February 8, 2009

Race & American Politics: Part 1

February is Black History Month in many countries around the world. Moreover, Barack Obama's recent inauguration has perhaps made this month that much more relevant for observers of black history.

In this two-part series, I want to explore a pair of political events, one from the 19th century and the other from the 20th, each of which had a dramatic effect on black history and the political landscape in the U.S as it relates to race. When many historians and political scientists discuss identity politics and particularly black history, the focus of discussion inevitably leads to two events -- the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's "I have a Dream" speech from a century later. My intent is to focus on two events which are perhaps a bit more under the radar, and examine the impact of each on the political landscape of our country as it relates to race. Without further adieu, the first:

The Presidential Election of 1876

To be blunt, the 1876 Presidential election quite frankly made the 2000 Bush-Gore fiasco look vanilla by comparison. In 1876, Republican Rutherford Hayes cast his die against Democrat Samuel Tilden in an extremely tense and heated contest. For the previous 11 years, "Radical" Republicans had worked to repair a fractured nation from Civil War and ensure the implementation of Abraham Lincoln's creed - equal rights and an end to racial subjugation in the south.

This process was accomplished through Reconstruction, which involved, among other details, concentration of power to the federal government and the courts, and the placement of federal troops in southern States to ensure black suffrage. Reconstruction enraged southern Democrats, many of whom retained bitterness from the outcome of the Civil War and were not pleased to see the federal government wrest power away from the States.

Now, in the general election, Tilden the Democrat appeared to have come out on top after winning 51% of the popular vote (Hayes garnered 47.9%, by contrast). With three States (Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina) still in dispute, Tilden mainted a 184-165 lead in the electoral college. In these three States, each party fervently declared its candidate the winner.

What resulted was a series of backroom dealings between the party leaders. Hayes was awarded the 20 remaining electoral votes, thus giving him a slight edge (185-184) in the electoral college AND the Presidency, despite a popular vote deficit (does this sound familiar, Gore supporters?).

In exchange for gifting Hayes and the Republicans the White House, Democrats mandated that Republicans withdraw all federal troops from the South, effectively ending Reconstruction. It was further stipulated per the terms of the compromise that Democrats would be appointed to patronage positions in the South.

So what was the aftermath of the Compromise of 1877? The compromise essentially pushed African-Americans out of existing positions of political power in the South, and disenfranchised many for nearly a century after. Shortly after Reconstruction ended in 1877, literacy tests and poll taxes were erected to restrict blacks from voting. Poorer Southern whites were in effect exempted from these restrictions through grandfather clauses, which stated that men could still retain the right to vote if they had ancestors who shared that right prior to the Civil War (thus only applicable to whites). Since the South was slow to industrialize and move off the agrarian economy (and King Cotton) after the Civil War (despite losing access to free factors of production), the region remained severely depressed. And the economic climate was perhaps harshest on newly-freed blacks, who often lacked both an educational foundation and the opportunity to secure good jobs.

In essence, the outcome of the 1876 Presidential Election legitimized the enactment of Jim Crow laws and sealed in what would become almost 100 years of disenfranchisement, lynching, segregation and institutionalized bigotry in the South. The Compromise of 1877 was seen by millions of former slaves as a "great betrayal" as Republican efforts to extend civil rights were virtually abandoned for the sake of politics.

The Jim Crow era in the South left a legacy of black subjugation and inequality, and stands as one of the greatest stains in our history. And it was perhaps only possible because of the compromise following the 1876 election which saw Rutherford Hayes ascend to the Presidency.