It all started with a Constitution that allowed slavery to continue unmolested in the Southern states, only limiting the importation of additional slaves after 1808. In addition to requiring the return of escaped slaves to the slave labor camps, it required them to be included in the census as three-fifths of a free person for taxation and representation.
Because seats in the House of Representatives are based on population, not on the number of registered voters or even on the number people eligible to vote, but of total population—including people held in slavery, even if each was only considered three-fifths of a man—the South received more that their fair share. And it was not just extra House seats that their slave population provided, but also additional muscle in the Electoral College that selects the president. According to Edward E. Baptist in The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism:
One result was the South’s dominance of the presidency over the next seventy years. Four of the first five presidents would be Virginia slaveholders. Eight of the first dozen owned people.
Oh, but you say, we fought a Civil War and ended all of that nonsense when we freed the slaves. Slavery ended 150 years ago, it is time to move on. To get past it. Get over it.
I wish that we could, but if you follow me below the fold I will trace for you the reasons it never ended and continues today.
After the end of the Civil War, U.S. Army troops were sent into the rebellious states to ensure the civil rights of the newly freed people. This period only lasted for a dozen years, but during that time, African Americans were granted suffrage. The rebels of the Southern states, who never truly surrendered, joined together under the banner of the terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, to intimidate black and white voters who attempted to participate in civic life and supported Reconstruction. This resulted in federal intervention under the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871.
Compromise of 1877
A political cartoon by Joseph Keppler
depicts Roscoe Conkling as a character
Mephistopheles (the devil) while
Rutherford B. Hayes strolls off with the prize
of the "Solid South" depicted as a woman.
By 1877, through means of voter suppression, intimidation, and fraud, the Democrats had managed to achieve a majority in the House of Representatives. In 1877, the Southern racists, nominally Democrats, agreed to stop the Senate filibuster and support Republican presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for the removal of U.S. Army troops from South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana, and a return to self-rule for the states.
The South vowed to protect the rights of African Americans.
This is a simplified, bare-bones version of a quite complicated negotiation, but the nuance it deserves would require an entire volume on the Compromise of 1877. Fortunately, C. Vann Woodward has already written one. From his work, Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction, comes this example of Southern legislative tactics that should sound familiar to those who follow current events:
At a Democratic caucus on February 19,1877, a majority of the members voted for a resolution to write into the army appropriations bill, then still pending, a clause forbidding the use of troops to support the claims of any state government in the South until it should be recognized by Congress. A bill containing such a clause was passed by the House and a penalty of hard labor and imprisonment provided for anyone found guilty of violating the act. When the Republican Senate refused to accept the clause the House stood its ground and adjourned without making any appropriations for the army whatever.
Leaving President Hayes with an angry, unpaid army. Note that government shutdown by Southern racists, unable to get what they want through the legislative process, is not a new tactic.
Right after promising to protect the rights of all citizens, Georgia passed a poll tax in 1877 that effectively shut out freed slaves. Other Southern states followed, adding complicated registration requirements, literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses that allowed poor whites to vote because they were, or were descended from those, who were able to vote prior to 1860.
The impact: In Louisiana, in 1896 there were 130,334 registered black voters. Two years later, after restrictions had been introduced, there were 5,320 registered black voters. By 1910, there were only 730 in the entire state. This in a state where half the population was African American.
Voter turnout dropped drastically throughout the South as a result of such measures.
It is important to remember that although African Americans are a national minority, they were the majority in the Southern states after the Civil War. In Democracy, Anti-Democracy, and the Canon, Richard H. Pildes, New York University School of Law, writes that they were entitled to:
... equal access to whatever schools happened to be available. They were also entitled to decide that educational spending would be 5x instead of x. African Americans were entitled to nondiscriminatory law enforcement and also to the power to decide that, for example, breaking an agricultural contract-a crime invented to keep the freed slaves under the control of the white minority-would not be a crime at all. They could even determine that civil rights violations or fraud against agricultural employees would be punished severely. Under the electoral system contemplated by the Constitution, the African American majority would have shaped educational policy, economic and criminal justice policy, and other aspects of state government in the South. ...
While in control in the 1860s and 1870s, they implemented policies designed to lead to economic and social advancement: education and protection against discrimination from private actors. If the Constitution had been obeyed and those policies left in place and strengthened, the social advancement that occurred in the twentieth century might well have occurred in the nineteenth, and African Americans might now enjoy the same economic and social status enjoyed by other ethnic groups taking their place in the American community.
Not only were they deprived of their right to vote, their numbers guaranteed that the Southern representation in the House would grow, since they now were counted as whole free persons for purposes of representation and taxation. And that is what "adding insult to injury" means.
The Jim Crow laws were more than laws restricting the franchise, they codified a way of life that kept African Americans in virtual slavery, subject to punishments as brutal as what were endured before 600,000 Americans lost their lives deciding the issue of slavery in the South.
The Great Migration
Beginning in 1915, Southern blacks began moving north and west in search of greater opportunities and a life free from Jim Crow. Some 6 million people migrated out of the South over six decades in spite of the barriers placed in their path by the Southern states.
However, the North was no panacea for those leaving the codified racism of the South. From The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration:
Most colored migrants were funneled into the lowest-paying, least wanted jobs in the harshest industries— iron and steel foundries and slaughtering and meatpacking. They “only did the dirty work,” a colored steelworker said of his early days in Milwaukee , “jobs that even Poles didn’t want.”
They faced the same hardships that all other immigrant people had faced, even though they were American citizens
. Although they were American citizens, they were not allowed to assimilate into the mainstream culture as other groups had, but were restricted instead to low-paying jobs and housed in neighborhoods circumscribed by covenants, banks, and insurance companies.
In spite of the racism, the discrimination, the segregation, and the outright antipathy they faced, the Southern blacks who moved north and west did not live under Jim Crow laws and were allowed the vote. It was not good, but it was better. While the non-Southern states did little to stop the racism or protect the blacks, they did not codify white supremacy into law.
The New Deal
Top left: The Tennessee Valley Authority, part of the New Deal, being signed into law in 1933.
Top right: President Roosevelt was responsible for initiatives and programs of the New Deal.
Bottom: A public mural from one of the artists employed by the New Deal.
Franklin Roosevelt is often held responsible for denying African Americans the benefits of New Deal legisltaion. And he was the president, and the buck did stop on his desk, but some of the credit must go to the Southern racists who fought tooth and nail for the doctrine of white supremacy, placing it above country or party.
As late as 1938, only 4 percent of the African Americans in the South could vote. There was only one party in the South, so most Southern politicians ran unopposed and were re-elected repeatedly, gaining them seniority in the majority party and the committee chairmanships that that entailed. They were still benefiting from the black population that they did not allow to vote.
According to Ira Katznelson, author of Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time
, there were not enough liberal or northern Democrats to achieve a majority without gaining the votes of the racist Southerners. And the price of their cooperation was the inviolability of the Jim Crow laws.
It meant that the only way that most New Deal legislation, from the NRA to the Social Security Act, could pass the Congress was if the legislation excluded from coverage agricultural and domestic workers. Which were, of course, the only occupations that blacks were allowed to hold in the South. ("In South Carolina, colored people had to apply for a permit to do any work other than agriculture after Reconstruction," wrote Isabel Wilkerson in Warmth of Other Suns.)
It was the racist Southern Democrats who voted with the Republicans to override President Truman's veto of the Taft-Hartley Act, which made it much more difficult for Southern blacks to organize. Katznelson maintains that John Rankin of Mississippi, the most unabashed racist in the House, wrote the House version of the GI Bill that "sharply disadvantaged southern black veterans."
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965
The passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act cost the Democratic Party the South for far more than the generation predicted by President Johnson when he signed the former.
But the Jim Crow era was finally over. The signs came down from over drinking fountains and restrooms. The right of African Americans to vote would be enforced by the Justice Department.
However, it only took three years for the South to rise again.
Nixon's Southern Strategy of 1968
Although Barry Goldwater appears to be the first Republican to appeal to the Southern voter since Reconstruction, it was Richard Nixon who developed the Southern strategy of going after the Democratic vote in the South under the dog-whistle banner of "law-and-order" and "states' rights." From an excerpt of his book, Dog Whistle Politics, published at Salon.com, Ian Haney Lopez wrote about George McGovern's summary of the Southern strategy:
Defeated by the Southern strategy, McGovern neatly summed it up: “What is the Southern Strategy? It is this. It says to the South: Let the poor stay poor, let your economy trail the nation, forget about decent homes and medical care for all your people, choose officials who will oppose every effort to benefit the many at the expense of the few—and in return, we will try to overlook the rights of the black man, appoint a few southerners to high office, and lift your spirits by attacking the ‘eastern establishment’ whose bank accounts we are filling with your labor and your industry.”
And it is still working today.
Part of the Southern strategy was to use dog whistles to appeal to the racists in the North as well as the South. It was cloaked in an appeal to the blue collar worker of the northern cities, but the dog whistles worked as well there as anywhere else where racism and fear flourished. In 1980, Ronald Reagan reaped the benefits of the Southern strategy. His advisor Lee Atwater, in a 1981 interview:
You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."
The Southern racist has voted as a Republican ever since.
The War on Drugs 1980 to present
The law-and-order campaigns of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan led directly to the War on Drugs, which began in 1982, at a time when illegal drug usage was in a decline. In 1985, the Reagan administration hired PR staff to publicize the "scourge" of crack cocaine. They were very effective. The War on Drugs has seen our prison population explode over the past 30 years, from 300,000 to over 2 million, the majority being due to drug-related offenses.
Michelle Alexander calls this The New Jim Crow in her book of the same name. The War on Drugs, which was started under Ronald Reagan, enhanced under Bill Clinton and continued under every president since, has resulted in "an enormous population of predominately black and brown people who, because of the drug war, are denied basic rights and privileges of American citizenship and are permanently relegated to an inferior status."
Today a criminal freed from prison has scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a freed slave or a black person living “free” in Mississippi at the height of Jim Crow. Those released from prison on parole can be stopped and searched by the police for any reason— or no reason at all— and returned to prison for the most minor of infractions, such as failing to attend a meeting with a parole officer. Even when released from the system’s formal control, the stigma of criminality lingers. Police supervision, monitoring, and harassment are facts of life not only for all those labeled criminals, but for all those who “look like” criminals. Lynch mobs may be long gone, but the threat of police violence is ever present. A wrong move or sudden gesture could mean massive retaliation by the police. A wallet could be mistaken for a gun. The “whites only” signs may be gone, but new signs have gone up—notices placed in job applications, rental agreements, loan applications, forms for welfare benefits, school applications, and petitions for licenses, informing the general public that “felons” are not wanted here. A criminal record today authorizes precisely the forms of discrimination we supposedly left behind—discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service. Those labeled criminals can even be denied the right to vote.
The Election of Barack Obama
This was the final straw for the Southern racist. A black man in the White House. Well, he may have been voted into office, but they were there to make sure that he could do absolutely nothing and so they conspired to vote against every policy he proposed.
The most recent example was Ted Cruz's bizarre tweet about Net Neutrality, an issue with true bipartisan support. That didn't matter, if Obama was for it, the Southern racists were against it. And he is one of them. He is also an idiot.
The current crop of Southern racists have shared their knowledge and experience with like-minded politicians in other areas of the nation. No longer is their behavior a function only of the South, as they have joined with conservatives from gerrymandered states like Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin to use the tools of white supremacy to also advance the causes of the wealthy 1 percent that pay for their elections.
Among the tools that have worked in the past and are working today:
- Filibusters of President Obama's legislative agenda and nominations.
- Intimidation of voters: Today they use organizations like True the Vote instead of the Klan, perhaps because bedsheets draw too much attention in an era of cellphone cameras.
- Complicated voter registration requirements and voter ID laws that impose a new poll tax to fight a crime that doesn't exist while creating crimes out of poverty and drug use to disenfranchise people of color.
- In the past it was lynching that intimidated blacks. Today the parallels between police brutality and lynching have been illustrated by Shaun King.
- If they can't achieve their legislative goals they simply shut down the government.
- But mostly, they retain their hold on power by using the same strategy that worked against George McGovern:
Let the poor stay poor, let your economy trail the nation, forget about decent homes and medical care for all your people, choose officials who will oppose every effort to benefit the many at the expense of the few—and in return, we will try to overlook the rights of the black man, appoint a few southerners to high office, and lift your spirits by attacking the ‘eastern establishment’ whose bank accounts we are filling with your labor and your industry.
It doesn't matter whether they call themselves Democrats or Republicans or tea partiers, they are the same people who have been putting white supremacy ahead of country or party for over 200 years. And today they are using their power to fill those bank accounts of the "eastern establishment" with the wealth earned by the American workers of all races.