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Black Votes, White Violence: Parallels From 150 Years Past

Freedmen voting in New Orleans, 1867 – Public Domain

The Reconstruction Act of 1867 altered the 14th amendment through a redefinition of citizenship that would, in theory at least, include former slaves. By 1870 the 15th amendment used the specific wording of race in expanding the vote to all males. Contrary to much of the jargon you hear from the post-race left today this representation led to progressive economic programs of public funding, progressive taxation and expansion of schools in the South. As a result the Ku Klux Klan, not unlike the Proud Boys of today, turned to vigilante violence at the polls.

Also like today, it was economic downturns that led to a consolidation of reactionary right-wing power to take hold in 1874. The Panic of 1873 was known as the Great Depression at the time but this was forgotten when what is presently known as The Great Depression outpaced it. Their day was also plagued by compromises in the opposition party, similar to today. In 1871 President Ulysses Grant stood up to the Klan, but the Compromise of 1877 disenfranchised black voters with the then lesser evil Republicans walking away with the Presidency for Rutherford Hayes but selling their black base out in return. Federal troops withdrew from the South and Southern states were allowed to do whatever they wanted to the black vote and black population in general. The 14th and 15th amendments were not respected.

Today, as documented by Greg Palast, Black votes are systematically and routinely not counted. In Georgia, for example, 70% of the voters booted off the voter rolls for not having an “exact match” of government ID to photo ID are black. This issue of voter suppression has mostly gained attention from the national media only as Donald Trump has resorted to openly calling for violence to suppress the vote and/or violence to keep him in office if he loses.

Donald Trump is both a part of the present system and the next step in it. His corporate fascist government has been so openly corrupt, destructive and cruel that there is no way to win a popular vote without intimidation on the ground. However, the groundwork for massive voter suppression has been going on for years, in many cases because of a Great Compromise of Democrats not taking their own side or alienating their own base by playing similar tricks in their own primary.

I am familiar with the former governor of Mississippi Adelbert Ames because he’s my ancestor. Ames was surely a racist, opting against black suffrage in his younger years. He is a statue worthy to be toppled, but he won the black vote in Mississippi on a fairly progressive platform.

The control of the legislature was on the line in 1875. The white supremacist vigilantes were strong in Mississippi and Ulysses Grant had grown more and more timid, wanting to reach across the aisle and provide peace when his opponents endorsed the opposite. Federal troops could not be counted on to help Ames restore order. Compare that to the National Guard being sent in droves upon people protesting against racist police brutality today.

As a result, Ames took matters into his own hands, organizing a black militia that leveraged a compromise with the Democrats that involved the black militia standing down and blacks being allowed to vote. However the intimidation had already occurred and the Democrats cruised to victory, even if everyone knew why. This new Democrat majority soon impeached Ames and this became a strategy to regain much of the South.

Too often moments in history such as the end of slavery are seen as an ending, rather than as an event that will inspire other events. The post-slavery South was violently overtaken by White Supremacists soon after blacks could vote for the first time and were making quick changes to both racial and economic policy. This was done with the complicity of much of the establishment opposition.

Compromise by Ulysses Grant following the Civil War allowed the Confederate soldiers to maintain too much of their property and therefore were empowered to take back what they believed they owned—white supremacy over blacks.

Ames’ father in law General Benjamin Butler pulled a similar stunt to Ames’ militia when he took in runaway slaves from the Civil War as contraband, arguing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in saying that because the slaves were doing the enemy’s labor, he had a right to keep them on his side. This had more to do with why slavery ended than anything Abraham Lincoln thought up because it was a strategic advantage for the North to encourage slaves to run away from the South. Both sides of the aisle were certainly racist enough to want to keep slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation is given a moral white savior bend but it’s essentially a continuation of Butler’s political stunt because it only applied to liberated areas of the United States. Butler himself enriched himself and his brother through illegal trading in war-time New Orleans, notoriously gaining the nickname of Spoons for looting the silverware of Southern homes he took over.

The more general point here is that most of our heroes, whether they be established power-hungry politicians or major self-satisfying events such as the end of slavery do not save us from repeating a brutal White Supremacist history. Joe Biden now finds himself in the role that Grant once occupied, but he doesn’t even hold office yet. Faced with a white militia keen on defending their property gained through market speculation on largely globalized slave or servant labor we have an opposition party prepared for “peace” with the white militias as it condemns anti-racist protestors, defends police as mostly good guys and works hand in hand with most of the large financial institutions of the day.

Meanwhile, democracy itself is on the line as the neoliberal counter-revolution against the 1960s and welfare state mirrors the counter-revolution following Reconstruction. Wishful thinking maybe hoping Biden can pull a Rutherford Hayes and dump Trump even if it means sacrificing the Party line along the way. Biden and company are already playing this card as Republicans get more time than the Bernie Sanders wing of the Party at their own convention. However as much relief, as that compromise may be, lessons from history should make us wary of striking deals with the militant right. Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com 

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