Editor’s Note: Jemar Tisby, a professor of history at Simmons College of Kentucky, is the author of the books “The Color of Compromise” and “How to Fight Racism.” He writes frequently at JemarTisby.Substack.com. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
I teach African American history at Simmons College of Kentucky, a historically Black college (HBCU) in Louisville. This week, we’ve been studying the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of the Jim Crow period of US history.
In the late 19th century, White, Southern Democrats (then the party of White supremacy and segregation) dubbed themselves the “Redeemers,” a group whose goal was to “save” the South from Northern carpetbaggers and newly freed Black people.
The so-called Redeemers took over state legislatures with the primary goals of disenfranchising Black voters, barring Black people from holding political office, and establishing a politics that would render the White power structure impervious to disruption.
When Republicans in the Tennessee House of Representatives voted this week to expel two Black members — Justin Jones and Justin Pearson — they revealed their resemblance to the anti-democratic, authoritarian Redeemers of more than a century ago.
In 1868, White legislators in Georgia voted to expel the 33 Black men elected to state government.
Henry McNeal Turner, a well-known leader in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination, was one of the men expelled from his position by the Georgia politicians.
In remarks during the proceedings, he stated, “[White legislators] question my right to a seat in this body, to represent the people whose legal votes elected me. This objection, sir, is an unheard of monopoly of power. No analogy can be found for it, except it be the case of a man who should go into my house, take possession of my wife and children and then tell me to walk out.”
Even though the Black lawmakers were soon reinstated, the actions of the White lawmakers in Georgia were just a foretaste of the political machinations to come.
In 1890, the state of Mississippi called for a new convention to rewrite the state’s constitution. It had already adopted a new and relatively progressive constitution after the Civil War, but with the onset of Redemption, White lawmakers took control of the state government and began dismantling the rights Black people had only recently gained.
In the newer version of the constitution that was later ratified, White Mississippi lawmakers installed measures to prevent Black people from voting. But because of the Reconstruction amendments to the US Constitution that guaranteed equal protection under the law and the right of Black men to vote, White Redeemers had to find new ways to repress Black people without making laws explicitly about race.
So they used policies such as the poll tax, which most Black people could not afford to pay. They instituted the “understanding clause” — a selectively applied measure where potential voters had to interpret a passage from the state constitution to the satisfaction of a White registrar.
The “grandfather clause” stipulated that a person’s grandfather had to be eligible to vote in order for their descendants to exercise the franchise. Of course, this excluded most Black people whose grandparents had been enslaved and thus, ineligible to vote.
By the early 1900s, nearly all the former Confederate states had followed Mississippi’s example.
In class, my students listened with stunned incredulity as they learned about the cruel and ruthless politics of the Redeemers. Unfortunately, the historical parallels to present-day events are too obvious to ignore.
The actions of Republicans in the Tennessee legislature resemble the attempts of White Southern Redeemers to take back the South at the end of the 19th century.
These new Redeemers are using their power as a tool of intimidation. What other conclusion can be drawn from the inappropriate and disproportionate response to a decorum infraction?
Expulsion is the most severe consequence the legislature can enact against another member of that body. Since the Civil War, only three other members of the Tennessee state legislature have been expelled — and for much more serious offenses.
The new Redeemers are not confined to one state, either.
Attempts to strip local officials in the city of Jackson — where more than 80% of the population is Black — of their authority to monitor the city’s water system, police force and courts are underway in Mississippi.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the “Stop WOKE Act” into law, which was intended to prevent teachings or mandatory workplace activities that suggest a person is privileged or oppressed based necessarily on their race, color, Sex or national origin. “In Florida, we will not let the far-left woke agenda take over our schools and workplaces. There is no place for indoctrination or discrimination in Florida,” DeSantis said.
And, of course, the attempted insurrection on January 6, 2021 by supporters of former President Donald Trump was the most egregious example of how far right-wing factions are willing to go to subvert the political process.
The era of Redemption cemented decades of Jim Crow segregation. More than 4,000 “racial terror” lynchings occurred throughout that period, the Equal Justice Initiative has documented.
Substantial change only came with the onset of the Civil Rights movement. Years of nonviolent direct action protest, constant lobbying in state and political governments and the martyrdom of many activists including Martin Luther King, Jr., finally interrupted traditions of segregation and White supremacy.
It could be that a similar movement is necessary to disempower the Redeemers of today.
When all the standard means of change — namely the democratic process itself — have been co-opted and subverted by authoritarians, then the people are only left with protest.
If the goal of the Tennessee GOP was to intimidate people into acquiescence with their expulsion of Pearson and Jones, their tactic backfired in a spectacular way.
Far from instilling fear, their expulsions and their stirring words in response have raised them to national prominence.
Instead of dissuading Tennesseans from their calls for gun control, Republican legislators seem to have energized the people and motivated them to resist even more vigorously.
With the rise of social media and other digital forms of information sharing, movements can be mobilized in moments.
Although there were constant attempts throughout the years, it took decades for people to mount the resistance necessary to topple Jim Crow. In today’s environment, action might occur more swiftly.
Those words, redemption and redeemer, are significant.
This is Holy Week in the Christian religion. Events such as Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday culminate in the observance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. These liturgies commemorate the redemption — Jesus paying the price for humanity’s sin.
In many Christian traditions, redemption is a sacred theological principle that undergirds the hope of salvation. It is likely that many of the Tennessee Republican lawmakers will attend church this Sunday to celebrate the redemption that Easter heralds.
Easter provides the perfect opportunity for these lawmakers to ponder the true meaning of redemption and which redeemer they are following.