One hundred and fifteen years ago this week, George H. White took the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to say goodbye. A black Republican elected in 1896 by North Carolina’s Fusion Party coalition of black Republicans and mostly white Populists, he was the last of the Reconstruction era African American to leave Congress. It would be another 72 years before an African American from the South, with help from the 1965 Voting Rights Act, would circumvent Jim Crow and win a seat in Congress.
Historian C. Van Woodward chronicled the “strange career of Jim Crow,” which supplanted White and the fusion coalition he represented. Popular memory likes to imagine that Jim Crow’s career ended in the 1960s as abruptly as White’s had in 1901. But proceedings in a federal courtroom in Winston-Salem, N.C., this week make it clear that Jim Crow did not retire; he went to law school and launched a second career as James Crow, Esq.
Though it has been widely reported that NC NAACP vs. McCrory is a test case for voter ID laws after the Supreme Court decision to gut section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby vs. Holder, the broader context of Mr. Crow’s second career is harder to see. But Mr. White’s political career after America’s First Reconstruction illuminates the pattern of a Third Reconstruction that we see in our present fight for voting rights.
The Fusion Party that sent Mr. White to Washington in 1897 was a hallmark of the “more perfect union” that America had struggled toward after the Civil War. In a statewide, grassroots effort, freed slaves recognized common cause with poor and working class whites in North Carolina, successfully defeating the Southern Democrat power structure of the white elite’s plantation economy. Their Fusion Party won every statewide election in 1896. But this multiethnic democracy was attacked by a coordinated white supremacy campaign determined to regain power.
The so-called “Wilmington race-riot” of 1898 — the only successful coup d’état in American history — showed how far Democrats were willing to go to guarantee white power through the establishment of Jim Crow laws. But despite their use of terrorism, they could not have unseated George White without disenfranchising black voters in North Carolina. SCOTUS’ Plessy vs. Ferguson decision gave them the language of “separate but equal,” but White understood that Jim Crow was determined to maintain the power structure of the plantation economy by any means necessary.
America’s Second Reconstruction — what we usually remember as the “civil rights movement” — pushed back against Jim Crow half a century later by exposing the moral contradiction of segregation in the context of a global struggle for democracy. After the world witnessed Bull Connor’s dogs and George Wallace’s vitriol, Jim Crow lost his respectability in Washington. Once again, it was a fusion coalition of black and white, Christian and Jew, civil rights and labor coming together that presented the possibility of a new America. But it was also a fear of that possibility that inspired a racist backlash.
This time, Jim Crow got smarter. He learned the language of “forced-bussing,” “entitlements,” and “law and order.” As in the 1890s, it was essential to exploit racial fear through divide-and-conquer tactics to maintain white supremacy. But the harsh language of Alabama didn’t play as well on the nightly news. The Southern Strategy, which gave the South to the Republican Party for a generation, depended upon a more respectable compromise between the South’s power structure and the rest of the country’s ruling elite. All along, the Voting Rights Act was attacked as a violation of “states rights.”
Down here in North Carolina, we never forgot what George White had shown us: that despite the tactics of white supremacy, a fusion coalition of people joining hands across dividing lines is the South’s true moral majority. Beginning in 2006, our Moral Movement in North Carolina began mobilizing such a coalition to subvert the Southern Strategy. By the 2008 presidential election, North Carolina’s 15 electoral college votes went to Obama, breaking the “solid-South” for the first time. It was a great victory for fusion politics.
But we knew what was coming — an all-out assault on the political power of this new coalition. Millions of dollars of mystery money poured into North Carolina’s midterm elections, funding propaganda campaigns to match those of 1898. An extremist takeover of our state’s General Assembly in 2010 made it possible to gerrymander voting districts and win the governor’s office in 2012. The legislative session of 2013 then became the perfect storm: the Shelby decision opened the door for a direct attack on voting rights through the worst voter suppression bill of the 21st century.
Our lawyers have made a strong case this week that the voter ID component of this legislation places an unnecessary and undue burden on voters — especially poor and African-American voters. We will ultimately win this fight in the courts. But this case is about much more than defeating voter ID laws. It is about a central question of 21st-century American politics: is a multiethnic democracy possible?
As many progressives have noted, we have a system that is ruled by billionaires. Ironically, many Trump supporters agree. But the broad populist consensus that we need radical change is not enough. George White was elected by a populist, fusion coalition, but he was also driven from office by a racist populism which was heavily funded by the ruling elite. We cannot end the second career of James Crow, Esq. until we name it for what it is and resolve to become the country we’ve not yet been. Unfettered access to the ballot has always been a fundamental commitment of Reconstruction. This is the struggle we will continue to give ourselves to in the courts, at the ballot box, and in the streets.