Racism & the Failure of Reconstruction

this-is-a-white-mans-government

 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Some events and attitudes are timeless, one of these is racism. Being white myself, I know that many whites are loath to admit that the scourge of racism still exists, but it does and it runs deep in our history. The more that I work on my Civil War and Gettysburg text, which now appears will morph into at least two and maybe three books when I am done, I find terribly distressing parallels to attitudes and actions of some which mirror the attitudes and actions of our ancestors, Northern and Southern following the Civil War. When the shooting stopped and the South was vanquished, many Southerners continued the war by other means and Northerners, divided after the death of Abraham Lincoln failed to achieve the most important political goal, after the restoration of the Union, that of true freedom for African Americans. Sadly, for some that war is still not over, as was evidenced in the aftermath of the Emanuel A.M.E. Massacre just two weeks ago. Likewise the burnings of six predominantly black churches across the South raises the specter of the racial violence that targeted blacks for a century after the Civil War.

This is another section of my text. I do hope that it challenges you as much as writing it challenged me.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

When the war ended the Confederacy was beaten and most people in the South would have agreed to anything that the North presented regarding peace and return to the Union. In a sense Reconstruction was “what the war was about.” [1] Richard Henry Dana, the declared that “a war is over when its purpose is secured. It is a fatal mistake to hold that this war is over because the fighting has ceased. This war is not over…” [2] As Dana, and Clausewitz understood so well that war is a continuation of policy and politics by other means, and the failure of the North to fully grasp this fact led to over a century of subjugation of emancipated African Americans and has fueled a continual racial divide in the United States that is still felt today. Defeated on the battlefield Southerners soon turned to political, psychological and violent means to reverse their losses.

Frederick Douglass understood that simple emancipation was not enough, and that the “war and its outcome demanded racial equality.” [3] Despite the that efforts of many in the North this would not happen during Reconstruction and Douglass knew that the failure to accomplish this would be disastrous, “Whether the tremendous war so heroically fought…shall pass into history a miserable failure…or whether on the other hand, we shall, as the rightful reward of victory over treason have a solid nation, entirely delivered from all contradictions and social antagonisms, must be determined one way or another.” [4]

There was a problem with implementing Reconstruction; when John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln, the political leaders of the North could not agree on how to do this. The new President, Andrew Johnson was probably the worst possible leader to lead the country in the aftermath of war for all practical purposes Johnson was a Democrat who believed in white supremacy, he had been brought onto the ticket for his efforts to keep Kentucky in the Union and to support Unionist elements in Tennessee. While his selection helped Lincoln in parts of the North and the Border States it was a disaster for the post-war era. Johnson’s approach to reconstruction was very simply to “impose minimal demands on the South. He required only minor concessions from the former Confederates before allowing them to resume their political rights and retain their land. As for freedmen, he seemed to think that the needed no further protection beyond the fact of their emancipation.” [5]

Johnson was “a lonely stubborn man with few confidants, who seemed to develop his policies without consulting anyone, then stuck to them inflexibly in the face of any and all criticism. He lacked Lincoln’s ability to conciliate his foes and his capacity for growth, which was best illustrated by Lincoln’s evolving attitude to black suffrage during the Civil War.” [6] In the months after his unexpected accession to the presidency Johnson demonstrated that he had no understanding of Lincoln’s political goals for the South and the desires of the Republican dominated Congress.

By the summer of 1865 Johnson was already demonstrating “that his sympathies were with the Southern white population and that he believed that their interests should be cared for even at the expense of freedmen.” [7] Johnson’s approach to reconstruction was very simply to “impose minimal demands on the South. He required only minor concessions from the former Confederates before allowing them to resume their political rights and retain their land. As for freedmen, he seemed to think that the needed no further protection beyond the fact of their emancipation.” [8] Johnson gave individual pardons to more than thirteen thousand “high-ranking Confederate civil and military officers and wealthy Southerners.” [9] While doing this he minimized political influence the Southern Unionists who had not supported the Confederacy and ensured that freed slaves were excluded from the political process. He issued a number of orders “appointing interim provisional governors and urging the writing of new state constitutions based upon the voter qualifications in force at the time of secession in 1861 – which meant, in large but invisible letters, no blacks.” [10]

When Frederick Douglass led a delegation of blacks to meet with Johnson in February 1865 Johnson preached that it was impossible to give political freedom to blacks. When Douglass attempted to object Johnson became angry and told Douglass “I do not like to be arraigned by some who can get up handsomely-rounded periods and rhetoric, and talk about abstract ideas of liberty, who never periled life, liberty, or property.” [11] When Douglass took his objections to Johnson’s harangue to a Washington newspaper, Johnson railed against Douglass “I know that d—–d Douglass…he’s just like any other nigger & would sooner cut a white man’s throat than not.” [12]

White Southerners including the newly pardoned Confederates enacted black codes that “codified explicit second-class citizenship for freedpeople.” [13] The legislature of Mississippi refused to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, and did not do so until 1995. One Southerner noted that “Johnson “held up before us the hope of a ‘white man’s government,’ and this led us to set aside negro suffrage…. It was natural that we should yield to our old prejudices.” [14] Former Confederates, including Alexander Stephens the former Vice President of the Confederacy were elected to high office, Stephens to the United States Senate and the aggrieved Republicans in Congress in turn refused to admit the former Confederates. Many Union veterans were incensed by Johnson’s actions, one New York artilleryman noted “I would not pardon the rebels, especially the leaders, until they should kneel in the dust of humiliation and show their deeds that they sincerely repent.” [15] He was not alone, many Northern Veterans who formed the integrated Grand Army of the Republic veterans maintained a patent disregard, if not hatred of what the old South stood for and felt that their efforts in the war had been betrayed by the government.

Johnson’s restoration of property to the former white owners drove tens of thousands of blacks off lands that they had been farming, or left them as laborers for their former slave masters. Johnson countermanded General William Tecumseh Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s Field Order 15 to “divide abandoned and confiscated lands on the Sea Islands and in a portion of the Low Country coast south of Charleston into forty-acre plots for each black family.” [16] As such many freed blacks were now at the mercy of their former white owners for any hope of economic sustenance. Johnson stridently to frustrate the efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau headed by Major General Oliver Howard to help freed blacks to become landowners. Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights bill but Congress overrode his veto. Eventually the battled between Johnson and Congress resulted in Johnson’s impeachment and narrow acquittal by one vote in the Senate in 1868.

The various black codes enacted throughout the South:

“passed labor laws that bound blacks to employers almost as tightly as slavery once bound them to their masters. Other codes established patterns of racial segregation that had been impossible under slavery, barred African Americans from serving on juries or offering testimony in court against whites, made “vagrancy,” “insulting gestures,” and “mischief” offenses by blacks punishable by fines or imprisonment, forbade black-white intermarriage, ad banned ownership by blacks of “fire-arms of any kind, or any ammunition, dirk or bowie-knife.” [17]

Likewise within weeks of the end of the violence against blacks began to break out in different parts of the South and it continued to spread as Johnson and Congress battled each other in regard to Reconstruction policy. “In Memphis, Tennessee, in May of 1866, whites on a rampage of murder killed forty-six Negroes, most of them veterans of the Union army, as well as two white sympathizers. Five Negro women were raped. Ninety homes, twelve schools and four churches were burned. In New Orleans in the summer of 1866, another riot against blacks killed thirty-five Negroes and three whites.” [18]

This alienated him from the Republican majority who passed legislation over Johnson’s veto to give black men the right to vote and hold office, and to overturn the white only elections which had propelled so many ex-Confederates into political power. Over Johnson’s opposition congress took power over Reconstruction and “Constitutional amendments were passed, the laws for racial equality were passed, and the black man began to vote and to hold office.” [19] Congress passed measures in 1867 that mandated that the new constitutions written in the South provide for “universal suffrage and for the temporary political disqualification of many ex-Confederates.” [20]   These measures helped elect bi-racial legislatures in the South which for the first time enacted a series of progressive reforms including the creation of public schools. They also ratified the Thirteenth and the Fourteenth Amendments, but these governments, composed of Southern Unionists, Northern Republicans and newly freed blacks were “elicited scorn from the former Confederates and from the South’s political class in general.” [21] Seen as an alien presence by most Southerners the Republican governments in the South faced political and was as violent opposition.

The Fourteenth Amendment was of particular importance for it overturned the Dred Scott decision which denied citizenship to blacks. Johnson opposed the amendment and worked against its passage by campaigning for men who would oppose it in the 1866 elections. His efforts earned him the opposition of former supporters including the influential New York Herald declared that Johnson “forgets that we have passed through a fiery ordeal of a mighty revolution, and the pre-existing order of things is gone and can return no more.” [22]

When passed by Congress the amendment was a watershed which would set Constitutional precedent for future laws to give women the right to votes, end Jim Crow laws, enact the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and most recently to give homosexuals the right to marry. Section one of the amendment read:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” [23]

But these measures provoked even more violence from enraged Southerners who formed a variety of violent racist organizations which turned the violence from sporadic attacks to what amounted to a full-fledged insurgency against the new state governments and African Americans. Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan which engaged in terroristic violence to heavily armed “social clubs” which operated under the aegis of the state Democratic Party leadership in most Southern states. Allegedly organized for self-defense against state militia units composed of freed blacks they named themselves “White Leagues (Louisiana), White Liners or Rifle Clubs (Mississippi), or Red Shirts (South Carolina). They were, in fact, paramilitary organizations that functioned as armed auxiliaries of the Democratic Party in southern states in their drive to “redeem” the South from “black and tan Negro-Carpetbag rule.” [24] These men, mostly Confederate veterans “rode roughshod over the South, terrorizing newly freed slaves, their carpetbagger allies, and anyone who dared to imagine a biracial democracy as the war’s change.” [25] This unrequited violence and hatred set the stage for the continued persecution, murder and violence against blacks and those who supported their efforts to achieve equality in the South for the next century.

Throughout his term in office Johnson appealed to arguments used throughout later American history by “critics of civil rights legislation and affirmative action. He appealed to fiscal conservatism, raised the specter of an immense federal bureaucracy trampling on citizens’ rights, and insisted that self-help, not government handouts, was the path to individual advancement.” [26] While many of his Republican opponents supported these measures, many moderate Republicans could not abandon their support of or and ties to big corporations, and

Ulysses S. Grant succeeded Johnson as President in 1869 but his efforts at Reconstruction were met mostly by failure as well as a weariness on the part of many Northerners to continue to invest any more effort into it. Slowly even proponents of Reconstruction began to retreat from it and Southerners, knowing that they were winning the political battle continued their pressure. Both politically and through the use of terror to demoralize and drive from power anyone who supported it. By 1870 every former Confederate state had been readmitted to the Union, in a sense fulfilling a part Lincoln’s war policy, but at the same time denying what the war was waged for.

Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, one of the most effective leaders of the Radical Republicans died in 1868 in despair that the rights of blacks were being rolled back even as legislation was passed supporting them. The old firebrand asked “to be buried in a segregated cemetery for African American paupers so that “I might illustrate in death the principles which I advocated through a long life, Equality of man before his creator.” [27] Others including Senator Ben Wade, were not returned to office while others including Edwin Stanton, Salmon Chase and Charles Summer all died during Grant’s administration.

While Grant attempted to smash the Ku Klux Klan by military means his administration, heavily made up of economic conservative Republicans who had little interest in the rights of African Americans gave little other support to those fighting for equal rights for blacks. In the end Southern intransigence wore out the political will of Northerners to carry on, even the strongest supporters of equality.

By “1870 Radical Republicanism as a coherent political movement was rapitdl6y disintegrating” [28] and during the early 1870s many of the antislavery activists had left the Republican party either to death or defection, many “no longer felt at home in a party that catered to big business and lacked the resolve to protect black rights.” [29]

In 1872, some former radical Republicans revolted against Grant and the corruption in the Republican Party. Calling themselves “Liberal Republicans” they supported the candidacy of Horace Greeley uniting with Democrats to call for an end to Reconstruction. For many this was not so much because they no longer supported the rights of African Americans, but because for them, like so many, “economic concerns now trumped race relations…. Henry Adams, who shared the views of his father, Charles Francis Adams, remarked that “the day is at hand when corporations far greater than [the] Erie [Railroad]…will ultimately succeed in directing the government itself.” [30] The numbers of Federal troops in the South continued to be reduced to the point where they could offer little or no support to state militia.

Violence now became a means to further politics in the South and carried out in broad daylight and “intended to demoralize black voters and fatally undermine the Republican Party…. They paraded at regular intervals through African American sections of small towns in the rural black majority areas, intimidating the residents and inciting racial confrontations.” [31] These armed bands were highly successful, if they were successful in provoking a racial incident they would then fan out throughout the area to find blacks in order to beat up and kill, hundreds of blacks were killed by them. During the elections of 1876 the White Liners, Red Shirts and others would be seen in threatening positions near Republican rallies and on Election Day swarmed the polls to keep blacks and Republicans out, even seizing ballot boxes. The strategy employed was to use “Lawless and utterly undemocratic means…to secure the desired outcome, which was to win a lawful, democratic election.” [32]

The elected governor of Mississippi, Republican General Adelbert Ames, who was one of the most able and honest of all the Northerners to hold elected office in the South wrote in 1875 about the power of the paramilitary groups, “The “white liners” have gained their point – they have, by killing and wounding, so intimidated the poor Negroes that they can in all human probability prevail over them at the election. I shall try at once to get troops form the general government. Of course it will be a difficult thing to do.” [33] Ames did not get his troops. Grant’s Attorney general wrote “The whole public are tired out with these autumnal outbreaks in the South…and the great majority are now ready to condemn any interference on the part of the government….Preserve the peace by the forces in your own state….” [34] Ames, who had been a strong proponent of emancipation and black suffrage understood that he was being abandoned and in order to prevent more bloodshed gave up the fight. He negotiated a deal with Democrats which resulted in blacks being forced form the polls and the Democrats returning to power in the state.

The White League in Louisiana was particularly brutal and on Easter Sunday massacred blacks in Colfax Louisiana killing at least seventy-one and possibly as many as three-hundred blacks, killing many as they tried to surrender. Another White League detachment southwest of Shreveport “forced six white Republicans to resign their office on pain of death – and then brutally murdered them after they had resigned.” [35]

Reconstruction was officially ended in 1877 by newly elected President Rutherford B. Hayes and all Federal troops assigned to enforce it were withdrawn. Despite this, some people in the South attempted to fight for the rights of African Americans, including men like former Confederate Generals James Longstreet, William Mahone and Wade Hampton. Hampton was elected as the first post-Reconstruction governor of South Carolina in and campaigned against the black codes, and during his term in office even appointed African Americans to political offices in the state and maintained a regiment of African American state militia in Charleston against strident opposition.

While Hampton remained a white supremacist he also was committed to the upholding the law and “promoting the political rights to which freedmen were entitled to under law, and he consistently strove to protect those rights.” [36] This made him anathema to many South Carolina politicians, including Benjamine Tillman who as governor during the 1890s dismantled policies that Hampton had introduced to allow blacks to political patronage appointments. Once he did that Tillman set out to deprive South Carolina’s blacks of almost ever basic civil right, and in 1895 he led “a successful effort to rewrite the South Carolina constitution in such a way as to virtually disenfranchise every black resident of the state.” [37] Longstreet, who had become a Republican was wounded while leading Louisiana militia in an unsuccessful fight against White Leaguers in New Orleans on September 14th 1873.

The legislation which helped provide blacks with some measure of freedom was rolled back after Reconstruction ended. In 1883 “the Civil Rights Act of 1875, outlawing discrimination against Negroes using public facilities, was nullified by the Supreme Court, which said: “individual invasion of individual rights is not the subject-matter of the amendment.” The Fourteenth Amendment, it said, was aimed at state action only. No state shall…” [38]

The actions of the court and alliances between Northern corporations and Southern landowners led to even more discrimination and disenfranchisement for blacks, “From the 1880s onward, the post-Reconstruction white governments grew unwilling to rely just on intimidation at the ballot box and themselves in power, and turned instead to systematic legal disenfranchisement” [39] which furthered the black codes into what we now call the era of Jim Crow.

In 1896 the black codes were upheld by the Supreme Court in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. That ruling established the “separate but equal” doctrine and ushered in an era of de jure segregation in almost all arenas of life including education, transportation, entertainment and health care. The limited social equity and privileges enjoyed by blacks, not only in the South, but in the entire nation were erased by the stroke of the judicial pen. The justices ruled on the concept that only people’s political rights were protected by the Constitution and that in the social arena that African-Americans could not interact with whites and assumed their racial inferiority.

Associate Justice John Harlan, a former slaveholder who had dissented in Court’s decision to overturn the Civil Rights Act of 1875 insisted “our Constitution is color blind” [40] and wrote in dissent:

“The destinies of two races, in this country are indissolubly linked together, and the interests of both require that the common government of all should not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law. What can more certainly arouse race hate, what more certainly create and perpetuate a feeling of distrust between these races, than state enactments, which, in fact, proceed on the ground that colored citizens are so inferior and degraded that they cannot be allowed to sit in public coaches occupied by white citizens? That, as all will admit, is the real meaning of such legislation as was enacted in Louisiana.” [41]

These court decisions and legislation strengthened racism and discrimination against blacks, “effectively excluding blacks from public places, from the right to votes, from good public education, and so forth.” [42] The Plessy ruling was followed by “state laws mandating racial segregation in every aspect of life, from schools to hospitals, waiting rooms to toilets, drinking fountains to cemeteries…segregation was part of a complex system of white domination, in which each component – disenfranchisement, unequal economic status, inferior education – reinforced the others.” [43] Violence was used with great effect and between 1880 and 1968 approximately 3,500 people were murdered or lynched throughout the South. The “separate but equal” measures of the Jim Crow era took nearly a century to reverse, and “only began to disappear with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965.” [44]

The example of Reconstruction’s failure shows that in order to secure peace that military victory must be accompanied by the political will to ensure that the avowed goals of that victory are secured after the war in ensuring a just peace. Southerners may have lost the shooting war, but they did not accept the peace and resorted to all means to reverse their military defeat through political, social, economic and judicial means and “justice was sacrificed for the unjust peace ushered in by “redemption” of the South, a peace marred by Jim Crow, poverty and lynching.” [45] Most Northern leaders failed to appreciate this until far too late, and hindered by President Johnson’s opposition failed to win the peace in the South. They failed to appreciate that even after the shooting is often that “there is a need for further threats, and indeed action, because postwar disorder and even chaos will have to be address, and victorious allies are always likely to squabble over the spoils of victory” [46] as certain was the case in the divided Republican Party of the Reconstruction era.

 

Notes

[1] Perman, Michael and Murrell Taylor, Amy editors The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition Wadsworth Cengage Learning Boston MA 2011 p.323

[2] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 175

[3] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.407

[4] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.407

[5] Ibid. Perman and Taylor The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition p.323

[6] Foner, Eric Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2005 p.108

[7] Carpenter, John A. Sword and Olive Branch: Oliver Otis Howard Fordham University Press, New York 1999 p.109

 

[8] Ibid. Perman and Taylor The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition p.323

[9] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 177

[10] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.490

[11] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.494

[12] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.494

[13] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 177

[14] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.491

[15] Jordan, Brian Matthew. Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War Liveright Publishing Corporation a Division of W.W. Norton and Company Inc. New York and London 2014 p.119

[16] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.411

[17] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.491

[18] Ibid. Zinn The Other Civil War p.55

[19] Ibid. Zinn The Other Civil War p.54

[20] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 178

[21] Perman, Michael Illegitimacy and Insurgency in the Reconstructed South in The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition edited by Michael Perman and Amy Murrell Taylor Wadsworth Cengage Learning Boston MA 2011 p.451

[22] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.121

[23] _____________ The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution retrieved from https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxiv 29 June 2015

[24] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 178

[25] Ibid. Jordan Marching Home p.118

[26] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.116

[27] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.504

[28] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.170

[29] Ibid. Egnal Clash of Extremes p.337

[30] Ibid. Egnal Clash of Extremes p.337

[31] Ibid. Perman Illegitimacy and Insurgency in the Reconstructed South pp.459-460

[32] Ibid. Perman Illegitimacy and Insurgency in the Reconstructed South p.461

[33] Ames, Adelbert Governor Adelbert Ames deplores Violence in Mississippi, September 1875 in The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition edited by Michael Perman and Amy Murrell Taylor Wadsworth Cengage Learning Boston MA 2011 p.434

[34] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 190

[35] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 185

[36] Longacre, Edward G. Gentleman and Soldier: The Extraordinary Life of General Wade Hampton Rutledge Hill Press, Nashville TN 2003 p.265

[37] Ibid. Longacre Gentleman and Soldier p.274

[38] Ibid. Zinn The Other Civil War p.57

[39] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.526

[40] Ibid. Zinn The Other Civil War p.58

[41] LaMorte, Michael W. School Law: Cases and Concepts 9th Edition 2008 Allyn and Bacon Inc. 2008 p.300

[42] Gonzalez, Justo L. The History of Christianity Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day Harper and Row Publishers San Francisco 1985 p.252

[43] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.208

[44] Ibid. Huntington Who are We? p.54

[45] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 191

[46] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.14

 

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2 Comments

Filed under civil rights, civil war, History, laws and legislation, News and current events, Political Commentary

2 responses to “Racism & the Failure of Reconstruction

  1. Eileen Sisto

    My friend Walter Edwards has been helping me try to make sense of what in Gods’ name is going on with existing Racism. I am a 67 yr. old caucasion that grew up in Brooklyn NY…never subjected to Segregation in my Lifetime. That is until traveling East Coast of USA going South in the 1960’s. That was an eye opener then & it still is for me as I do not see color. No my vision is perfect however I did not & do not recognize this Black and White Supremacy issue. My dear friends are both white & black, as well as inter-racial, we are equals in all aspects of our lives, as far as I am concerned. Having read this history & knowing that Racism is still very bad in our country is sickening to me. I don’t have answers to remedy this problem, other to say…..to white supremicists….God help you when you become the minority in this big-picture. You will learn how it feels when tables are turned……Bigots.

    • padresteve

      Eileen

      I can relate to your words. I grew up on the west coast and like you I have friends of many races and never saw color. I was shocked to see it later in life.

      Thanks for your comment and many blessings!

      Steve+

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