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South Carolina African Americans – 2000 Election Drama Mirrors Mess of 1876


Also see African-Americans - Reconstruction - 1865-1900 Main Page


The following article was written by John Monk, a columnist for The State newspaper in Columbia. It was published on November 12, 2000, and it compares the events surrounding the recent Bush-Gore election to those surrounding the Tilden-Hayes election of 1877. It also attests to the use of violence and fraud in South Carolina's 1876 election for governor.

So you think Florida has an election mess?

Back in 1876, 124 years ago, South Carolina really had an election uproar: a disputed statewide governor's race, full of ballot fraud, murder and terror.

Also, just as Florida does today, South Carolina and two other Southern states held the key to a disputed US presidential race.

In 1876, neither Republican Rutherford Hayes nor Democrat Samuel Tilden had a majority in the Electoral College. Tilden needed just one vote to win.

In South Carolina, the winners of both the presidential and gubernatorial races in the November 1876 election were in dispute.

At that time, historians say, South Carolina's white leaders and other Southerners made a deal with northern Republicans.

The deal was this.

First, South Carolina and two other Southern states with contested presidential races would support Hayes, so Hayes could win the presidency.
In return, Hayes would withdraw federal troops from South Carolina and other Southern states.
This would enable old slave owners and ex-Confederates to retake power they'd lost in the Civil War.
That's what happened.
In early March 1877, Hayes was installed as president.
Within weeks, Hayes announced US troops would leave South Carolina by April 10, 1877. Federal troops left other states, too.
Thus, the 1876 election ushered in a lengthy era of white rule in South Carolina, a 90-year period in which one of the state's major public policy goals was to keep black people in almost slavelike status.
In the meantime, goals such as having good public schools went begging.

Here's what happened.

By early 1876, 11 years after the end of the Civil War, most South Carolina whites had stopped participating in state government.

White frustration and anger can only be imagined. Not only had most SC whites lost everything in the Civil War, whites had been brought up to believe it was God's will that blacks be slaves.

After 1865, blacks were a majority, free and even in the Legislature, where corruption was rampant. Northerners – always distrusted by South Carolinians – also were holding power.

In late 1868, most federal troops withdrew from South Carolina.

Meanwhile, hundreds of SC white ex-Confederates organized themselves into armed units of the Ku Klux Klan that began terrorizing blacks. At that time, the state's approximately 650,000 population was 60 percent black. Virtually all blacks were ex-slaves.

In 1869, a largely black state militia was set up to protect people from the Klan. By 1870, 100,000 blacks had joined this militia. But it was no match for the Klan, many of whose members were battle-hardened former Confederate troops.

"Then, in 1870, violence exploded," writes Walter Edgar in his book South Carolina, a History.

Klan terrorists marauded in the Upstate.

In Laurens County, more than 2,000 armed whites murdered nine Republicans, including a judge and a black member of the General Assembly.

"In York County, nearly 80 percent of white males rode with the Klan," Edgar writes.

In 1871, President Ulysses Grant declared nine Upstate counties in rebellion: Chester, Chesterfield, Fairfield, Lancaster, Laurens, Marion Newberry, Spartanburg and York.

Grant sent federal troops to South Carolina, but there weren't enough to resolve matters. The Klan discarded its name but was reborn in the form of local white "gun clubs."

In 1872, the mostly black SC electorate chose a corrupt Republican, Franklin Moses, as governor. This outraged whites even more.

In 1874, Republicans elected Daniel Chamberlain governor. A Massachusetts native, Chamberlain turned out to be a reformer who tried to eliminate corruption.

In 1876, white Democrats nominated Wade Hampton, a well-known South Carolinian and ex-Confederate general, for governor to run against Chamberlain.

Across the state, the white gun clubs, estimated to number almost 300, rallied to support Hampton.

In the politics of the day, Hampton was a racial moderate. That is, he would rather intimidate blacks and Republicans through a show of force than kill them outright, Edgar writes.

As Hampton preached his version of "moderation," more radical whites made plans to steal the 1876 election from the blacks and white Republicans, who held a majority.

The "gun clubs," whose members began calling themselves Red Shirts, began a systematic campaign to terrorize blacks and Republicans so Hampton could win the governorship.

In July 1876, at Hamburg, in a gun battle between Edgefield County whites and a black militia, one white man was killed. The whites captured the blacks and executed six of them in retaliation.

In September 1876, at Ellenton, white gun clubs battled black militia, killing 30. After the battle, whites executed State Rep. Simon Coker, a black, while he was on his knees praying.

"Gov. Chamberlain appealed to Washington for assistance, and President Grant sent more than 1,100 troops," Edgar writes.

That fall, Hampton marched across South Carolina at the head of thousands of Red Shirts.

"Dozens of gun clubs and hundreds of men escorted him from stop to stop, and each town welcomed him with fanfare fit for a king," wrote Richard Zuczek in "State of Rebellion, Reconstruction in South Carolina."

"The United States abandons you"

Votes cast on Nov. 7, 1876, gave Hampton the victory, 92,261 to 91,127.

However, thousands of white Georgians had been imported into Edgefield and Laurens counties, where they illegally voted for Hampton. Illegalities were so blatant that 4,000 more people voted than were registered.

A Republican election commission promptly declared the Laurens and Edgefield returns invalid.

"It appeared that control of the (SC) State House, the SC governorship, and possibly even the presidency might turn on election challenges from Edgefield and Laurens counties," write historians Belinda and Richard Gergel in "At Freedom's Door," a study of black lawyers in Reconstruction South Carolina.

The casting out of thousands of votes in Laurens and Edgefield gave the election to Chamberlain.

On Dec. 7, 1876, Chamberlain was installed as governor.

The same day, Hampton proclaimed: "The people have elected me governor, and, by the eternal God, I will be governor or we shall have a military governor."

What ensued then were four months of lawsuits, shows of force by federal authorities, and bitter arguments between whites and blacks.

For a time, South Carolina had two governors and two legislatures. Pro-Hampton armed whites were everywhere. Chamberlain stayed in power only because of federal troops in the state.

Meanwhile, at the national level, a presidential commission awarded 22 disputed electoral votes to Hayes. These 22 votes included South Carolina's electoral votes, as well as votes from Florida and Louisiana.

Had Hayes' opponent, Tilden, received even one electoral vote, he would have been elected president.

Edgar and other historians say to get those electoral votes from South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana, Hayes agreed to take federal troops out of the South.

On March 3, 1877, Hayes was sworn in as president.

Weeks later, President Hayes ordered federal troops withdrawn from South Carolina.

Without the troops, Chamberlain had nothing to prop him up in office. He resigned, saying "the Government of the United States abandons you."

On April 11, 1877, with federal troops gone, Hampton took over as governor.

"Those who had lost in 1865 triumphed in 1877," Edgar writes. "Politically and socially they intended to re-create as much as possible the world of ante-bellum South Carolina, a world in which they and their kind held sway."

So, compared to that far-off world of 124 years ago, we've all come a long way.

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