July 29, 2020


Can you imagine a contemporary America in which at least nine states have a Black population majority, a Black governor, one or more Black U.S. senators, a Black congressional delegation majority and a Black-dominated state legislature?

That was well within the realm of possibility 150 years ago in the 1870s.

But because of a bunch of scheming, self-serving politicians, opportunistic presidents, and the squalid "Deal of 1876," it never happened.

What did happen was that Rutherford Hayes (R), with the connivance of both pro-Republican commercial interests and ex-Confederate Southern white politicians stole the 1876 presidential election from popular-vote winner Samuel Tilden (D). The electoral vote was 185-184. And that resulted in the disenfranchisement of 4,880,000 freed southern slaves, which lasted for the next century. That's 4.8 million people.

The situation was kind of like a "Cancel Culture, Part I," but against Black slaves. In the post-Civil War period, following Abraham Lincoln's assassination, economic and societal chaos enveloped the South. It was an occupied land, policed and controlled by the U.S. Army during so-called Reconstruction (1865-76), a time of rebuilding and re-shaping by the victors/occupiers. The over-riding problem for Whites was how to erase the culture of Black servitude dating back to the 1600s. If you can't have it, then destroy it - that type of nonsense.

Slavery in the South was viewed as an economic necessity when labor-intensive crops like cotton, tobacco and sugar cane were grown, harvested and exported. The South's economy was entirely agrarian, and slaves, unfortunately, provided cheap labor and an ever growing supply of laborers. With the Civil War over and the South's economy in ruins, emancipated Freedmen had to make a living, and one of the skills they had was farming, which put them into competition with poor Whites since vast plantations vanished.

Washington's dominant "Radical Republicans" had a simple solution: Give ex-slaves power, use the Army to keep them in power, and, by so doing, keep themselves in power. In short, oppress the White oppressors and confiscate their land. Punish them by denying them a return to power. The Freedmen were then 58.6 percent of the population in South Carolina, 55.3 in Mississippi, 49.5 in Louisiana, 45.4 in Alabama, 43.3 in Virginia, 44.6 percent in Florida, 44 in Georgia, and 36.4 in North Carolina. It was a matter of arithmetic, at which some politicians excel. Black votes mattered to Whites.

The plan was to get Blacks to the polls, where they would predictably vote Republican (for the Party of Lincoln, the Great Emancipator), and also winnow down the White vote by disenfranchising ex-Confederate soldiers. It worked for a while. Numbers matter. But it also polarized race relations for 100 years.

White Northerners (called "carpetbaggers" because they lived out of their suitcase) had invaded the South to plunder, and with the clout of their Washington allies and the Army took over local government (and governorships), with the Black vote as their electoral base. As seceded states were readmitted, Black Republicans began arriving in the U.S. Senate and House, cementing Radical Republican control. The potential was enormous: The 11 states then had 22 senators and 68 representatives. This was a race war. After suffering the indignity of losing the Civil War, the remnants of White society did not want to suffer the indignity of being governed by their own ex-slaves.

Quite simply, if there were more Black than White voters, they had three options: (1) Accept it. (2) Increase the White voter base (which could take generations). Or (3) decrease the Black voter base. So "protesters" took to horses on the back-roads, wearing white sheets to accomplish (3). Blacks were terrorized and killed to the extent that they became non-voters by the mid-1870s.

So virulent was White animosity and oppression that racial harmony was never an option. It was Civil War, Chapter II.

The Republicans had won the presidency in 1860, with 180 electoral votes for Lincoln out of 304, and 72 for southerner John Breckinridge. Lincoln won 212-21 in the South-less 1864 election. Ulysses Grant won 214-80 in 1868, with Northern losses to Democrats in a few states offset by Army-protected Black votes in FL, AL, SC, NC, AR and TN. It looked like an indefinite Republican lock.

But Grant Administration scandals and the Panic of 1873 recession threatened that lock. Democrats regained the House in 1874, and the KKK down South was murdering Black folk and burning crosses.

Tilden, the effete New York governor, ran as the "reformer." The era (1870-90) was known as the "Gilded Age," and fortunes were being made in the railroad and coal industries, and among politicians who facilitated them. The Party of Lincoln was now the Party of Business. Elections were won or lost in the big states: New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois. The Republicans' southern experiment was a failure. The Army was still policing the polls, but Blacks were not going there.

Republicans were desperate to stay in control, but Tilden had won NY, MO, IN and KY, and had a 184-165 electoral vote lead over Hayes on election night, with 20 in doubt - SC (7), LA (8), FL (4) and OR (1). If Hayes got all of those votes, he'd win. The party went to work. Carpetbagger Republicans still ran South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida, so new "returns" suddenly materialized with Hayes majorities. Local then state "Returning Boards" with Republican appointees, amid a sea of money and lobbyists, upheld the Hayes "vote" every time. It was now 184-184. The Oregon situation involved the qualifications of a Hayes elector. It was resolved for Hayes. It was now 185-184.

Democrats and the Democratic press went crazy. A new Civil War was threatened; so was a march on Washington. Tilden and Grant were silent. Dual sets of returns went to Washington, with the House empowered to certify the winner, or pick the president. The compromise was that a special Joint Committee was impaneled to investigate, hold hearings and rule on the returns. The committee had an equal number of Senate (Republican) and House (Democratic) members, with a Supreme Court justice (R) as the tiebreaker. The result was pre-ordained: Hayes won every contest.

The country was in chaos. Government, the economy and financial markets were paralyzed. Grant ordered troops to Washington to install Hayes and repel a feared armed invasion - or seize power himself. It was time for a deal - not between the timid Tilden and Hayes, but between the Northern business barons who wanted future Democratic support in Congress and the diehard White Southerners who wanted the status quo ante - White rule - which they called "state's rights." Congressional Southerners no longer objected to Hayes, and the incoming president committed to (1) withdrawing all federal troops in the South and (2) appointing a Southern Democrat as U.S. Postmaster General, a very important patronage post. All those Southern carpetbaggers would be gone. And (3) amnesty for Confederate officers, so they could hold public office. The South's Republican Party soon evaporated. And so did Black voting rights.

It was a complete sell-out, and Southern Democrats retook complete control of all 11 ex-Confederate states. Black voter suppression now had state sanctions. Poll taxes were imposed, as were "literacy" tests. Not owning property became a bar (which cut out poor whites). The tiny White aristocracy, called the "Bourbons" and consisting of remaining landowners, the courthouse crowd and prosperous town businessmen, took charge by 1880.

Segregation replaced slavery. There were two classes of citizenry, and Blacks were indisputably viewed as the Second Class, a situation that persisted through the 1950s. In fact, racial segregation was codified in 1896's infamous Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision, which ruled that "separate but equal" schools (and therefore all public facilities and services) were legal.

World War I offered an escape. By 1910 the South’s Black population was 8.8 million, double 1860’s. Demand for wartime labor was strong in the North, and large numbers of Southern Blacks hit the railroads seeking a better life, ending up in Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York and other industrial areas. By 1940 the Black Southern population had declined – to 24.7 percent in VA, 27.1 in FL, 42.4 in SC, 35.9 in LA, 14.4 in TX, 34.7 in GA and 34.7 in AL. There were now fewer Black votes to suppress. But the key was to keep Democratic primaries a whites-only event. A new wrinkle in the 1940s was to make the Party a private Club, pay for the cost of the primary, and ban Black voters.

Meanwhile, Southern Democrats had and kept accumulating congressional seniority (and thus power) and leverage. They delivered one-third of the total electoral votes to every Democrat, and congressional votes for Woodrow Wilson's (D) and Franklin Roosevelt's (D) liberal agenda as long as they didn't mess around with the South's state's rights. The military wasn't desegregated until the late 1940s. By then, the Northern Black vote was a major political factor and Ol' Abe was long forgotten. FDR had turned Blacks Democratic, as had LBJ's 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. Johnson was messing with state's rights.

1964 was a reversal of 1876. In the South, the Republicans became the conservative state's rights party. You can always count on the South to be on the wrong side of history rather than the right.