#BlackLivesMatter, The Election of 1876, and a New Reconstruction

The price we paid for Rutherford B. Hayes was too damn high.

Twelve years after the Civil War, a disputed presidential election led to the Compromise of 1877 and ushered in the terrible reality of Jim Crow. Today, as Americans across the country take to the streets to protest yet another round of brutality against blacks by the state, reflecting on this history can be both informative and illuminate a path forward.

After the Civil War, the United States entered a period known as Reconstruction. This was when former Confederate states were brought back into the Union and rights were expanded for blacks, all under the watchful eye of Union troops stationed in the Southern States. Reconstruction was messy and imperfect, but it led to the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and forceful protection of blacks in the South as these new rights began to be exercised.

It’s important to note that, since this time, the intersection of American politics and race has inverted. While Republican Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Republican Richard Nixon’s infamous “Southern Strategy” more than a century later used racism and fear to win Southern votes. During Reconstruction, Republicans carried the mantle of racial equity; today, Democrats are its standard-bearers.

As Reconstruction wore on, things began to deteriorate. Black codes in the South steadily eroded the rights and wages of blacks. Republicans in the North began to complain about having to constantly spend resources to look after the former Confederacy, while conveniently forgetting that without their armed presence, blacks in the South would lose both their rights and their lives.

This all came to a head in the Election of 1876. Emerging as the “compromise candidate” from a fractured Republican Party, Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes was pitted against Democratic New York Governor Samuel Tilden. Hayes was famously defeated…

…in the popular vote.

In those days, the number of votes needed to win the Electoral College was 185. After Election Day, Governor Tilden was sitting at 184 electoral votes with 19 votes from 3 states still outstanding. Unfortunately, they were all former Confederate states in the South.

Thus began one of the most corrupt scenes in American history. As Southern states threatened to filibuster the vote in Congress to confirm the results of the election, a bicameral Electoral Commission was formed. This small group met in secret not to recount the votes of the disputed states, but to determine who the next President would be themselves.

What did this mean for blacks in America at that moment? The same thing it always has: white Congressman made a deal that all but ended black rights.

In exchange for Hayes as President, Southern states demanded — among other things — the removal of Union troops from the South. To get their candidate elected, white Republicans approved “The Compromise of 1877” — a truly corrupt bargain that ended Reconstruction and signaled the start of Jim Crow laws in the South. Hayes was awarded the final 19 electoral votes and won the Electoral College, 185 to 184.

Since then, the tragedy in America has been unfathomable. This ultimate betrayal led to untold lynchings, involuntary servitude, and the de-facto destruction of so many of the rights that blacks had just won.

The price we paid for Rutherford B. Hayes was too damn high.

Fast forward to today. Americans are taking to the streets to protest the continued murder of black men and women at the hands of state-employed police officers. Some ask in exasperation why it always has to be this way — are Black Lives Matter protests historically futile?

The answer — emphatically — is no.

Looking at our history through the contemporary lens of racial justice means taking stock of the unfinished business of our past. For 12 years, Reconstruction changed our Constitution and extended rights and protections to our black brothers and sisters. A corrupt compromise may have gone down 143 years ago, but Reconstruction did not truly end.

It was just put on pause.

It is time to call for a New Reconstruction. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others have laid bare our failures and the corrupt bargains of our politics. We cannot continue to betray our black neighbors — so it is time we finished the work that Lincoln started.

A New Reconstruction must reaffirm and expand the rights of black Americans. It must indemnify the inequities of the past through direct compensation and legislation. And it must require a real, equitable political voice for blacks at all levels of government. As protesters continue to march everywhere from small, rural towns to big, urban population centers, the size of our political solution must meet the size of the movement on our streets.

It is time to redeem ourselves for the betrayal that elected Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. It is time to turn Black Lives Matter into real, historic change. It is time for a New Reconstruction with specific, tangible rights for all black people in America.

Roger Misso is a husband, father, and veteran. Most recently, he was a candidate for Congress in New York’s 24th Congressional District (NY-24). He campaigned hard on rural, racial, and generational justice for Central New York.

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Small-town kid from the county line road. Dad. Vet. Advocate. Speechwriter, runner, underdog. Fmr House candidate (NY-24). Let’s be a gosh-darn goldfish.