by Mackubin Owens
Not too long ago, a good friend of mine took umbrage at a Facebook post that compared a proposed “vaccination passport” to the requirement that Jews in Nazi Germany carry papers identifying them as such. As a Jew, my friend argued that such a comparison trivialized the horrors of the Nazi regime that culminated in the Holocaust.
My friend’s objection was justified. But this same individual has not hesitated to join the president of the United States in comparing the recent Georgia voting law to Jim Crow. Anyone who makes such a claim has no idea of what Jim Crow entailed. Second only to slavery, the Jim Crow era represents the darkest period in U.S. racial history, far darker than Reconstruction or the decade that followed.
Indeed, the racial oppression, segregation, and violence that prevailed throughout the South during the era of Jim Crow in many respects exceeded that of the period of slavery. At least during slavery, there were free blacks in the South who, while denied most civil rights, were protected by laws that left them free to go about their business unmolested and did not prevent commercial interactions between the races.
Jim Crow is usually lumped together with Reconstruction and the period that followed: the Compromise of 1877, during which the South was “redeemed” by the Democrats’ overthrow of the “carpetbagger” regime in the reconstructed South and the end of Republican governance. But even after federal protection of blacks in the South was withdrawn following the Compromise of 1877, blacks continued to vote and to hold political office. As C. Vann Woodward writes in The Strange Career of Jim Crow, for a decade, alternate approaches to race relations not involving disenfranchisement, segregation, and violence competed as attempts to address the race problem in the post-Civil War South. Indeed, during this post-Reconstruction period, blacks were making substantial economic, political, and social progress. This all came to an end with the Jim Crow era, which began in the late 1890s.
Jim Crow, especially in the decade after World War I, marked the high point of racism, not only in the South but also in the United States at large. Jim Crow was enabled by the triumph of progressivism and its corollary, “scientific” racism. Both shared the same intellectual roots and involved the explicit rejection of the principles of the Declaration of Independence.
The administration of Woodrow Wilson came down foursquare on the side of racism, dismissing most African Americans from the civil service and resegregating those few who remained. It sanctioned the rise of the “Second” Ku Klux Klan that far exceeded the power and influence of the short-lived Klan of Reconstruction. Segregation and repression of African Americans were enforced by the barrel of a rifle or the end of a rope.
To compare Georgia’s law, which seeks to achieve election integrity, to the dark period of Jim Crow is an abomination, pure and simple. It is a smear and a libel, not worthy of a reasonable person. But yet we have presumably respectable people, including the current occupant of the White House, making that claim.
The ludicrous claim that Republicans in Georgia want to reinstate Jim Crow is part of a broader false narrative. It acknowledges the racist past of the Democratic Party and its role in defending slavery and Jim Crow, even the racism of the Progressives like Woodrow Wilson. But, goes the argument, the parties subsequently changed places. The Republicans adopted a “Southern strategy,” which sought to appeal to the racism of white Southerners. Thus the Party of Lincoln and the Declaration of Independence became the party of racial bigotry.
The “Southern Strategy” narrative persists because it offers comfort to Democrats who wish to atone for their racist past. But it is false. According to this narrative, white Southerners decamped to the Republicans in response to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The proof? Any political party that appeals to Southern white voters is racist because Southern whites are by definition irredeemably racist.
In addition to the blanket slur against white Southerners, many of whom worked within the limited political and social environment available to them, there are a number of other flaws with this argument. First, African-American voters began to shift to the Democratic Party during the era of the New Deal. They did so because they perceived it was in their economic interest to do so. Why didn’t the white Southern racists exit the Democratic Party then?
Second, many more Republicans than Democrats supported the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Why would those motivated only by race shift their support to a party that did not share their racist outlook?
Third, many former Democrats left the party because of its feckless foreign policy and continuing government overreach. I was raised in a Southern Democratic household. From 1968 through 1976, I voted for Democrats. Jimmy Carter turned me into a Republican. Race had nothing to do with my odyssey from Democrat to Republican.
Fourth, white Southerners continued to this day to vote for Democrats. Indeed, since 1964, many Southern states have voted for Democrats in presidential elections, including Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Barack Obama.
Racism in the guise of both slavery and Jim Crow was at odds with America’s founding principles. If the principles of the Declaration are not universally true, then there is no logical reason not to pursue racist policies. The American tragedy represented by both slavery and Jim Crow is that we have often failed to live up to these principles. But there have always been Americans of good will—including many white Southerners—who have worked to bring American practice into line with American principles, no matter how imperfectly.
Which brings us back to elections. Elections are the lifeblood of a self-governing people. Accordingly, the integrity of the electoral process is of critical importance. People who persist in comparing Georgia’s efforts to ensure the integrity of the electoral process to Jim Crow—an evil, unconstitutional, and inhumane monstrosity—are engaged in slander, pure and simple.
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Mackubin Thomas Owens is a retired Marine, professor, and editor who lives in Newport, RI.
Photo “Worker at polling counter” by Governor Tom Wolf CC 2.0.