I teach African American history at Simmons College of Kentucky, a historically Black college (HBCU) in Louisville. This week, we’ve been studying the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of the Jim Crow period of US history.
In the late 19th century, White, Southern Democrats (then the party of White supremacy and segregation) dubbed themselves the “Redeemers,” a group whose goal was to “save” the South from Northern carpetbaggers and newly freed Black people.
The so-called Redeemers took over state legislatures with the primary goals of disenfranchising Black voters, barring Black people from holding political office, and establishing a politics that would render the White power structure impervious to disruption.
When Republicans in the Tennessee House of Representatives voted this week to expel two Black members — Justin Jones and Justin Pearson — they revealed their resemblance to the anti-democratic, authoritarian Redeemers of more than a century ago.
In 1868, White legislators in Georgia voted to expel the 33 Black men elected to state government.
Henry McNeal Turner, a well-known leader in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination, was one of the men expelled from his position by the Georgia politicians.
In remarks during the proceedings, he stated, “[White legislators] question my right to a seat in this body, to represent the people whose legal votes elected me. This objection, sir, is an unheard of monopoly of power. No analogy can be found for it, except it be the case of a man who should go into my house, take possession of my wife and children and then tell me to walk out.”
ven though the Black lawmakers were soon reinstated, the actions of the White lawmakers in Georgia were just a foretaste of the political machinations to come.
In 1890, the state of Mississippi called for a new convention to rewrite the state’s constitution. It had already adopted a new and relatively progressive constitution after the Civil War, but with the onset of Redemption, White lawmakers took control of the state government and began dismantling the rights Black people had only recently gained.
In the newer version of the constitution that was later ratified, White Mississippi lawmakers installed measures to prevent Black people from voting. But because of the Reconstruction amendments to the US Constitution that guaranteed equal protection under the law and the right of Black men to vote, White Redeemers had to find new ways to repress Black people without making laws explicitly about race.
So they used policies such as the poll tax, which most Black people could not afford to pay. They instituted the “understanding clause” — a selectively applied measure where potential voters had to interpret a passage from the state constitution to the satisfaction of a White registrar.