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The Failure of Reconstruction and the
Triumph of White Supremacy
EMANCIPATION AND RECONSTRUCTION
In 1865, the population of the United States included 34 million whites and 5 million blacks. Nine-tenths of the black population resided in the South, concentrated in an enormous band of fertile soil that stretched from southern Virginia to eastern Texas. Here, in the "Black Belt," the bulk of the South's four million slaves toiled as the private property of white people, creating wealth for their owners by producing sugar, rice, tobacco, and, most often, cotton. Although whites made up two-thirds of the South's population, blacks were more numerous in the Black Belt, and three states—Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina—contained clear black majorities.
The defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War, and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, ended slavery. Slaves became "freedmen." They could have their marriages recognized in law, form independent families, worship as they saw fit, acquire and hold property, enjoy freedom of movement, and generally live their daily lives free from close white supervision. In one of their first statements of freedom, many blacks left their plantations to seek out friends and family members elsewhere. About a quarter of a million black Southerners had already enjoyed freedom before the Civil War; they had been manumitted by their masters or allowed to purchase their liberty. Although voteless, and subject to all manner of discrimination, these free Negroes had often formed stable families and acquired literacy, skills, and property. After emancipation they formed the backbone of black leadership.
Although the first days of liberation were exhilarating and disorienting, the former slaves were quick to understand that freedom would be empty without land, legal rights, education, and the vote. Meeting in conventions across the South, a black leadership emerged to press the case for full equality. Petitioning the president, Congress, and the white people of the South, these meetings expressed a common sentiment. That of the South Carolina freedmen's convention was typical:
We simply ask that we be recognized as men; that there be no obstructions placed in our way; that the same laws which govern white men shall govern black men; that we have the right of trial by jury of our peers; that schools be established for the education of colored children as well as white; ... that no impediments be put in the way of our acquiring homesteads for ourselves and our people; that, in short, we are dealt with as others are—in equity and justice.
The freedmen also asserted their freedom through actions. Expecting the government to provide each family with "forty acres and a mule," they resisted signing labor contracts with their former masters, scornfully rejecting the idea that they should work in gangs, under white supervision, in a system all too reminiscent of slavery. When compelled by necessity to sell their labor to whites, the freedmen shortened their working day, limited their working week, and often insisted that their wives cease laboring in the fields. Across the South, blacks started leaving the white churches and founding their own. From the North, but mostly from the ranks of the ex-slaves, black preachers appeared.
Whites in the North disagreed about what the status of the freedmen ought to be. The Democratic Party had opposed abolition and frankly regarded blacks as racially inferior. The Republican Party had been formed to stop the spread of slavery, and had been forced, under pressure of war, to abolish the institution entirely. But only a minority of Republicans, the "Radicals" led by Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Senator Charles Sumner, believed that racial equality should be a national commitment. President Lincoln had proposed that the vote be given to educated and literate blacks, as well as to those who had fought in the Union forces. But he had stopped short of compelling individual states to adopt this suggestion. Although most Republicans probably wished to go further than Lincoln on the matter of black suffrage—and to go further in punishing ex-Confederates—they certainly did not envisage enfranchising the freedmen in one fell swoop.
After Lincoln's assassination, however, a peculiar combination of circumstances persuaded the Republican Party to embark upon a program of equal citizenship for the freedmen. For one thing, they were alarmed by the policies of President Andrew Johnson, a former slaveholder from Tennessee, who by a quirk of political fate succeeded Lincoln. Johnson restored self-government to the South with indecent haste, and the North was offended by the election of former Confederate leaders to Congress when the guns of war had barely had time to cool. Furthermore, Johnson was an unabashed racist whose growing sympathy for the Southern whites induced him to break with the Republican Party. Many Northern whites were also appalled by the harsh treatment meted out to the freedmen, especially by the discriminatory laws, passed by Southern state legislatures, known as the Black Codes. Whites accepted the abolition of slavery as the war's decisive verdict, but they resisted the notion that freedmen should enjoy equality of citizenship and live independent of white control. The Black Codes therefore placed freedmen under strict white supervision. They prevented blacks from testifying in court against whites. They limited the areas, especially in towns, in which blacks could buy or rent property, and they required blacks to pay license fees in order to set up businesses. Harsh vagrancy laws tried to compel blacks to work for white employers. "Numerous fines were imposed for seditious speeches, insulting gestures or acts, absence from work, and the possession of firearms," writes historian John Hope Franklin. "There was, of course, no enfranchisement of blacks." The Black Codes expressed the determination of Southern whites to define the freedmen as rural laborers with inferior rights.
The Black Codes convinced the mass of Republicans that the freedmen required some form of federal protection. Bloody race riots that took place in Memphis and New Orleans in 1866, leaving dozens of blacks dead, reinforced that conviction. Equally disturbing were well-attested-to reports of Unionists, including former soldiers now settled in the South, being insulted, harassed, and physically attacked. The Republican Party decided that control of the Reconstruction process had to be wrested from President Johnson, who, they alleged, was conspiring with the ex-Confederates to undermine the Union's victory.
The Republican Party won a decisive victory in the congressional elections of 1866, capturing a two-thirds majority in both House and Senate. When the new Congress convened the following year, the Republicans returned the South to military occupation and began Reconstruction anew. In 1868 they impeached President Johnson and, though they failed to convict him, broke the president's power.
The Republican program of Reconstruction, called "Radical Reconstruction," was a bold experiment in democracy. The Fourteenth Amendment (1867) struck down the Black Codes by making full citizens of the freedmen and entitling all citizens to "equal protection of the law." The Fifteenth Amendment (1870) forbade the denial of the vote to any adult male on the basis of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. In the South, the army compiled a new list of voters, enrolling black men but excluding many former Confederates. The new electorate ratified state constitutions that provided for universal manhood suffrage. Blacks not only voted now, but also held office: they served as sheriffs, judges, city councilmen, county commissioners, legislators, congressmen, and senators. Meanwhile, the Freedmen's Bureau, with the assistance of Northern churches and the aid of blacks themselves, created a rudimentary system of public and private schools for blacks. With education, the ballot, and equality under the law, the freedmen would flourish in a South that had been modernized, democratized, civilized, and completely reintegrated into the Union. So the Republican Party hoped and believed.
Unfortunately for blacks in the South, Radical Reconstruction was grievously flawed. The Republican Party failed to give black families the one thing they most needed in order to prosper in freedom: land. The "forty acres and a mule" that blacks had been led to expect did not materialize—the government even returned to white planters the land it had confiscated, evicting thousands of black families in the process. Though a surprising number of blacks did manage to acquire land—by 1910 about a quarter of the South's black farmers were landowners—most, lacking both land and capital, worked as sharecroppers. They grew cotton for a white landlord in return for a third or a half of the harvest, but rarely made enough money to climb out of debt.
The federal government failed the freedmen in another crucial respect: it declined to ensure their education. The war-crippled, poverty-stricken South was incapable of funding an adequate system of public schools. But Congress closed down the Freedmen's Bureau in 1870, and the federal government withdrew all support for public education, except for small subsidies to "land-grant colleges." Periodic proposals that the federal government should help to fund public schools came to nothing. By leaving public schools under state and local control, the federal government condemned them to underfunding and inequality. Black schools, especially, suffered. In 1890, about half of white school-age children in the South were enrolled in school, compared to 31 percent of black school-age children. The literacy gap was even wider: only 15 percent of whites were unable to write, in contrast to 65 percent of blacks. This abdication of responsibility by the federal government was to bedevil public education, and race relations, for a hundred years.
The worst failure of Reconstruction, however, was the government's inability, and unwillingness, to enforce its own policy of racial equality. Radical Reconstruction may have been radical in conception, but it was weak in execution. By enfranchising blacks and disfranchising many former Confederates, it alienated most white Southerners immediately. Yet instead of using its power to ensure the loyalty and good behavior of the ex-Confederates, the Republican Party quickly readmitted the Southern states into the Union, pardoned most of the disqualified whites, and withdrew all but a skeleton military force from the South.
Even before Radical Reconstruction got under way, many white Southerners attempted to overawe the freedmen by subjecting them to intimidation and violence. With the return of military rule in 1867, the enfranchisement of black men, and the subsequent election of Republican state governments, the level of violence escalated sharply. Most Southern whites rallied to the Democratic Party and fought tooth-and-nail to reestablish white supremacy. Those who supported the Republicans were castigated as "scalawags," threatened, and sometimes murdered. Northern-born Republicans, many of them former Union soldiers, were abused as "carpetbaggers" and received similar treatment.
In states where whites made up a clear majority of voters, the Democratic Party quickly regained power through the ballot box. Where black voters predominated, however, politics became very bloody indeed. White Democrats, sometimes operating through the Ku Klux Klan—a secret society founded in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1866—threatened and occasionally assassinated white Republicans. Blacks, however, bore the brunt of the violence: countless individuals were beaten or killed; hundreds were slain in riots and massacres. The campaign of terror destabilized and eventually toppled the Republican-controlled state governments. In 1877 the Republican strongholds of South Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi collapsed. Radical Reconstruction came to an end.
The Republican Party opposed the wave of terror by deploying troops, forming state militias, suspending the writ of habeas corpus, and prosecuting hundreds of alleged Klansmen under new federal laws. But although the government succeeded in breaking up the Klan, other groups quickly replaced it. The white campaign of violence was too widespread to be contained by 6,000 federal troops, too well-supported to be quashed by a few hard-to-obtain convictions. The use of coercion, moreover, became increasingly unpopular among Northern voters. The national leaders of the Republican Party eventually admitted defeat. Unwilling to police the vast expanses of the South, the government wearied of a policy that had become a political albatross. The violence that accompanied elections in the former Confederacy no longer aroused public opinion; as President U. S. Grant put it, "The whole public are tired out with these annual autumnal outbreaks in the South." Shrewdly calculating that it could still capture the White House with Northern votes alone, the Republican Party allowed the Democrats to "redeem" the South.
After regaining state power, the Democratic party tolerated black voting, and even made some effort to cultivate black support. But the Democrats were unwilling to share political power with blacks. They never became reconciled to blacks holding office, and looked forward to the day when they could suppress the black vote entirely. Fearing federal intervention, the Democrats acted stealthily at first, relying on devious means to whittle away black political power. They gerrymandered electoral districts, abolished elective posts, and devised complicated procedures for registering to vote. The replacement of open voting by the secret ballot made voting more difficult for illiterates, who had an even harder time in South Carolina, where the "Eight Box Law" of 1882 required a separate ballot box for each contested post. According to historian C. Vann Woodward, outright fraud was common. "The stuffing of ballot boxes, the use of boxes with false bottoms, the doctoring of returns, the manipulation of counts, the repeating of votes, and the tampering of registration books were all highly developed arts."
Many white Southerners, however, particularly the wealthy elite that dominated the Democratic Party, were unhappy with any degree of black political participation. For one thing, despite all the obstacles placed in front of them, blacks continued to vote in large numbers, and in several states the Republican Party remained a formidable opposition. The black vote posed a particular threat when disaffected whites abandoned the Democratic Party to form an independent third party. In that situation, a combination of black Republicans and white independents could form a winning majority, ousting the Democrats from state power.
In 1890, Mississippi—the state with the largest proportion of blacks—adopted a new constitution that required electors to "be able to read any section of the Constitution of this State; or he shall be able to understand the same when read to him, or give a reasonable interpretation thereof." In the space of two years the number of black voters declined from about 190,000 to 8,000. Although the white electorate also diminished, the net effect of disfranchisement was to banish blacks from the political process. Democrats elsewhere watched to see if the federal government would challenge Mississippi's new constitution. It did not, and the government's inaction encouraged other states to imitate Mississippi's example.
THE WILMINGTON RIOT AND THE DESTRUCTION
OF DEMOCRACY IN THE SOUTH
The formation of the People's Party, or Populists, in 1892 offered a brief hope that biracial democracy might be revived and strengthened. The Populists made earnest appeals for black support, writes Woodward: They "denounced lynch law and the convict lease and called for defense of the Negro's political rights." Above all, the Populists—white farmers who felt betrayed by the conservative policies of the Democratic Party—argued that blacks and whites shared the same economic problems and ought to act together. "The accident of color can make no difference in the interest of farmers, croppers, and laborers," stated Tom Watson, leader of the Populists in Georgia. "You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings." In several states, the Populists made informal arrangements with the Republican Party to form a common front against the Democrats, a policy known as "Fusion."
In North Carolina, where the Populists and Republicans negotiated a fully fledged electoral pact, the so-called "Fusion" ticket triumphed, sweeping the Democrats from power in 1894. The Populist-Republican coalition then changed the state election laws to simplify the act of voting and to ensure that all ballots were counted fairly. This had especial importance for blacks, the voters who were most often cheated by Democratic officials. Thanks to "Fusion," and thanks to fairer elections, more blacks were elected to office in North Carolina than in any other Southern state—one thousand people in all. According to historian Eric Anderson, "North Carolina was the only southern state to tolerate so great a degree of black participation." Unlike Radical Reconstruction, moreover, "Fusion" was not imposed by Yankee bayonets; it was a homegrown experiment in biracial democracy. "[T]he racial political cooperation achieved constituted a daring experiment," judged historian Oliver Orr. "It was ... the only major such experiment of indigenous origin ever attempted in the South."
It is tempting to believe that the Populist-Republican alliance that governed North Carolina between 1894 and 1898 might have provided a model for the rest of the South. As C. Vann Woodward argued, even after the demise of Reconstruction there were alternatives to the sterile, violent, and undemocratic politics of "white supremacy" as practiced by the Democratic Party. Some variant of Fusion might, perhaps, have worked in virtually every Southern state. If North Carolina's example had spread and taken hold, Fusion could have stemmed the rising tide of lynching, slowed down (perhaps halted) the accelerating onrush of racial segregation laws, improved public education, and narrowed the disparity between black schools and white schools. Fusion might have prevented the South's descent into oligarchy and one-party rule by upholding black voting rights and fostering multiparty competition. Fusion might have made the South a fairer, less violent, more democratic, and more prosperous place.
But Fusion was never given a fair test. The Democrats countered the emerging black-poor white alliance by unfurling the banner of white supremacy, warning that a "great horde of ignorant blacks" would dominate government in the event of a Fusion victory. However, aware that many white voters would resist such threadbare propaganda, the Democrats were also prepared to subvert the electoral process in order to deny their opponents victory. "It is the religious duty of Democrats to rob Populists and Republicans of their votes whenever and wherever the opportunity presents itself," averred one Louisiana newspaper. "The Populists and Republicans are our legitimate political prey. Rob them! You bet!" In Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia the Democrats resorted to intimidation, violence, and electoral fraud to prevent the Populists from gaining power. By 1896 the People's Party had shot its bolt and, outside North Carolina, quickly faded.
Excerpted from BETTER DAY COMING by Adam Fairclough. Copyright © 2001 by Adam Fairclough. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|1||The Failure of Reconstruction and the Triumph of White Supremacy||1|
|2||Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching||23|
|3||Booker T. Washington and the Strategy of Accommodation||41|
|4||The Rise of the NAACP||67|
|5||The Great War and Racial Equality||87|
|6||Marcus Garvey and the UNIA||111|
|7||The Radical Thirties||133|
|8||Blacks in the Segregated South, 1919-42||161|
|9||The NAACP's Challenge to White Supremacy, 1935-45||181|
|10||Two Steps Forward and One Step Back, 1946-55||203|
|11||The Nonviolent Rebellion, 1955-60||227|
|12||The Civil Rights Movement, 1960-63||249|
|13||Birmingham, the Freedom Summer, and Selma||273|
|14||The Rise and Fall of Black Power||295|
|15||The Continuing Struggle||323|
Posted June 28, 2012