Dreams Deferred

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On the morning after Election Day 1989, history had been made in a normally dull “off-year” race. The Democrat Douglas Wilder won the governorship of the Commonwealth of Virginia, although the margin was so thin the Republicans demanded a recount. Wilder would be the first black governor ever elected in an American state—and the state, no less, that sheltered the capital of the Confederacy. He is, to be sure, no racial activist. But he is the grandson of slaves, and his showing overshadowed the election, the same day, of David Dinkins as the first black mayor of New York. Black mayors are no longer a novelty in American cities.

 

Well, then, two cheers for democracy (to quote E. M. Forster) in the Old Dominion. Two only, because a touch of skepticism intrudes. The Fifteenth Amendment, which guarantees the right to vote regardless of race, was ratified in 1870. What took so long for blacks to show their voting strength?

The answer is, of course, that the Fifteenth Amendment, like the Fourteenth, ratified in 1868, was almost strangled in its cradle. Both amendments aimed at equalizing the rights of black and white Americans. And both were widely flouted during almost all of their first century of existence. How that happened is worth a closer look and some sober post-election thoughts on the repetitive patterns of history.

Let’s consider voting rights first. If you went to school many years ago, you may be surprised that no black man held down a governor’s chair during Reconstruction (1865–77). For one of the staples of older textbooks was that Reconstruction was a time of “Negro rule,” when, supposedly, the government of the occupied Southern states was turned over to ex-slaves and their white “scalawag” and “carpetbagger” collaborators—scoundrels one and all. It’s the legend embodied in The Birth of a Nation, a cinematic masterpiece and historical fraud. A popular literary variant was Claude G. Bowers’s 1929 book The Tragic Era, in which the author depicts the South Carolina legislature in session: “The Speaker … looks down upon members mostly black or brown or mahogany, some of the type seldom seen outside the Congo. Some pompous in glossy, threadbare black frock coats, some in the rough, soiled costume of the fields. … the members’ feet upon their desks, their faces hidden behind their soles. Chuckles, guffaws, the noisy crackling of peanuts and raucous voices. …”

Page after page in this vein left unwary readers to assume that control of the South rested in black and clumsy hands. Bowers was a persuasive writer—a “Jeffersonian Democrat” from Indiana, with some political virtues, but fairness distinctly not among them. And the facts show that he was, in this case, not a historian but a hysteric.

Reconstruction regimes were, on the whole, about as good or as bad as most state governments in a freewheeling era of growth and spoils. They were definitely not black-dominated. In South Carolina, and only South Carolina, black members were a majority of the lower house for a six-year period. Though they outnumbered white lawmakers 87 to 40 in the legislature as a whole in 1869, they did not control the Senate, and they lost the Assembly, too, in 1874. (Nor, incidentally, did they or the whites vote as a bloc.)

Mississippi had 40 black members in its first legislature chosen under a new constitution enfranchising the exslaves. Virginia elected 27. Not a majority in either case. Louisiana elected 133 all told, spread out over many years. Blacks—usually educated—did achieve some high state positions. South Carolina and Mississippi had black Speakers of the House at different times as well as Secretaries of State and superintendents of education. (Both states, of course, had majority black populations.) Florida also had a black chief of its school system. In Louisiana Pinckney B. S. Pinchback, a Northern black and former Union officer, won the office of lieutenant governor and actually served as acting governor for a few weeks in 1872 and 1873 when Gov. Henry Clay Warmoth was under indictment.

Southern blacks were represented in Congress by two Mississippi senators, Blanche K. Bruce and Hiram Revels, both Northern-educated. Two black representatives were in the Congress that met in 1869, five in the next, and seven in the following two. That was the peak.

Then, in the 1880s and 1890s, it all was brought crashing down, first by a combination of terror and fraud and then by constitutional evasions like the poll tax and discriminatory literacy tests. By such dodges the Southern states, with full Northern consent, simply wiped out the black vote. Black officeholding withered away, and George H. White, the last black representative of the post-Civil War group, said a poignant farewell to his House colleagues in 1901. Not for another twenty-seven years did a black member of Congress walk the Capitol corridors, and he was from Chicago. For all practical purposes, the Fifteenth Amendment was dead and stayed so until very, very recently.