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.
The purpose of these informal groups of armed terrorists was simple: Depress the democratic participation of African Americans and their allies. Tillman, whose statue now stands on the State House grounds, participated in several of these raids, including the Hamburg Massacre of 1876, in which armed White people killed several Black state-regulated militiamen. Tillman was explicit in his plans to “terroriz[e] the Negroes.” As he explained, his actions were meant to help “whites demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them as was justifiable” and end the perceived “Negro rule.”
In addition to physical violence, the Red Shirts and other paramilitary groups interfered with the voting process by blocking the voting booths and scaring away any poll watchers who were not White Democrats. The U.S. Army, although present in South Carolina since the mid-1860s, was spread too thin to guard each precinct. The “Edgefield Plan” proposed by former Confederates Matthew Calbraith Butler and Martin Gary told Democrats to control the vote of African American voters “by intimidation, purchase, [or] keeping him away” from the polls. Though Hampton, the gubernatorial candidate and Confederate war hero, publicly condemned political violence, he traveled with hundreds of Red Shirts as escorts when campaigning, a clear intimidation tactic and endorsement.
When Election Day in 1876 finally came, Democratic voters used “tissue ballots” at the polls to “overstuff” each precinct with Hampton votes in the gubernatorial race. These thin pieces of paper, much like carbon copy paper, separated when the poll box shook, creating the impression that more than one vote had been cast. This strategy led to widespread voter fraud: The counties of Laurens and Edgefield, both rife with Red Shirt activity, reported around 5,000 votes more than there were eligible voters. With these counties included, Hampton would win by just over 1,000 votes. Hampton’s own lieutenants admitted to illegal voting tactics proudly in their memoirs, finding it a necessary step to prevent “Negro rule.”
Seeing the blatant voter fraud, the Republican-led State Board of Canvassers invalidated the votes from Edgefield and Laurens counties. Labeling this action itself as fraud, the Democrats also claimed victory.
For four months afterward, South Carolina had two governments: Hampton and his legislature, and Republican Daniel Chamberlain and his incumbent state Congress. Neither side backed down — in fact, Hampton encouraged his supporters to pay taxes to him directly, so Chamberlain’s government could not afford to function.
Meanwhile, tensions mounted. A White mob began to gather around the State House, insisting that Hampton be named governor. The crisis was not completely averted until Hampton quietly met with President Rutherford B. Hayes, whose own presidency was so narrowly won that it required votes from South Carolina to solidify the results. Hayes agreed to remove the U.S. Army and other federal presence from South Carolina, and Hampton pledged his support to the president. A bargain was struck.
Once the U.S. Army left, White and Black Republicans knew they had little chance of standing up to the armed White Democrats. Chamberlain conceded, and Hampton became governor in April 1877, effectively ending Reconstruction in the state and, by coincidence of the presidential election that same year, the nation.
Democrats were quick to solidify their rule. They invalidated 23 out of 60 Republican seats in the legislature, refusing to sit the entire delegation from Charleston. Hampton and Gary passed new voting laws that made residents in majority-Black low-country districts walk up to 25 miles to find a polling place.
Hampton nominally supported Black suffrage and nominated several Black Democrats to minor political positions, but the damage was done. There were only eight Republicans in the General Assembly in 1878, as compared with 78 just two years before. By 1890, Republicans and Black legislators were nowhere to be found, and Tillman became governor.
With political suppression came continued political violence. In 1898, a local White family from Phoenix, S.C., challenged provisions in the 1895 state constitution that disfranchised African American men. An opposing mob of White men not only repressed this challenge, but also lynched and killed at least eight African Americans in the town.
The Jim Crow era that followed can be understood only as an era of anti-democracy. During the 20th century, White people in South Carolina deliberately and often violently excluded Southern Black voters. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, by promising to protect the rights of all legal voters, was an open confession of the lie of “free democracy” in the South.
Through voter intimidation and fraud, an almost-certainly stolen 1876 election prevented Black civic participation for decades — and the effects still exist.
The suppression of votes through legal and violent routes presents haunting similarities to the 2020 election. The Voting Rights Act has been gutted. New generations of far-right, extremist mobs parade the streets and now have stormed the U.S. Capitol, in an effort to overturn President Trump’s loss in the election. Conservative public figures promote the idea of a “Democratic plantation,” insinuating that Black voters have been tricked and brainwashed, incapable of soberly making their own governance decisions. Political officials cynically question the legality of legally cast ballots; the president attempted to pressure Georgia’s secretary of state for more votes; and some Republican congressmen and senators objected to the counting of the 2020 electoral college votes certifying Biden’s win, even after the attempted insurrection.
This election cycle, while presenting new challenges and even triumphs, bears striking similarities to heated elections of the past. We are witnessing a new generation update the U.S. anti-democratic playbook. A playbook where the majority of Black voters, especially in the South, are still seen as the opposition.