The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

Opinion & Letters to the Editor

January 9, 2013

Disfranchisement — then and now

Wednesday, January 9, 2013 — They “disfranchised us, and now we intend to disfranchise them.”

It sounds like what North Carolina Republicans might have said behind closed doors while they were gerrymandering legislative and congressional districts to assure their party’s continuing dominance.

However, the words came from a white Democratic state senator more than 100 years ago. Legendary historian C. Vann Woodward used the quote to show the thinking behind the white supremacy political movement in the late 1800s.

Both efforts, the post-Reconstruction “disfranchisement” and the 2011 redistricting, reduced the influence of African Americans in state government.

What made me think about the link between these two events, separated by more than 100 years?

First, an early reading of an upcoming biography of Josephus Daniels by Lee Craig reminded me of the Democratic Party’s successful efforts to minimize or eliminate African American influence in North Carolina politics at the turn of the last century.

Secondly, talking recently to a Democratic former state legislative leader, I suggested that Republicans had gone much further in redistricting to marginalize opponents than Democrats ever had. He smiled, and said, “Oh no, we would have done as much [after the 2000 census] if we had had the tools and hadn’t had Republican judges looking over our shoulders.”

Was there an element of revenge in the modern Republicans’ gerrymandered redistricting plan? It was certainly there in post-Reconstruction politics. Here is more of Woodward’s quote: “One main object was [so] to redistrict the state that for the next 10 years not a Republican can be elected to the Legislature … I believe in the law of revenge. The Radicals disfranchised us, and now we intend to disfranchise them.”

As Reconstruction came to an end, white Southerners blamed all their political problems on newly enfranchised blacks and their Republican or Radical allies, which they called “the Negro problem.”

“The Democrats employed a variety of devices to diminish the Republican vote,” according to Michael Perman in “Pursuit of Unity: A Political History of the American South.”

“One tactic was to redraw electoral districts so as to disperse black voters throughout the white-majority districts and consolidate the remaining black vote into one, perhaps two, congressional seats. Through similar gerrymandering schemes, they also diluted the black vote for the state legislature.”

In North Carolina during early post-Reconstruction times, black areas were put into separate governing units, which were controlled by the white Democratic-controlled state government. Meanwhile, white areas were given “home rule,” the power to govern locally.

These efforts to limit black participation were marginally successful. But they did not prevent blacks and Republicans, joined by white Populists in a Fusion partnership, from taking over state government in 1896 and dismantling many of these white-control devices.

In response, white Democrats mounted the successful white supremacy campaigns of 1898 and 1900 that finally “solved” the Negro problem by freezing blacks almost completely out of the electoral process.

In today’s North Carolina, the Republican program to disperse blacks and Democrats into Republican districts and crowd the remainder into a very few districts has been, like the white supremacy campaign, successful in minimizing African American influence.

With the shift from a Democratic majority in the legislature and the results of a new redistricting plan, African Americans have gone from being a powerful minority in a majority party to a powerless majority in a minority party.

The warning a supporter gave to a new female African American legislator says it best. “[Y]ou’re going into a war where you are a minority in every sense of that word. Not just because you’re a woman, not just because you’re black, but because you are one of the few Democrats.”

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch.

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