History really doesn’t repeat itself.
But there are parallels between the 1890s and today in voter suppression laws motivated by white conservatives’ fears of growing minority strength at the ballot box.
In the 1890s, the suppressors were Democrats. Now they are Republicans.
When Populist James B. Weaver ran for president in 1892, he hoped his fledgling party could unite poor farmers and workers, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or anything else.
“The interests of rural and civil labor are the same; their enemies are identical,” the Populist platform said.
Those “enemies” were rich Republican business and factory owners and bankers up North and wealthy Democrats, most of them big landowners, down South.
A rising tide of Populism scared Republican and Democratic powers-that-be. But the Populists especially unnerved Dixie’s white supremacist “Bourbon” Democrats.
Most Populists were farmers; the Southern economy was largely rooted in the soil. Too, the South was filled with thousands of dirt poor farmers, farm laborers, sharecroppers and tenant farmers, white and African American.
From the end of Reconstruction in 1877 to the early 1890s, segregation and race discrimination in the South was largely informal and de facto. The Bourbon Democrats had firmly regained political power; they didn’t feel the need to pass laws to guarantee their white supremacy.
At the same time, the Yankee Republicans didn’t much care about civil rights any more. The GOP had retreated from Reconstruction.
In the name of “national unity” – and making money off cheap, non-union labor in Dixie, guaranteed by the white Democrats – the Republicans abandoned the Southern bi-racial Republican governments and the former slaves to the tender mercies of white Democratic politicians and vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Before federal troops broke up it up, the Klan had functioned as the terrorist wing of the Democratic Party.
By the start of the 1890s, too, the old abolitionists and Radical Republicans were dead or retired from politics. The GOP had mainly become the party of big business and union-busting.
Even so, almost all African Americans still supported the Republicans, the party of Lincoln and Liberty. Slavery, which almost all Democrats supported before the Civil War, was gone; but the Democrats were still the party of white supremacy.
The Populist Party said a pox on both parties’ houses, charging that the Republicans and the Democrats were using government at the local, state and national level for the benefit of the rich people.
The Populists argued that government at all levels had an obligation to help the poor and working classes and to protect them against the greed and injustice of the Yankee “Robber Barons” and the ex-Confederate and secessionist planter aristocracy, much of which survived the Civil War.
The Populist Party, which sprouted from the Farmers’ Alliances, urged poor whites to wise up and stop letting rich whites play them off against African Americans. The Populists said that if you were poor, it didn’t matter if you were black or white, you were in the same leaky boat.
“The Bourbon Democracy are trying to down the Alliance with the old cry ‘n----r’, but it won’t work though,” historian Howard Zinn quoted the newspaper of the Alabama branch of the Knights of Labor, one of the country’s pioneer union organizations.
Sadly, it did work. The Bourbons ultimately thwarted the Populists, who eventually faded away nationally. In the South, many Populists ended up trying to outdo the Democrats in race-baiting.
The Bourbons stayed in power largely by playing the race card. They had used the same divide-and-conquer strategy before the Civil War to forestall any move toward unity between poor whites and slaves against them.
Bourbon governors and legislators passed laws that segregated African Americans from white society, thus stigmatizing blacks. They also denied African Americans the vote. Lynch mob violence, whose perpetrators were almost never punished, buttressed the Jim Crow system.
The segregation and voter suppression measures were called Jim Crow laws. Voter suppression laws are reappearing on state statute books nationwide. The Republicans are pushing them.
Like the Southern Bourbon Democrats and the Northern Republican Robber Barons, today’s GOP bigwigs are almost all rich, conservative, if not reactionary, white guys. They, too, are sweating their future.
What scares Republicans the most is an America that is becoming less white, less conservative and less male dominated. They fret that a more diverse and more tolerant America is potentially a more Democratic America.
Already, African Americans and Hispanics vote overwhelmingly Democratic. So do a growing number of women and young people who don’t share their elders’ conservatism on issues like race, religion, women’s rights and gay rights.
“Republican lawmakers who work to impose higher bars to voting -- either through proof-of-citizenship or voter ID laws — are well aware that many of those otherwise-eligible voters who struggle to come up with the required documents, which include a birth certificate, passport or driver’s license, are more likely to vote Democratic,” The New York Times recently editorialized. “Sometimes they even say it out loud, as Mike Turzai, the majority leader in the Pennsylvania statehouse, did in 2012 when he bragged that the state’s voter ID law was going to ‘allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.’”
Most GOP bigwigs are too smart to be so candid in front of cameras or microphones. Publicly, they claim that race has nothing to do with their neo-Jim Crow voter laws. They say that by curbing early voting and requiring special voter IDs, they are making the voting process more efficient and less costly and are fighting voter fraud, to boot.
Too, old-time Dixie Democrats often claimed that their Jim Crow voter laws – which included poll taxes, literacy tests, complicated registration systems and property requirements to deny African Americans the vote – weren’t really racially motivated.
Of course, race has everything to do with the neo Jim Crow voter laws just as it did with the original Jim Crow laws. Independent study after study has shown that voter fraud is about as common nationwide as May blizzards in deep western Kentucky, where I was born, reared and still live.
Meanwhile, thanks to a GOP-majority Supreme Court that gutted the Voting Rights Act, more GOP voter suppression laws are on the way up North and down South. Some legal activists at the reactionary Heritage Foundation are proposing another court challenge that, if successful, would all but finish off the act, which wiped out state Jim Crow voter laws.
I wouldn’t bet the farm that the Heritage activists would lose. The Republican-appointed justices haven’t gone anywhere.
To be sure, some Democrats and liberal pundits predict the GOP’s campaign to disfranchise minority voters will backfire on them, that it will make minorities doubly determined to vote.
I hope they are right. I worry it is mostly wishful thinking.
The future may be liberal and Democratic. But the present seems to be conservative and Republican. Some polls suggest the GOP will add to its House majority and maybe even retake the Senate in the November elections. Republicans also seem likely to hold governorships or legislative majorities in a number of states.
The Jim Crow era lasted until the 1960s. It took an historic civil rights movement, landmark Supreme Court rulings and Congressional approval of sweeping civil rights laws – including the Voting Rights Act – to end de jure Jim Crow racism.
Democratic Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson championed the civil rights bills, which passed thanks to a bipartisan alliance of Northern and Western Republicans and Democrats.
Those Republicans included Sens. Jacob Javits, Clifford Case, Hugh Scott and Everett Dirksen -- and Kentucky’s John Sherman Cooper and Thruston Morton. Kentucky Rep. Tim Lee Carter, a Republican, joined the Bluegrass State’s six Democratic congressmen in voting “aye.”
The likes of moderate Republicans like Cooper and Morton and liberals like Javits and Case are long gone from the GOP, which has chopped away its deep civil rights roots.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the GOP swerved hard right and adopted a “Southern Strategy” to win over white Southern Democrats who hated their party’s embrace of civil rights. As a result, the white Democratic Solid South crumbled; today it is the GOP’s base. Likewise, almost all African Americans switched to the Democrats.
Anyway, I can’t see a President Rand Paul, a Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or a House Speaker John Boehner, or a tea party-tilting replacement, doing anything to derail the GOP’s minority voter suppression campaign in statehouses.
Cooper and Morton would be mortified at the GOP’s neo-Jim Crow voter laws. They would be disgusted with Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul and sorely disappointed by the GOP’s repudiation of its civil rights heritage. The Republican Party was founded in 1854 squarely on anti-slavery principles.
Abraham Lincoln, the country’s first Republican president, led the Union to victory in the Civil War and put slavery on the road to extinction. After the war, the GOP was responsible for constitutional amendments that finished off slavery, made African Americans citizens and put the ballot in the hands of black men.
It is one of the great tragedies of our time that that party, the party of Lincoln and Liberty, is long gone.