Columns » Ernest Dumas

Not the same party


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Will Reconstruction ever cease to be the frame of reference for recording the advance of history in this part of Dixie, as in "Arkansas Republicans claimed majority control of the House on Thursday for the first time since Reconstruction ... "?

Plainly, not soon.

The quotation is from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's account of the voting last week for the state House of Representatives. The newspaper supplied the virtually identical description of votes for the state Senate, as did much of the media in reporting the Republican victories.

The reference to Reconstruction does more than define the length of time — 138 years — since Republicans last owned a legislative majority. It also defines a cause — maybe the biggest cause — of the shifting allegiance of a large share of white voters in Arkansas and the South over that period. That is the attitude toward black political participation and power.

There is no point in arguing over the precise share of the electorate that has been and still is governed in no small degree by fear of the exercise of political power by black citizens and now consummately exercised by a single black man, Barack Obama. More than 70 percent of white voters in Arkansas voted for Mitt Romney, a man with whom most of them shared few economic and social goals and little culturally, but they took him eagerly over the Democrat who was nothing but a champion of the middle class in all his tax and budget policies, his giant healthcare reform, his banking reforms, college loans, and on and on. What would account for that but race?

No Arkansas campus was the scene of rampaging crowds of students burning Obama signs and chanting racial slurs, which occurred at the University of Mississippi on election night, 50 years after the rioting that greeted the first African-American student escorted by federal marshals. At least our youngsters, then and now, were better than that.

But there was ample evidence even in Arkansas, if you made telephone or house calls for Democratic candidates, listened across the aisle or the cafe table or paid attention to the legislative campaigns, particularly the "independent" campaigns for Republican candidates. Never before had campaigns for local or state offices been tied to a single national figure, at least to the extent that Arkansas Democratic candidates were tied to Barack Obama. Democratic state legislators were exposed as accomplices to Obama on healthcare reform. Ads attacking a Democratic legislator would carry a picture of a black man in doctor's scrubs with a stethoscope around his neck. See, under Obamacare you are going to have to go to a black doctor.

Unless you are really honest, like the two Republican legislators who wrote extensive justifications for slavery and the Confederacy, you no longer employ openly racist shibboleths. Dog whistles work fine.

Speaking of the two slavery apologists, both were narrowly defeated by massive efforts for the Democrats, but still they carried the white votes in their districts. The 10 to 20 percent of African-American votes beat them, thus vindicating the men's own fears of black power.

The stories about the GOP in 2012 regaining the power lost at the end of Reconstruction suggests a restoration of the party of Lincoln after nearly a century and a half in the wilderness. But the GOP today bears little resemblance to the band from whom power was wrested nine years after the Civil War.

Republicans today would call them flaming liberals. With whites, nearly all Confederate sympathizers, sidelined, about 1,300 immigrating Republicans and 23,000 freed slaves did the voting and elected themselves to office, installing exactly one Democrat in each house of the legislature. The Republicans enacted full rights for African-Americans, raised taxes everywhere, began a system of publicly funded universal education for both whites and blacks and the first state college, built railroads (662 miles), turnpikes and levees, and passed the first environmental laws. They would have been called socialists but the planters hadn't heard the word. Those Republicans were a trifle corrupt and they ran things with an iron fist.

The latter was fully justified by the relentless violence and intimidation, most of it undertaken by stray vigilantes but also by the Ku Klux Klan and county militias organized by both the Republican and Democratic parties, which murdered and plundered with impunity. One estimate was that 385 Republicans were murdered in two years.

Blacks, particularly those who dared to vote, were the objects of the strife and the principal victims of murders, beatings and intimidation, but also of summary justice. An East Arkansas judge cut short a trial and declared the black man guilty because "it doesn't make any difference — it's a nigger and it's near dinnertime."

Both parties followed disgraceful courses from 1874 until today. Native whites — Democrats — rebelled at giving blacks full citizenship, including voting rights, but had to acquiesce in a constitution that did so in order to end Reconstruction. Then they set out to banish blacks altogether from the political process through the white primary, the Australian ballot, the poll tax and Jim Crow laws.

The Republican Party carried on inconsequentially for a while, then a decade into the 20th century its leaders decided the Democrats had the right idea and they made the Republican Party "lily white" and won the approval of the Republican president, Bill Taft. To maintain purity, they met in venues like the Marion Hotel that barred blacks who were not in servant livery. So blacks were banished from both parties and had absolutely no say in government at any level until the end of World War II.

To complete the circle, in reverse, the new Republican majority in January will take up where Democrats left off more than a century ago, making it harder for minorities, the poor and the feeble to vote.


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