1877 all over again: A mob assault on Congress in our ‘Deconstruction Era’

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At least 12 U.S. senators and 140 representatives were expected to object to a handful of states’ electoral votes in a joint session of Congress today — until a mass of pro-Trump protesters breached the Capitol’s security and forced a halt to the proceedings. Since the passage of the Electoral Count Act of 1887, following the contested presidential election of 1876, there have been four years when objections were filed but only two objections joined, as required under the rules, by members of both houses — North Carolina in 1969, Ohio in 2005. That makes Jan. 6 the third such objection in 134 years but the first with 30 percent of Congress behind it — and the first to be gaveled to a screeching halt because of an angry mob surrounding and then storming into the Capitol, smashing windows and fighting with police.

In other words, it’s 1877 all over again, only worse.

The historical similarities are odd: A Democratic House, a Republican Senate, a Republican Supreme Court, a congressional push to establish an “electoral commission” to investigate voter fraud after a disputed presidential election, and some white supremacist militias reportedly threatening violence if their preferred candidate — a rich, Ivy League-educated New Yorker — doesn’t win. Also, 1877 and 2021 each followed a civil rights milestone 12 years earlier: respectively, the end of slavery and the inauguration of the first Black president.

But if 1865-1877 was the Reconstruction Era, then 2009-2021 may be the “Deconstruction Era” for democratic norms.

Initially, Reconstruction had promise. More than 2,000 African Americans held federal, state and local offices including the first Black senators, representatives, governor, lieutenant governors, and state legislators. In 1866, the nation’s first civil rights law gave property and business rights to African Americans. And, between 1865 and 1870, three new constitutional amendments granted freedom (13th Amendment), citizenship (14th) and voting rights protections (14th and 15th) to African Americans and formerly enslaved people.

But now for the history we redacted in some of our school textbooks.

During Reconstruction the following groups were founded: the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camelia, the White League, the White Liners, and the Red Shirts (famous for their torchlight parades). They were comprised of former Confederate soldiers, state and local politicians, high-ranking law enforcement officers and renowned business leaders; they killed hundreds of Black Americans in a series of massacres in cities and towns throughout the South. So far, the Equal Justice Initiative has identified more than 2,000 lynchings of Black Americans between 1865 and 1877, with countless others unknown.

To its credit, Congress intervened. The Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871 weakened the first KKK and enforced those new amendments and laws, but the efforts ultimately failed. In 1873, the KKK and the Knights of the White Camelia killed 150 Black Americans in Colfax, La., after several Black men had won state and local office. Three years later, a Supreme Court decision freed those killers by ruling that they couldn’t be prosecuted since they weren’t acting on behalf of a state while suppressing the vote.

This terrorism was the backdrop to the 1876 election. That year, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes trailed Democrat Samuel Tilden by 19 electoral votes (and 3 percent of the popular vote), but 20 votes from Florida, Louisiana, Oregon, and South Carolina were outstanding. (The three Southern states submitted competing electoral slates). When they arrived and were counted for Hayes, he leapfrogged to a 185-184 victory. Tilden’s supporters were livid, threatening “Tilden or Blood.” In Columbus, Ohio, someone shot a window of the Hayes family’s home. To prevent a second Civil War, Congress appointed a 15-person electoral commission; its five senators, five representatives and five Supreme Court justices eventually certified the 20 electoral votes for Hayes in return for his removal of the remaining federal troops from the South. With the U.S. troops gone, Black Americans in Southern states were suddenly at the mercy of white supremacist state and local governments. In a cruel twist, Black men in the South risked their lives to vote for Hayes but his “Great Betrayal” would launch 87 years of poll taxes, literacy tests, whites-only primaries, segregated accommodations and 4,000 lynchings of Black Americans between 1882 and 1968.

Today, we see some stark parallels to the past, beginning with the backlash to President Obama’s 2009 inauguration. In 2011, partisan gerrymandering reached new heights with technologically adept mapmaking that has disenfranchised voters; in 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act by removing the requirement for states to get federal preclearance for voting law changes, opening the door to a new wave of voter suppression. In 2016, Donald Trump — an early challenger of Barack Obama’s legitimacy as president — himself became president.

And we now find ourselves with a contested electoral count in the midst of widespread social and racial unrest and violence— only to have the constitutional procedures to ratify a president’s election shockingly stopped because of a mob threatening the safety of members of Congress.

The 1877 political debacle was a fight between Reconstruction’s promise and white supremacy’s reality — and the latter won. Similarly, the last 12 years have seen events that weakened our democracy, and violence that revealed our underbelly. And now, today, we have seen events that temporarily yet unthinkably suspended the democratic process in Congress.

Regardless of what has happened on Jan. 6, or will happen on or on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, one thing is clear: We have tons of reconstructive work to do.

Ben Sheehan is the author of “OMG WTF Does the Constitution Actually Say?” and a former executive producer at “Funny Or Die.” He founded OMG WTF to educate voters about state executive races during the 2018 midterms. Follow him on Twitter @ThatBenSheehan

Tags American white supremacists Barack Obama claims of 2020 election fraud contested election Donald Trump election challenge Jim Crow laws Ku Klux Klan Lynching in the United States Racial segregation Reconstruction Era Redeemer movement Rutherford B. Hayes Samuel J. Tilden

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