April 15 is the anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by the veteran actor, Confederate sympathizer and white supremacist John Wilkes Booth. The legacy of that act of cowardice and treachery has persisted through a century and a half of shameful suppression of Black and other minority rights in this county. It persists today.
Counterfactual history — imagining what might have been, but wasn’t — is problematic at best; it’s difficult enough to understand what did happen, never mind what might have but for this or that. But given Lincoln’s uncanny ability to see things as they were and to address them effectively, it’s reasonable to assume that history would have been different had he lived.
Ulysses Grant has not received his due for his aggressive attempts to make Reconstruction work after the Civil War, and for his military genius, which was considerable. As Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo has written, that’s because Robert E. Lee became the antidote to the Northern celebration, the lionization, of Lincoln. Until recently, Grant was left in the background. Historian Ron Chernow’s new biography and the Library of America publication of Grant’s remarkable memoirs have done much to rectify that historical oversight. April 9 was the anniversary of Lee’s surrender to Grant, a date largely unmarked this year in the mainstream press.
But Reconstruction — the attempt to guarantee the civil rights of freed slaves, to gain the cooperation of white southern political leaders in that effort, to provide schools and jobs for the emancipated — completely failed after Grant. The craven compromise that gave Rutherford Hayes the presidency in 1877 signaled a green light to white supremacy, not just in the South, and also to voter suppression and, especially between the 1890s and 1920s, to lynchings, which were intended to terrorize Blacks and whites sympathetic to Black claims on equality.
The historical line of white supremacy runs from John C. Calhoun, Jefferson Davis and Booth straight through to the <a href="https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/white-nationalist">white nationalists</a> of today, to such groups as the Proud Boys, Aryan Nations, Patriot Front, American Freedom Party and others, and to those who, though not members of such fringe groups, share their racist views.
Former President Trump’s persistent, not always tacit encouragement of white supremacy has provided supremacists with an outsized sense of legitimacy. After the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board decisions in 1954 and the ensuing civil rights revolution of the 1960s, overt, public expressions of white superiority and accompanying denigration of Blacks diminished. But the Republican Southern electoral strategy, which encouraged private — but publicly funded — all-white schools, and white evangelical organizations, allowed resentment over Black empowerment to flourish, though often beneath a veneer of quiescence. In 2005, the chairman of the Republican National Committee formally apologized to the NAACP for the implementation of that strategy.
But the scheme had achieved its electoral goal: A majority of white voters in the South switched their allegiance from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party — where, for the most part, it remains. Donald Trump and those Republicans who condone his tactics, many fearing for their political futures, have removed the quiescence, both in the South and elsewhere. A recent spate of bills in state legislatures are ostensibly directed toward curbing voter fraud, including one in Alaska. But in most states, they are truly aimed at suppressing minority voting. Perhaps the most striking aspect of Georgia’s overtly partisan new voter suppression law is how transparent it is. The new requirements for casting a ballot there will have the greatest impact in majority-Black districts. While a majority of American voters reject voter suppression bills as they reject white supremacy, a faithful minority support and celebrate them.
The racism implicit in such bills is related to recent fundamental changes that have taken place in American culture — greater diversity, evolving gender roles, approaching minority status for whites among them — all generating fear of the loss of white privilege, and marginalization of the Republican Party. The political culture wars have not, and cannot, stop these changes. Despite the new attention it has garnered, white supremacy is destined to remain a rejected, frustrated fringe movement, anger on the margins, and Republican acceptance of it is destructive of the party. Meanwhile, finally, Reconstruction may emerge triumphant.
Steve Haycox is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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