Today is run-off election day. As usual the airwaves are clogged with political advertisements. Many of these ads are very negative, characterized by personal attacks and insults. We have gotten used to a level of anti-civility in our political discourse that seems to be getting worse every year. However, things have really gotten a lot better than they used to be. We forget that some past elections were marked by outright violence, not just personal attacks and insults.
In the early part of the 19th century there were a lot of Irish and German Catholic immigrants coming into this country. The uncertainty of how this influx would affect the country made a lot of native born citizens very nervous. Out of that discomfort sprang what was called the “American Party,” also known as the “Know Nothing Party.” This political party was nativist and anti-catholic. They apparently believed that one way to preserve the rights of white American born people was to commit acts of violence against the immigrants. However, it was not a fringe party. By 1854 the “No Nothings” had elected 52 members of congress. In the elections of 1855, in what came to be called “Bloody Monday,” 22 people were killed in an Election Day riot in Louisville, Kentucky.
After the Civil War there was a great deal of conflict between African American former slaves and the white citizens of the South. Ironically, the Republican Party was the party of the African Americans and the Democratic Party was the party of the whites. In the “Colfax” massacre of 1873 African American Republicans occupied the Grant Parish, Louisiana courthouse in an effort to preserve the results of the 1872, governor’s race, in which a Republican had been elected. About a hundred men, almost all black, were killed.
The next year, 1874, a lot closer to home, occurred what is now known as the election riots of 1874. These riots occurred in the neighboring towns of Eufaula, Spring Hill and Clayton. Again, the conflict was between the Republicans and the Democrats, fueled of course by racial tension. Eight people were killed and many more were wounded. The ballot box from the Spring Hill precinct, a predominantly black box, was seized and burned. Federal troops had to be called out.
Yes, partisanship and negativity are unpleasant in the political arena. All of us can agree about that. But hopefully we won’t go back to killing each other like some of our ancestors did. Have a wonderful and safe election day. I hope by the time you read this you will have exercised your right as a citizen to vote. Don’t forget that people died so we could have that right.
Lynn Jinks is an attorney with Jinks, Crow & Dickson, P.C.