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.”
During Jim Crow – a title born out of a racist caricature in a song from 1828 titled Jump Jim Crow – poll taxes and literacy tests skewed toward educated white people were implemented, along with grandfather clauses so if a person failed the test but their grandfather voted, they could vote. Black Americans, whose ancestors were enslaved and therefore denied the right to vote, were disenfranchised entirely.
Jim Crow destroyed the black electorate, paving the way for white supremacist officials at every level, and creating essentially apartheid laws that dominated the South for most of the 20th century.
Pepper points to a “fierce white backlash” that occurs when a diverse electorate rises and says, ‘Hey, we’re the majority now’.”
He believes the intensity of voter suppression is ramping up to levels not seen since the 1880s in states such as Ohio, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and Indiana.
“To get an idea of what voter suppression can do, Louisiana offers the most stark example,” he said. “In 1870, there were about 140,000 registered black voters, by about 1906, there were 700 left. The result was no diversity at any level in Louisiana politics for decades.”
Pepper told Byline Supplement that the courts enabled this American apartheid. In 1896, the Supreme Court laid out a “separate but equal” doctrine.
“The courts upheld all the Jim Crow laws, and that is why I am sounding the alarm so loudly now,” he said. “You can have a functional diverse democracy one year, and 20 years later, it can be gone. We have this notion in America, that democracy means steady progress, but it’s back and forth, back and forth.”
I tell him I am ashamed that I do not know this part of American history, and he says virtually no one does.
“This is why the censorship of history is so dangerous,” he said. “This is an era that has been wiped off the books, and not by accident. If you go back and read the history of the era, it was rewritten to frame it as, ‘Oh, corruption! Black people weren’t ready to be in charge yet’. Like it all got rewritten by the people who got rid of them.”
Pepper blames white supremacy then, and he blames white supremacy now.
“They don’t have to be as brutal as the Jim Crow era to make sure there is no diversity. The margins in certain states are close enough that if you simply erode 20% of the black electorate, you're changing who's in charge of that state. So you don't have to go from 140,000 to 700, like Louisiana in the 1800s.”
He said that ever since Ohio went blue for Obama, the attacks on voter rights have been extreme - from purging voters’ rolls, to going after early voting rights, to accusations of voter fraud - it’s the Jim Crow playbook.
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“It's scarily similar,” Pepper told Byline Supplement. “The new tactics of sitting in front of polls and drop boxes with guns, I mean, that's literally Jim Crow. Voter intimidation in a black neighborhood with a gun - are you kidding me?”
In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis, whose former press secretary had to register as a foreign agent, had 19 people arrested in October on suspicions of voter fraud – 13 of them were black. Video documentation of the officers charged with making the arrests reveal the police to be sheepish and apologetic.
Historian of fascism and author of Strongmen, Ruth Ben Ghiat, called them “sham arrests to make DeSantis’ career as a presidential hopeful”.
‘The Absence of Resistance’
“There will always be and have always been people who are threatened by a diverse democracy,” said Pepper. “For several decades post-Civil War, northern Republicans, people like Ulysses Grant said, ‘Sorry, we're going to have a diverse electorate down here in the South. We're going to enforce the new amendments, we're going to send troops down there. So whatever you think of it, it's happening’.
“But the moment they stopped fighting for it and let their foot off the gas, those groups moved in and the violence came back. Once the northerners stopped caring enough, it was the absence of a resistance that allowed racist forces to move in.”
Although the literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses have long been abandoned, as the DeSantis example illustrates, the corruption mythology and the parroting of Trump’s ‘Big Lie’ still foul the air.
In the foreword to the 845-page January 6 Committee report on the attack on the US Capitol, Rep. Bennie Thompson wrote: “I’ve been a Member of the House for nearly 30 years. In that time, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t feel a profound sense of duty and responsibility to the men and women who sent me to Congress to be their voice. After all, I’m from a part of the country where, in my lifetime, black people were excluded entirely from political processes. Jim Crow laws prevented my father from registering to vote, and tragically during his life, he never cast a vote.”
As Congressman John Lewis, who took beatings and shed blood for the right to vote, once said: “The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy.”
Lewis said his “greatest fear is that one day we may wake up and our democracy is gone”.
David Pepper wants to know if anyone in Congress is going to put up a fight:
“My fear is they're not. And that is similar to what led to Jim Crow. It was the lack of a fight in the end that stopped the equitable march forward. Now is the time to fight like hell.”