Fred Klonsky is a retired teacher who blogs regularly about Chicago, Illinois, the nation, politics, and culture. In this post, he draws an interesting comparison between the recent expulsion of two Black legislators in Tennessee and events concurrent with the end of the Reconstruction era and the reign of Jim Crow. There is this difference: The two ousted members are very likely to be restored to their seats in the legislature by their local elected officials. The Tennessee Three are now national figures revealing the fascist hand in the iron glove of the Republican Party when it has the majority.

Robert Smalls, Congressman during Reconstruction.

The expulsion of Rep. Justin Jones and Rep. Justin Pearson from the Tennessee legislature has a direct historical link to the overthrow of real democracy and Reconstruction following the Civil War.

On May 13, 1862 an enslaved man named Robert Smalls, who labored on a Confederate steamer in South Carolina’s Charleston harbor, set into motion a daring plan.

As his great-great-grandson Michael Boulware Moore explained, “He saw that the Confederate crew had left, and he knew that oftentimes they left for the evening, not to come back until the next day.”

For Smalls and six other enslaved people and their families, the stakes couldn’t have been higher. “They knew that if they got caught, that they would be, not just killed, but probably tortured in a particularly egregious and public manner,” said Moore.

Disguising himself in the straw hat and long overcoat of the ship’s white captain, Smalls piloted the ship past Fort Sumter towards the Union blockade, and freedom.

After serving on a Union Naval vessel during the Civil War, Smalls returned home to Beaufort, S.C., and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives – one of more than a dozen African Americans to serve in Congress during the period known as Reconstruction, when the formerly-rebel states were reabsorbed into the Union, and four million newly-freed African Americans were made citizens.

South Carolina, and throughout the former Confederacy, the era of Reconstruction saw the rise of Black political power and representation in both the U.S. Congress and Southern state legislatures.

During the 1870s, more than a dozen African American men, many of whom had been born into slavery, were elected to the U.S. Congress. 

It was a great democratic movement that ended all too quickly.

Former Southern insurrectionists, aided by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, violently organized an anti-democratic counterrevolution.

Born in South Carolina, Aaron A. Bradley was a shoemaker in Augusta Georgia. Sometime around 1834 he ran away to the North, where he became a lawyer. 

In 1865 he returned to Georgia. He was the most outspoken member of the Black delegation to the constitutional convention. 

In 1868 he was elected state senator from the First District. Bradley rallied plantation workers around Savanah with his insistence that the formerly enslaved people be given land.

But Black political power and Reconstruction was short lived.

One quarter of the Black legislators in Georgia were killed, threatened, beaten, or jailed. In the December 1870 elections the Democrats won an overwhelming victory in overthrowing democracy and Reconstruction.

In 1906 W. H. Rogers from McIntosh County was the last Black legislator to be elected before Black voters were legally disenfranchised in 1908.

The actions by white Republican members of the Tennessee legislature to expel two elected Black members has all the stench of the overthrow of Reconstruction and the establishment of Jim Crow.