Opinion How to rig an election — with deadly, racist consequences
April 3, 2023 at 9:01 a.m. EDT
Tom Hanks, an actor, filmmaker and author, and Jeffery Robinson, founder and executive director of “The Who We Are Project,” collaborated on the new animated documentary “How to Rig an Election: The Racist History of the 1876 Presidential Contest.” Watch the film exclusively with Post Opinions, and join them for a Post Live conversation on April 6 at 3 p.m. EST.
"Recent efforts to erase Black history have a lot in common with the slogan of the totalitarian regime in George Orwell’s “1984”: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” It’s an effective strategy and, in the United States, it has been especially so when it comes to discussions of Black history. If the past contradicts your narrative about the present and the future, just erase it.
Take the presidential election of 1876, which was resolved by the Compromise of 1877. If you don’t remember the details, you’re not alone. This pivotal event is scarcely more than a footnote in most U.S. history classes. But its narrative provides lessons we need to fight the onslaught of truth-canceling legislation being introduced across the nation and already implemented in Florida.
In the decade following the end of the Civil War, the United States was barely reunited. More American combatants had died in that war than would die in either World War I or World War II. Families were healing from the trauma of relatives fighting on opposing sides. In an effort to integrate 4 million newly freed enslaved people into American society, Congress passed the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, promising those people the rights and protections of citizenship.
This was Reconstruction: Our fragile democracy beginning to remake itself as a more participatory system, bringing us closer to the cherished ideal that all people (well, men) were created equal. During this period, more than 1,500 Black men held public office, from the local level up to the U.S. House and Senate.
But the postwar reality was not accepted by the Ku Klux Klan and other organized white supremacist groups. Anti-Black violence erupted and federal troops were stationed throughout the South to protect the Black American citizens.
In 1876, the Republican Party (then the party of Abraham Lincoln, who had kept the Union together) nominated Rutherford B. Hayes to be president. Democrats (then the party of white supremacy) nominated Samuel Tilden. In one of the closest elections in U.S. history, Tilden won the popular contest, but the electoral votes of four states were in dispute. Neither side would concede. What happened over the days, weeks and months that followed became known as the Compromise of 1877. It boiled down to this: The Democrats agreed to accept a Republican president if Northern troops were withdrawn from the South.
Watch the Tom Hanks-narrated film, "How to Rig an Election: The Racist History of the 1876 Presidential Contest"
Republicans were well aware that the Confederacy’s defeat had not extinguished white domination. Yet they acted as if they did not know what Southern leaders would do once the federal troops were withdrawn — which was to violently reestablish a culture of white supremacy across the former Confederate states and beyond. The means were often brutal: Between 1887 and 1921, Black people were massacred in Thibodaux, La.; Wilmington, N.C.; Atlanta; East St. Louis, Ill.; Elaine, Ark.; Ocoee, Fla.; and Tulsa (where even more were disappeared). The Equal Justice Initiative has documented more than 4,000 lynchings of Black people in the former Confederate states and the border state of Kentucky between 1877 and 1950.
The law was also a useful tool. Literacy tests, grandfather clauses and poll taxes were among the means used to deprive Black citizens of the right to vote. After Louisiana amended its Constitution in 1898, the number of Black registered voters dropped from just over 130,000 to only 1,342 by 1904. Black codes and Jim Crow laws spread around the South and lasted for decades.
In agreeing to the Compromise of 1877, U.S. officials were willing to ignore the truth about the past and pretend that racism would not dominate governments across the South. As a result, they sacrificed the rights and liberties of newly freed enslaved people to settle a disputed election and appease Southern resentment. It’s critical for us to remember this and to learn from it. Because today, some elected officials still seem willing to sacrifice the rights of the most marginalized among us to uphold white supremacy.
The recent removal of AP African American studies from Florida high schools is not the first attempt to erase uncomfortable truths, and it won’t be the last. But we don’t have to let such things happen. Taking control of the future begins with our willingness to learn the truth of our history and to share what we have learned with our friends and families and the wider communities in which we live. Then, we can start having meaningful conversations about the country we hope to build — a place that we will only reach if we can figure out how to get there together."
Post a Comment