For generations of black Americans, the United States between the end of Reconstruction, around 1876, and the triumphs of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s was a fascist state. Local and federal governments enforced an authoritarian regime that curtailed the movements and advancement of black Americans, and black Americans only. America has been governed by the heavy hand of white nationalism before. The lessons learned by black Americans living under a restrictive and domineering regime a century ago are ones we can take now, too. If we want to know what it looks like when the worst happens, we don’t have to look to the old world; we have a rich history of horror in the new.
The Southern populist coalition dissolved as white populists blamed black populists for electoral defeat at the hands of the conservatives, who used voter intimidation, violence, and bribery to win elections. As the economy in the South suffered a downturn in the 1880s and ’90s, the conservative alliance with big business eroded their popularity with their voting base. Conservatives responded by rallying their base with antiblack racial demagoguery and advocating for the earliest forms of segregation and repression that would harden into Jim Crow laws. A series of court decisions weakened Reconstruction-era laws that restricted the Ku Klux Klan and protected black Southerners, as white Northerners began to lose interest in protecting the voting rights of black citizens and the media began to find common ground with the racist Southern rhetoric. As Woodward wrote, black people were the obvious scapegoat for the South’s problems in the wake of the Civil War, and American institutions offered “permission to hate” where they’d formerly denied it.
The rise of fascism doesn’t have to be the result of a centralized, organized conspiracy. In the United States, all it takes is a failure of the dams holding back the flood. In Louisiana, more than 130,000 African-Americans were registered to vote in 1896. Then, in 1898, a new law passed that required voters to have at least $300 worth of property and pass a literacy test (a proviso allowed for exemptions if your grandfather could vote in January 1867, which no black Louisianian could claim — the source of the term “grandfathered in”). By 1904, only 1,342 African-Americans were registered to vote — a reduction of nearly 97 percent. In Mississippi, a revision to the state constitution in 1890 required voters to pay a poll tax and not only be able to read a section of the Mississippi state constitution, but “to give a reasonable interpretation thereof” to a county clerk (who was invariably white). White Mississippians, even those who were illiterate, were not affected by the revision because of a clause that permitted them to vote if their grandparents had been able to vote before the Civil War.
James Kimble Vardaman, then a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives and later governor of Mississippi, said of the revision, “There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter. … Mississippi’s constitutional convention was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the nigger from politics. Not the ‘ignorant and vicious,’ as some of the apologists would have you believe, but the nigger.” The percentage of black male voters in Mississippi dropped from more than 90 percent during Reconstruction to under 6 percent in 1892. The Supreme Court ruled 9–0 in Williams v. Mississippi that the new policies were not discriminatory.