The Return of the ‘Jim Crow’ Backlash to Diverse America
Heidi Cuda looks at how the echoes of a historic backlash against democratic progress in America are now coming back to haunt us
Five years after the American Civil War, in 1870, the 15th Amendment granted black men the right to vote. In the South, they began to register in huge numbers. Thousands of black elected officials soon began to populate local offices across the South, as well as statehouses, and the halls of Congress.
“If you go back and look at all the old photos, there were black Speakers of the House in the South and black governors,” author David Pepper told Byline Supplement.
Before the Civil War, black Americans were only allowed to vote in a handful of northern states. Shortly after the defeat of the Confederate States of America, black people mobilized to demand suffrage. A decade of Radical Reconstruction led to 16 African American men serving in Congress; 600 elected to state legislatures; and hundreds more elected to local community offices.
The backlash from Southern white people bitter over losing their supremacy would last nearly a century. The accomplishments of black men during the brief period of post-war voting rights are long buried in American history. Shamefully, little is known of this era because laws that came to be known as ‘Jim Crow’ destroyed black voting rights.
“It was a combination of accusations of voter fraud, built towards violence, built by the Ku Klux Klan,” Pepper explained. “Within 20 years, that entire new electorate of black voters, that were a majority of voters among the southern states, was wiped out and turned into almost nothing. And there went all the black officials that came with that new electorate.”
Pepper is the former chairman of the Democratic Party of Ohio and the author of Laboratories of Autocracy – A Wake Up Call from Behind the Lines, about how statehouses are the site of the “most pernicious corruption and assaults on democracy”.
“Whenever this country has been on the verge of a diverse democracy, we have seen this very fierce backlash,” said Pepper. “And the clearest and most fierce backlash was after the Civil War, when black people began to register, vote, and get elected in big numbers. That is what led to an entire era of push backs.”
He said that in 2022, history is echoing loudly, as many of the same tactics deployed during the Jim Crow era are being rebooted in a sort of Jim Crow 2.0.
“It’s not quite as grotesque,” said Pepper. “But what you see in the last generation since President Obama won is the same kind of backlash. It's not total disenfranchisement, it's not the KKK, but you see myths about voter fraud, purging, and gerrymandering, and attempts to add voter ID laws, it’s all the same stuff.”
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