‘Democracy Is the Greatest Threat to White Supremacy’

After the Capitol riot, a historical reminder of what can make us free.

When Raphael Warnock is sworn in as a Senator from Georgia later this month, he won’t be the first African American in the chamber to represent a former Confederate state. The distinction goes to Hiram Rhodes, a Senator from Mississippi from 1870-1871. Blanche Bruce also served as a Senator from Mississippi from 1875 to 1881. During a time that Rev. William Barber refers to as the era of “fusion politics” in the South, “2,000 African-Americans occupied positions ranging from members of Congress to state legislators, sheriffs, city councilmen and others,” according to historian Eric Foner. 

New York Times columnist Charles Blow pointed out the demographic make-up of several southern states in the aftermath of the Civil War.

In the first census after the Civil War, three Southern states — South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana — were majority Black. In Florida, Blacks were less than two percentage points away from constituting a majority; in Alabama, it was less than three points; in Georgia, just under four.

Of course, those majorities (and near-majorities) threatened the power of the white supremacists who ruled the post-Civil War South. The first order of business for them was to end federal occupation of their states which, under the banner of Reconstruction, provided protections for formerly enslaved African Americans.

White southerners were able to do that via a compromise that was reached following the disputed 1876 presidential election—the same one Senator Ted Cruz used as a template to promote lies about fraud in the 2020 election. 

In the race between Republican Rutherford Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden, three states named two groups of electors—Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina—resulting in neither candidate winning a majority in the Electoral College. As Cruz suggests, the response from Congress was to set up an electoral commission. But that group deadlocked along partisan lines. In the end, Hayes won by getting Southern whites to agree to a compromise.

The deadlock was broken behind closed doors when Southern Democrats agreed to support Hayes’ claim for the Presidency if he would support increased funding for Southern internal improvements and agree to end Reconstruction, thus guaranteeing home rule — meaning white control — in the South. Hayes became President and the Southern Democrats could reverse with impunity the gains that blacks had made during Reconstruction.

The result of that compromise was not only the Jim Crow laws that were enacted across the South. It began a reign of terror that was unleashed against African Americans. Estimates are that, over the next six decades, six million African Americans fled the terror in a Great Migration to the North and West. In South Carolina, for example, the Black share of the population went from 55 percent to about 30 percent. 

Passage of the Civil Rights laws in the 1960s launched the Great New Migration, in which African Americans began to return to the South. More than a million Black people have moved to southern states over the last 30 years. They are disproportionately young and college educated. 

Atlanta and its suburbs became the mecca of this great new migration. As CNN writer John Blake explained, that is “because of its vibrant middle class, renowned Black colleges like Morehouse and Spelman, and its string of popular Black mayors like Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young.” Blake goes on to write that all of this is critical to any analysis of the recent Democratic victories in Georgia.

In 2019, 43% of eligible Black voters in Georgia were born outside of the state, according to the Pew Research Center. In the Atlanta metro area, 76% of eligible Black voters were born outside of Georgia.

Many of these Black transplants came because they didn’t have the same fear of the South as their parents. They got active in politics and civic affairs and became what [recent transplant Nsenga] Burton calls “supervoters”: people who vote in local, state and national elections.

Charles Blow brought all of this history together during a video commentary that tied the red hats of last week’s insurrection at the Capitol to the red shirts of the 19th century.

There can be no doubt that Trump and his white supremacist enablers pose a severe threat to our democracy. But as Blow suggests, “democracy is the greatest threat to white supremacy.” That is precisely what happened in Georgia over the last two months. Senator-elect Warnock recognized that when he returned to the pulpit on Sunday at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

“We saw the crude, the angry, the disrespectful, and the violent break their way into the people’s house — some carrying Confederate flags, signs and symbols of an old world order passing away,” Warnock said.

When white supremacism is challenged, “sometimes it responds violently and desperately,” he said…

“There is fantastic opportunity and fierce opposition. And it reminds us that there is still a whole lot of work to do,” said the 51-year-old pastor.

Unlike the compromise following the 1876 election, we have a chance to get it right this time…if we remain vigilant.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works —and how to make it work better. More than fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

YES, I'LL MAKE A DONATION