The Douglass Option

Frederick Douglass believed there was an alternative. So should we.

Frederick Douglass

In February 1866, alarm was spreading through the Republican North over President Andrew Johnson’s Southern course. Politics in the occupied South seemed to be careening toward something like a neo-Confederate restoration.

Johnson’s entire career had fit the archetype of a hill-country Jacksonian: the Herrenvolk democrat, the striver from humble roots, the anti-monopoly champion of the poor white man — and therefore, the bitter enemy of the West Tennessee “slaveocracy.” Yet he believed with equal vehemence that the United States was and should remain “a country for white men.” And so under his reconstruction policy, white state governments in the South had imposed a series of draconian “Black Codes” on the freed slaves, and the planter oligarchy now seemed on the brink of a revival.

That month, Frederick Douglass visited Johnson at the White House. Arriving as an official representative of the National Convention of Colored Men, his plea was for black suffrage. At a time when former rebels were threatening to retake power, the president’s Southern policy made no sense, Douglass argued. “You enfranchise your enemies and disenfranchise your friends.”

Johnson would have none of it, and the heated argument that ensued reveals much about the class and race dynamics of the Second American Revolution, whose 150th anniversary is commemorated in this special issue of Jacobin.

Reasoning from dramatically clashing premises, the self-proclaimed champion of the common man and the radical abolitionist sketched two contrasting paths for African Americans facing the dilemma of politics in a hostile society.

Johnson argued that enfranchising the freedmen would bring nothing but ruin. Once the grip of the planter class was broken, power would at last devolve to the mass of poor whites. But their long and deep resentment of the slaveholders was matched by their hatred of the former chattel. The hatred was mutual, Johnson added, and to prove his point, he forced Douglass to concede that the free black wage-earner, given the choice, would prefer to work for a slave owner than a non-slave-owning white. (“Because he wouldn’t be treated as well,” Douglass interjected.)

“The hate that existed between the two races,” Johnson insisted, made it impossible for both to be “thrown together at the ballot-box.” The result would be a “contest between the races, which if persisted in will result in the extermination of one or the other.” The freedmen would be better advised to seek a better life “elsewhere than crowded right down there in the South.”

Premised on the ineluctability of black-white antagonism, that was the Johnson Option: the only solution was for blacks to make their way alone.

Douglass retorted that as things stood, the former slave could not even physically escape the plantation, let alone emigrate; he was now “absolutely in the hands” of his employer, thanks to the repressive Black Codes that Johnson had done little to stop. For Douglass, that very fact underlined the urgency of suffrage. But in the president’s eyes, it only further proved his point. “If the master now controls him [in] his action,” Johnson asked, “would he not control him in his vote?”

Douglass believed there was an alternative: “Let the negro once understand that he has an organic right to vote, and he will raise up a party in the Southern States among the poor, who will rally with him. There is this conflict that you speak of between the wealthy slaveholder and the poor man.”

Premised on the possibilities of political struggle, here was the Douglass Option: “a party in the Southern States among the poor.” And the revolutionary crisis that burst open a few months later proved those possibilities could be realized. For the growing threat of a neo-Confederate South had polarized the Northern electorate, and as a North Carolina politician warned during the midterm campaigns that fall, “If the Northern people are forced by the South to follow Thad Stevens or the Copperheads, I believe they will prefer the former.” Sure enough, the outcome of that remarkable election was Radical Reconstruction.

“For the seven mystic years that stretched . . . to the Panic of 1873,” wrote W. E. B. Dubois in Black Reconstruction, “the majority of thinking Americans of the North believed in the equal manhood of Negroes. They acted accordingly with a thoroughness and clean-cut decision that no age which does not share that faith can in the slightest comprehend.”

Meanwhile in the South, a vast wave of mass politicization and institution-building swept through black communities. Amid strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, and educational campaigns, millions of blacks mobilized in the Union League, a militant insurgent force for radicalism. Witnessing this remarkable upsurge and dreading the prospect of Confederates in power, poor white Unionists — the very “common men” for whom Andrew Johnson claimed to speak — glimpsed an opportunity.

According to a study of the Alabama Union League, “black suffrage offered [Unionists] a chance for political control, for the Unionists and the freedmen together represented a potential majority of the Alabama electorate. . . . Faced with the opportunity for political victory, most Unionist leaders took the plunge.”

Despite all the deepest traditions of Southern white society, the logical outcome of this revolutionary alliance was a new biracial Republican Party committed to black civil rights.

Of course, it didn’t last. Under the pressures of Ku Klux Klan terror and growing Northern conservatism, white racism made its resurgence and by 1877 Radical Reconstruction was defeated.

But the story didn’t end there.

In popular memory, the end of Reconstruction meant the start of Jim Crow. But in reality, Southern black politics remained vibrant throughout the generation after 1877, and the Douglass Option would be resurrected again and again, from the radical Readjuster movement of the 1870s to the Populist insurgencies of the 1890s. Only in the face of that turn-of-the-century threat from below did the Southern oligarchy finally impose the comprehensive disenfranchisement of African Americans.

Yet the Douglass Option was still not dead. The mass migration of blacks to Northern cities after disenfranchisement — the old Johnson Option, now grasped as a last resort — created the conditions for its stunning revival in the 1930s and ’40s, as the emergence of a black industrial working class opened new possibilities for political struggle. In 1936, urban black voters poured into the Popular Front era Democratic Party. By the 1940s a resurgent NAACP and a burgeoning CIO had formed a conscious partnership, with the civil rights group urging blacks to join strikes and the CIO leadership prodding unions to end discrimination and promote blacks to leadership.

This was no less than what Douglass had foreseen half a century before. “The colored people of the South are the laboring people of the South,” he told a Louisville Colored Men’s Convention in 1883. “It is a great mistake for any class of laborers to isolate itself . . . As the laborer becomes more intelligent he will develop what capital he already possesses — that is the power to organize and combine for its own protection.” In South and North alike, “the labor unions of the country should not throw away this colored element of strength.”

Though constrained inside the Democratic tent, by 1948 this strategic alliance formed the party’s core in big industrial cities like New York and Detroit. The triumph was bittersweet, as a postwar Thermidor would force the deradicalization of both movements. Yet together their power proved decisive, for when Southern blacks launched a new wave of mass mobilization a decade later, a cadre of national politicians was in place who had no choice but to pledge support.

The result was the Second Reconstruction of the 1960s.

The Second Reconstruction, like the first, came to an end with its work left unfinished. The task of our generation is to revive the Douglass Option again, and reconstitute a working-class politics for our own time.