Will America ever be able to break this cycle, and what will it take? In the darkness of this week, we should not lose sight of what reinforced the results in Georgia: the power of countless voters, especially blacks, to make American democracy work better for all.
Whitelash is an ancient American ritual that my own family lived. My great-grandfather, Herschel V. Cashin, ran for the legislature in Alabama in 1874 in an election that saw white supremacists shooting at blacks in the elections. He won, served two terms as a radical Republican, and campaigned specifically for public education – one of 600 black men elected into southern state legislature during that time. Reconstruction in Alabama and the south was fueled by interracial alliances between newly emancipated blacks, recently arrived “carpet dredgers” from the north, and temperate southerners who remained loyal to the Union. In Alabama, the alliance passed the most progressive new constitution among the former Confederation states – a new social contract that for the first time provided for universal equality, male suffrage among citizens, and free public education.
But white supremacists deliberately destroyed reconstruction in the state and throughout the south. With the Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1877, a Republican-controlled Congress agreed to remove federal troops from the southern states in exchange for Democrats who accepted Republican Rutherford Hayes as the winner of a controversial presidential election. Without federal protection for black voters, the Ku Klux Klan and other secret societies became the terrorist wing of the Democratic Party. Resistance to black participation in politics and legislation was systematic. Through violence, electoral fraud, economic reprisals and wandering, the Democrats regained control, and white supremacy was the central organizing principle of the party for nearly a century.
Grandpa Herschel never stopped fighting for the radical idea that blacks should vote – but also run for office and be thoroughly updated citizens who help build new public institutions that elevate all people. Like many other black southerners, he participated in the “Black and Tan” wing of Republican politics that fought against the southern “Lily White” factions of the Lincoln Party.
Bi-racial populism emerged in the late 19th century when a movement of peasants and workers demanded fairness from the business elite, particularly the southern planter class who dominated politics in this part of the country. But the game went on. In the Alabama area known as the Black Belt, wealthy planters used violence, intimidation, and total ballot handling to create an absurdity: Blacks overwhelmingly “voted” for the party of white supremacy. Both the white worker and his industrial bosses in other parts of the state grew tired of being disempowered by such forgery. In 1901, under the leadership of Mississippi, South Carolina, and other deep south states, Alabama passed a new constitution aimed at establishing white supremacy legally instead of fraud or violence. It used election taxes, literacy tests, and other deception to disenfranchise black voters. In 1890, Alabama had 140,000 black voters, but by 1906 there were only 46 registered blacks in the entire state. The Democratic Party also united whites with the Jim Crow regime.
My father, Dr. John L. Cashin Jr., who grew up in Jim Crow Alabama, heard of the greatness of Grandpa Herschel and Blacks, who held office during the rebuilding, when he was told to stay in his place. He swore to finish Herschel’s work.
With the Voting Rights Act of 1965, black Americans returned en masse to southern politics for their sustained, organized protest. Black people and their allies marched, rallied, boycotted, petitioned, and filed lawsuits. The Voting Rights Act decoupled democracy and produced hundreds of thousands of newly registered black voters in Alabama alone. My father founded the National Democratic Party of Alabama (NDPA) in 1967 so that new voters, particularly those in the Black Belt, could run for office and vote themselves. NDPA was inspired by Stokely Carmichael’s Lowndes County Black Panther Party, but is strategically different from it. Dad deliberately recruited liberal whites to form a powerful coalition to try to defeat the dominance of white supremacy and identity of Governor George Wallace. NDPA’s platform was ahead of its time, pledging, among other things, to abolish excessive tax breaks for industry, progressive income taxes, collective bargaining for farm workers, racially balanced juries, equal educational opportunities in fully integrated school systems, environmental protection and the abolition of the death penalty.
Dad ran for governor against Wallace on the NDPA ticket in 1970. He received 14 percent of the vote. He had no illusion of winning, but wanted to give dirt-poor black belt partners a reason to register, vote in the elections, and vote for the NDPA ticket for local candidates, including black sheriffs, probate magistrates, and members of the school board involved in this Year won. The blacks returned to the state assembly and the NDPA pressured the Democratic Party to give up its commitment to white supremacy and begin recruiting black candidates.
Ultimately, Alabama and Mississippi, which had the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party under the leadership of the great Fannie Lou Hamer, voted more black civil servants per capita than other states, also because of the early mobilization of the NDPA and MFDP. But as with the backlash and destruction of the first reconstruction, those who feared a new multi-faceted policy that could unite the working people and demand fairness from the elites have been suppressed, manipulated and Dog whistleto keep in power repeatedly. Republicans worked from the 1960s onwards through a five-decade long southern strategy of racial segregation politics of white identity. The south turned red throughout, and the cynical split became the GOP national strategy, culminating in Donald Trump’s grossly white nationalist appeals.
Warnock’s victory is a sweet endorsement of the idea the journalist proposed Nikole Hannah-Jonesthat generations of blacks who pursue their pursuit of freedom and believe in America’s ideals have been central to making those ideals a reality for all Americans. On the morning of January 6th, the new day that will live in shame, I was dizzy with pride in what Stacey Abrams and a litany of grassroots organizations and organizers, especially black womenhad managed to turn Georgia blue for Democrats. After the feverishly competitive Georgia gubernatorial election in 2018, in which Abrams was declared the loser, she founded Fair fight Promote free and fair elections and voting rights everywhere. To help Warnock and Ossoff to victory, she distributed millions of dollars raised nationally to local groups who knew how to mobilize.
The result: “PhenomenalTurnout, especially in democratic parts of the state, with predominantly black rural districts vote more democratically in the runoff than in the general election. A multicultural coalition that included Asian Americans, Latinos, and white suburbs, inspired by black mobilizers and visionaries about what democracy should be, won and brought the Georgia Democrats back to the U.S. Senate for the first time in 16 years back.
And these two Democrats – one Black, the other Jew – are committed to an explicitly progressive agenda that prioritises Medicaid’s expansion and on the Affordable Care Act, Comprehensive Criminal Justice Reform, Climate Justice, Clean Energy and Infrastructure as well as the Act Rebuilding American Democracy. Warnock proposes to fix the voting rights law by passing the law John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Actwhat would reverse the harm of Shelby v. Holder, the 2013 Supreme Court case that invalidated the Voting Act’s requirement that certain states “pre-check” all proposed changes to voting qualifications and procedures with the federal government.
In recent years and on January 6th, many Americans have worried that our democracy could slide dangerously towards authoritarianism. White supremacists and nationalists now have prominent social media profiles, specialized news outlets, and dark corners of the internet to efficiently continue dogma and conspiracy theories. Trump, as President of the United States, was at the center of this echo chamber.
Even as many Americans celebrate the Georgia election results and the dawn of a new era for the president, we cannot expect Whitelash to stop. But, as always in the United States, the best way to ensure that American democracy lasts is by empowering those most hungry for equality to participate in politics.