Out of Chaos Comes Growth
A contested presidential election. The Democrat has won the popular vote, but the electoral vote in several states is being challenged, with both sides claiming victory and charges of fraud being leveled. The election’s result is the subject of legal and political actions, and the question of who will be the next President of the United States is hanging in the balance. Sound familiar? The election took place in 1876. The candidates were Rutherford Hayes, a Republican, and Samuel Tilden, a Democrat.
Everything Old is New Again
The controversy over that election dragged on until a day or two prior to the scheduled presidential inauguration (inaugurations back then were held on March 4th), when a deal was made by the two sides that became known to history as the Compromise of 1877. That Compromise was made during Reconstruction, when the federal government in Washington largely held sway over the defeated southerners of the former Confederacy, even stationing federal troops in the South to make sure that African-Americans were treated well. In fact, during Reconstruction, African-Americans held many political offices in southern states and as southern representatives in the United States Congress.
But by the time of the election of 1876, Reconstruction had lost a good deal of support in both the political and the legal sense. Many northerners had started to lose interest in the plight of the former slaves in the South, especially as the economy suffered a severe financial downturn. Meanwhile, in cases such as the Slaughter-House cases, U.S. v. Cruikshank and U.S. v. Reese, the Supreme Court had ruled that southern states had a great deal of latitude in how they treated African-Americans. When the dispute over the election dragged on and on, the Democrats agreed to a Republican victory, in exchange for (among other things) the withdrawal of federal troops from the South. The result was the end of Reconstruction. African-Americans were no longer protected by the federal government, and in the aftermath of that withdrawal, whites in the South returned to power. Eventually, they established the Jim Crow era of segregation and oppression, which continued until it was eliminated by Supreme Court decisions and major federal legislation in the 1950s and 60s. And while African-Americans were not mistreated in the North as harshly as in the South, they still suffered significant forms of legal, economic and social discrimination into the 1960s.
Clearly, the movement for African-Americans to achieve equality in American society did not end with the civil rights era of the mid-1900s. Mistreatment of African-Americans by members of law enforcement continues to be a problem, and African-American communities often face daunting challenges in the effort to be full and equal partners in American society.
Fast forward to the year 2020.
We are living through another hotly contested presidential election, with the vote in several states has again been disputed, as of the time that I write this piece. The year 2020 has also been something of a flashpoint on racial relations in the United States. But unlike the story in 1876, which led to a long period of tribulation for the African-American community, the picture in 2020 appears to hold out much hope.
First, there was the significant movement to fight systemic racism in response to the killings of George Floyd and others. People in large numbers let their voices be heard in opposition to such racism. There has been a much increased acceptance of the Black Lives Matter movement, by people in general and by various institutions. People have taken to the streets in many places, over periods of days and even weeks at a time, to let their voices be heard in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. There have also been many calls for significant reform of the system of policing in America, from a broad range of the American political spectrum.
Professional sports leagues have taken major steps to publicize support for the rights of African-Americans and to protest against racism in society. In the NBA, players were allowed to wear slogans of support on the backs of their uniforms. The NFL made ads which encouraged people to get out and vote on election day. Similar actions of support were taken by other leagues. Given the large role of sports in American society and the prominence of so many athletes, these steps have brought the fight for racial justice into the American mainstream.
Next, there was the role of African-Americans in the presidential election. In this year, perhaps more than any other, African-Americans truly played a major role in American presidential politics. Joe Biden’s campaign in the primaries was in desperate straits before the powerful endorsement of Congressman James Clyburn, which led to a major Biden victory in South Carolina. Days later, Biden achieved a series of victories on Super Tuesday, and his campaign for the Democratic nomination had pretty much smooth sailing from that point forward. In the general election, Biden had the overwhelming support of African-American voters, as expected, and given the tight race in various states, it appears that the votes of African-Americans in places like Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee and Atlanta turned the outcome to Biden. As Biden acknowledged in his victory speech, the members of the African-American community had his back in this election year, and he pledged to have theirs.
The Change is Becoming Visible
Biden made a point of choosing a Black woman as his vice presidential running mate. Kamala Harris will be the new Vice President. As such, she will be well positioned to potentially succeed Biden and seek the Democratic nomination for president when Biden retires. In addition, there was talk of Congressman Hakeem Jeffries becoming the new Speaker of the House (“Some Democrats floating Hakeem Jeffries for House Speaker: report,” Keydra Manns, first reported in NY Times, November 4, 2020), and while Jeffries may have played down that talk, reports suggest that Jeffries is “a top contender to succeed Speaker Nancy Pelosi… whenever she steps aside” (“Hakeem Jeffries Wants Democrats to Take a Deep Breath,” NY Times, November 9, 2020).
The prominent role of African-Americans in politics is not even restricted to the Democrats. Election results indicate that African-Americans voted for Donald Trump in 2020 in higher numbers than they did in 2020, by anywhere from two to four percentage points. (“Trump made gains with Black voters in some states. Here’s why,” Sean Collins, Vox.com, November 4, 2020). In addition, in Michigan, John James came within about one percentage point of becoming the second African-American Republican in the United States Senate.
The bottom line is that having African-Americans in major roles in government and in American politics is becoming a regular part of the system. It is no longer unusual or novel; it’s just part of the way that things are now.
The environment in which the contested election of 2020 took place is nothing like the environment of the election in 1876. It has taken a very long time – far too long – for African-Americans to be given fair treatment. And granted, the battle for racial equality has not yet concluded. There is still work to be done. But examining things from an historical perspective, people may look back on the year 2020 at some point in the future and say that this was a year when the tide really started to turn in significant ways toward the goal of racial equality.