While Sen. Ted Cruz’s effort to block Joe Biden’s presidency will be best remembered for its role in inciting an attempted insurrection, we should not forget the troubling and related precedent that Cruz (R-Tex.) relied upon in his effort. In making his case, Cruz referred favorably to the congressional compromise that resolved the disputed 1876 election. What he failed to mention, however, is that this compromise resulted in the end of Reconstruction in states such as South Carolina. It did nothing to rectify the widespread voter fraud, suppression and intimidation in the state, and the compromise set the stage for decades of violent segregation and Black disenfranchisement. The events of 1876 in South Carolina present a sobering example of an election that was actually stolen by targeting and stripping the votes of Black Americans and their allies.
Today, claims of duplicate and destroyed ballots have been proven false in the courts. In 1876, advocates of gubernatorial candidate Wade Hampton III boasted that they threw out votes for his opponent and produced copies of votes in his name. Today, Georgia election officials receive death threats. In 1876, South Carolina citizens were killed for daring to vote in favor of Black freedoms. Then as now, White mobs descend on capital cities to influence the vote in their favor. Though the two elections are far from identical, the election of 2020 is situated in a long history of violence, disenfranchisement and White supremacy, especially in the U.S. South.
And this history still reverberates: Regions that have historically experienced high rates of lynchings, for example, still report fewer Black citizens registered to vote. South Carolinians and Americans more broadly have yet to rectify these issues of voter suppression and violence, and they have instead allowed them to fester into the open wound that is anti-democracy in the United States today.
The Reconstruction Amendments of the 1860s and 1870s, which provided rights, citizenship and male suffrage to Black people, represented one of the largest steps toward true democracy in U.S. history. After the Civil War, South Carolina’s 60 percent Black population was quick to claim freedom and citizenship — to limited success. They encountered stiff resistance when too many White South Carolinians refused to accept the turn of events that turned them into a minority group. They decried “Negro rule” and accused White Republicans of brainwashing and controlling Black people and voters, refusing to accept that they could make their own choices.
This pervasive racism and resistance were evidenced not only in the growth of the Ku Klux Klan during these years, but also in the formation of “rifle clubs,” loosely allied White terrorist militias. Though the Red Shirts is the most famous example, they also included such groups as the Sweetwater Sabre Club, in which Benjamin Ryan Tillman, the future South Carolina governor and U.S. senator, was a willing participant. Tillman was a lynching advocate and key writer of the 1895 South Carolina Constitution, which disenfranchised the majority-Black population in the state. The lines between vigilante violence and political power were, if anything, fluid, but at other times, symbiotic.