returns should be investigated and the final results of the election be delayed.

To resolve the dispute, the Hayes-Tilden Compromise famously gave the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, the presidency in exchange for his promise that he would withdraw federal troops from the South. The compromise thus laid the foundation for three intertwined myths. The “Lost Cause” was the notion that Civil War was about “states’ rights” and not slavery. “Reconciliation” was belief that the North and South would come together after moving past the “excesses” of both sides. The “Redemption” of the South was the reestablishment of white supremacy. Central to all three myths was the erasure of slavery and maintenance of Black subordination.

As a result of this crisis, the nation faced two paths. It could continue to nurture the fragile roots of a multiracial democracy in the South, or it could accede to a process of “Redemption and Reconciliation” and permit the rise of authoritarianism. It chose the latter. As Reconstruction ended, white Southerners enacted a de facto repudiation of the 14th and 15th Amendments and created the Jim Crow political order that for decades made disenfranchisement, segregation and lynching acceptable.

For white Southerners, the Hayes/Tilden Compromise was thus both a remarkable political victory and a building block of Redemption myth, where the terror of Black equality was firmly removed and white supremacy enshrined. This myth was taken up across the white South — embodied in mass-produced statues of soldiers, sanitized by historians and dramatized in films like “The Birth of a Nation.”

The Jim Crow order also rested on these myths. The 13th Amendment was inverted and convict leasing (“slavery by another name”) exploded. As Talitha L. Leflouria’s recent work shows, the “leasing” of Black people provided labor for the factories funded by northern capital and for the construction of the South’s roads and other public infrastructure.

By 1901, the 14th and 15th Amendments were also turned into virtual dead letters. Southern states enacted a host of laws — including poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, white primaries and gerrymandering — which together disenfranchised virtually all Black male voters. This enabled Democrats to control almost all levels of Southern government, and it allowed Southern congressional Democrats to exert extraordinary influence in national politics.

Jim Crow order rested on the power of the state and terroristic spectacles of violence, of cross burnings and lynchings attended by individuals and families. Law enforcement sometimes actively participated and sometimes just stood by claiming they were unable to stop the violence.

Jim Crow also entailed violence in everyday life: peonage, chain gangs, limited or nonexistent opportunities for education or economic advancement and humiliations large and small. The average white person could verbally and physically abuse a Black person without any accountability at all. The cruelty became the point.

It was not surprising then that one historian called 1900 [Black] America’s “nadir.” The fragile multiracial democracy of Reconstruction was destroyed after only a brief decade or so, while this Jim Crow order lasted for more than 75 years.

As my work shows, Black and white activists, reformers and ordinary citizens arduously forged a path out of this low point. The Civil Rights movement led the way for the promise of the 14th and 15th Amendments to be finally realized, especially with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Yet the promise of inclusive democracy has proved to be fragile. The election of Barack Obama helped bring together a coalition of constitutional “originalists,” white supremacist sympathizers, and conservative officials in many states. Some argued against the so-called illegitimate Reconstruction Amendments. Republican state legislatures enacted a host of laws that placed restrictions on voter registration and turnout. These laws, as well as the “technical fix” called for by Cruz, are all alarmingly similar to the “technical fix” that ushered in “Redemption.”

The Jan. 6 insurrection had many echoes of this past. There was some of the spectacle of lynchings, complete with a scaffold and noose. There were avowed neo-Nazis and white supremacists in the crowd and in the Capitol. At least some law enforcement officer simply stood by as the riot unfolded. At least one elected leader was cheering along. As CNN host Jake Tapper noted, “White House aides said Trump was ‘delighted’ watching the insurrection. They were fighting for him.”

While Cruz’s procedural ploy and the attempted insurrection did not stop Biden’s presidency, there are worrisome signs for the future. If we are not careful, the insurrection could be used for a new myth, the basis for a new “Lost Cause.” Republicans, like the Southern Democrats, may have won a different kind of victory. The reality that the United States is a fully inclusive democracy must be the prevailing myth for the 21st century.

Kimberley S. Johnson is a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. She is the author of “Reforming Jim Crow: Southern Politics and State in the Age Before Brown” (Oxford University Press, 2010).