After the Civil War came Reconstruction, a few years of federal control of the South until it could be trusted to govern itself.
During this period in South Carolina (1865-1877), freed slaves were elected to Congress as Republicans and all sorts of new progress broke out until the white elites figured out how to recapture power and, ultimately, to clamp down on former slaves through harsh Jim Crow laws.
Now, “The New Racism,” a fresh article in The New Republic about recent leadership and policy changes in Alabama, shows how white elites are dismantling a second era of increased black power and prosperity.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 helped to lift the vestiges of Jim Crow and segregation so blacks could share in the freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution. As a result, in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and other Southern states, blacks gained elective office like never before. Slowly, the spoils of power — better roads, schools and health care — started being shared in poor, underserved communities. Blacks had power at the voting booth. White politicians paid attention to them. Blacks and white moderates changed the South, attracting economic development, progress and even Northern retirees.
But as The New Republic illustrates, white Republicans calculated that by splitting moderate white Democrats from power through gerrymandering districts and outpoliticking them at the polls, they could marginalize black legislators, reduce their power and, in the end, retake statehouses and regain control. In turn, they could erode the progressive reforms the article dubs the “Second Reconstruction.”
The 2010 legislative elections in Alabama decimated white Democratic moderates. Then came legislation that allowed $40 million of public money for private school vouchers. There was an anti-immigration bill, a measure to require voters to show photo identification to vote, a major anti-abortion bill, looser gun laws, tighter welfare restrictions and rejection of federal money to expand Medicaid to poor people through the Affordable Care Act.
Sound familiar? It should. The same kinds of things have been going on in South Carolina since 1994, when House Republicans made a backroom redistricting deal with black Democrats to make white districts whiter and black districts blacker, often referred to as “bleaching” and “packing,” respectively. The result: The GOP took control and hasn’t looked back since. After the 2002 election, the GOP took over the S.C. Senate.
“Whether you call it ‘packing’ the black districts or ‘bleaching’ the white districts, we’ve suffered from it for far longer in South Carolina than they have in Alabama,” says House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, a Columbia Democrat.
Past redistricting also has protected black and white incumbents so that there are a lot of faces around today that were around 20 years ago.
Blacks actually picked up legislative seats, going from 18 House seats in 1994 to 26 today and seven Senate seats in 1994 to 10 today. But all black legislators here, save one, are Democrats, now the minority party. They don’t share power. It’s the same across the South. In 1994, almost all black state legislators — 99.5 percent, according to research by David Bositis, served in majority parties. Today? Only 4.8 percent are in the majority party.
“Whether you call it ‘packing’ the black districts or ‘bleaching’ the white districts, we’ve suffered from it for far longer in South Carolina than they have in Alabama.” — House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford
“Our political clout is not what it was because we are not in the majority party,” Rutherford says. “And the Republicans have found a way to code things so that they don’t have to use race. They code it in a way back home so that people know what they’re talking about.”
He points to the recent law requiring voters to show photo ID because of “voter fraud.” Even though there have been practically no instances of voter fraud, the language of fraud suggested such a law might chill turnout for blacks, the bulk of people impacted by the law, he says.
If you don’t think the country is at the end of a Second Reconstruction, recall some photos. Compare the 1963 images of the white power structure trying to thwart desegregation — a police dog attacking a teenager or a fireman spraying peaceful protesters — to images you see coming out of Ferguson, Missouri, just this month. It’s unsettling, to say the least.
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