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Exactly 144 years ago the outcome of the 1876 presidential election revealed cracks in our democracy that would come close to breaking wide open in the 2020 election.

Ironically, black Americans paid the price for the debacle of 1876 and are now facing the prospect of paying the exact same price for what happened last November.

Here’s the history that explains why.

The day after the 1876 election Democrat Samuel Tilden, an avowed racist, led the popular vote by 260,000 votes, but was one vote shy of victory in the Electoral College. Electoral votes in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina were in dispute and remained uncertified, and one vote in Oregon.

Both parties claimed victory, throwing the election outcome to the Congress. That didn’t work either.

Democrats controlled the House of Representatives and Republicans controlled the Senate. Unable to move forward because of this division, the House and Senate did agree to appoint a electoral commission that included five members of each party and five Supreme Court Justices (two Republican, two Democratic, one independent).

The independent Justice was offered a Senate seat and was replaced on the commission by a Republican who tilted the final vote to Rutherford B. Hayes whom the commission named president.

You would think Democrats would have disputed that outcome, but behind the scenes both parties made a secret deal that gave Democrats what they really wanted and allowed Hayes to take office.

In exchange for Democrats agreeing not to dispute the commission’s decision and to honor the freedom of all former slaves, Hayes agreed to remove all federal troops from southern states, effectively bringing an end to Reconstruction.

Democrats then proceeded to renege on the second promise and immediately began stripping more than 4000 freed slaves of their rights, including the right to vote. The political effects were devastating.

Between the end of he Civil War and 1900 some 25 black southerners served in the U. S. Congress, a few of them serving multiple terms, but as Jim Crow laws that replaced Reconstruction took full effect black representation in Congress from all former Confederate states was eliminated altogether.

It was 73 years before a black woman named Barbara Jordan was elected to serve in the U. S. Congress from Texas and 89 years before all black Americans were once again given the right to vote in every southern state with the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

In other words, rights for black southerners, including and especially voting rights, was the price THEY paid for the outcome of the 1876 presidential election.

So what does this history tell us? Here’s what I think, for what it’s worth.

First, race has been and continues to be the core issue in American life.

Anyone who says there is no systemic racism in this country is either pitifully ignorant of the facts or a racist, as the current efforts at voter suppression unambiguously prove.

It doesn’t matter to Republicans that there is no voter fraud. Racists is never worried about voter fraud. They are worried minority Americans voting in large numbers. They always have been, and because of the record turnout in 2020 they are scared to death about 2022.

That is why they are passing their race-based voter suppression laws.

Second, corruption has always been a part of American political life.

The election of 1876 was an example, not an exception, of one party, one individual, or one group trying to cheat to gain political power.

This is what is now going on in Republican controlled state legislatures based on “the Big Lie” Donald Trump tried to use to cheat himself to victory again. 

Third, the 2022 mid-term elections will put the integrity of all Republican voters on the line.

At the end of the day, what is happening in Republican controlled states is not really about corrupt politicians, it is about the integrity of Republican voters because those politicians are counting on voters not holding them accountable for their actions.

That brings up the final lesson history teaches us. Black Americans will face the consequences of how Republicans vote in 2022.

They paid a tragic price for the outcome of the 1876 election until 1965, but the 2022 election will once again put the Voting Rights Act on the line.

If Democrats gain seats in the House and Senate, the John Lewis Voting Rights bill will be passed and the original voting rights act will be updated.

If Republicans gain seats, black Americans will face even more efforts to prevent them from voting and things will get worse.

In light of this history and the racism rampant in Republican state legislatures, the political irony of the moment is that it will be the responsibility of Republican voters in 2022 to save our democracy by ensuring that black voters today don’t pay the price in Republican controlled states they paid in Democratic controlled states in 1876.

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