The Klan, the Courts & White Rule: The End of Freedom

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today I am completing, for now anyway, my series on what happened after the Civil War which is taken from my Gettysburg Staff Ride and Civil War text. Of course this included the passage of three incredibly revolutionary Constitutional amendments, an attempt to equalize the playing field for African Americans and a conservative backlash against these attempts. It was a time when the freedom for all was trumped by racism, social Darwinism as well as ruthless and corrupt capitalism which caused some of the greatest economic depressions in United States history.

This article deals with that time and why it matters today. Sadly, this period is again being deliberately written out of our history books by conservative pseudo-historians as well as state boards of education, like that of Texas which has written this out of our history. That my friends will be disastrous, as historian George Santayana wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” That is a reason, even in spite of some criticism that I write.  

Tomorrow I plan on writing an article about why I write. 

Have a great weekend and a very reflective day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

voting

The legislation enacted by Congress to declare African Americans free and end slavery, the Thirteenth Amendment; to recognize them as citizens, the Fourteenth Amendment; and to give African American men the right to vote, the Fifteenth Amendment were revolutionary documents. Taken together the three constitutional amendments promised equality to African Americans, but that equality under the Constitution was soon erased.

After Reconstruction officially ended in 1877 Democratic politicians in every state in the South worked to roll back these rights. They did so with the active support of conservative Northern businessmen and politicians and through the quiet apathy of most Northerners who simply wanted to move along and forget the Civil War and Reconstruction in the name of reconciliation and Manifest Destiny which now included join ing ranks with European colonial powers. The political and business leaders of South and North worked to roll back the new rights which had been granted to African Americans, and this ensured that the “resurrected South would look a great deal like the Old South, a restored regime of white supremacy, patriarchy, and states’ rights. This political and cultural principles became holy tenants, dissent from which threatened redemption.” [1] The means used to regain this in included state legislation against blacks, violence committed by people associated with racist terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, and the actions of Federal Courts including the Supreme Court to regulate those rights out of existence.

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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. Their motives varied and all were vilified by political opponents and in the press, the attacks on Longstreet were particularly vicious and in the Myth of the Lost Cause he is painted as a man worse than Judas Iscariot. 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 and used the Red Shirt militia to help in his election as Governor of South Carolina, he disappointed many of his white supremacist supporters.  Hampton, despite his past, was 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.” [2] This made Hampton anathema for 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 every 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.” [3] 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.

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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…” [4]

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” [5] which furthered the black codes into what we now call the era of Jim Crow.

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For years after the Supreme Court’s Cruikshank decision blacks throughout the South attempted to vote despite intense opposition from Southern whites and armed bands of thugs. But with White Democrats now in charge of local government and “in control of the state and local vote-counting apparatus, resistance to black voting increasingly took the form of fraud as well as overt violence and intimidation. Men of color who cast Republican votes often found later that they had been counted for the party of white supremacy.” [6]

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.

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Not all on the Court agreed with these rulings. One of them was Associate Justice John Harlan, who was a former slaveholder. Harlan dissented in Court’s decision to overturn the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and also in Plessy v. Ferguson. In the case of the Civil Rights Act ruling Harlan insisted that “our Constitution is color blind” [7] and wrote a strongly worded opinion:

“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.” [8]

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.” [9]

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.” [10] The Plessy ruling was a watershed. Southern legislators, now unencumbered by Federal interference passed “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.” [11] For decades future courts would cite Plessy and Cruikshank as well as other decisions as precedent in deny rights to blacks. It would not be until 1954 when the Supreme Court overturned Plessy and the “Separate but Equal” Jim Crow laws in Brown v. Board of Education. Brown was a watershed for it deemed that separate schools were “inherently unequal.” The reaction across the South, especially Mississippi was stunned shock, disbelief and anger. “A Mississippi judge bemoaned “black Monday” and across the South “Citizen’s Councils” sprung up to fight the ruling. [12]

Mississippi led the way in disenfranchising black voters through the use of voter qualifications that would eliminate most blacks from the rolls of voters. In 1895 the state legislature passed a measure that would “technically apply to everybody but actually eliminate the Negro without touching the white.” [13] The move was in open defiance of the Fifteenth Amendment and resulted in tens of thousands of black voters being dropped from the rolls, in most cases under 5% of black voters who had been eligible to vote in 1885 remained eligible in 1896. Mississippi was rewarded in 1898 when the Supreme Court in Williams v. Mississippi that “there was no reason to suppose that the state’s new voting qualification were aimed specifically at Negroes.” [14] “In 1900 blacks comprised 62 percent of Mississippi, the highest percentage in the nation. Yet the state had not one black elected official.” [15]

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Violence was used with great effect and between 1880 and 1968 approximately 3,500 people were murdered or lynched throughout the South. This had become a far easier task and far less dangerous for the perpetrators of violence against blacks as Supreme Court “interpreted black people’s other constitutional rights almost out of existence.” [16] Since the court had “limited the federal government’s role in punishing violations of Negro rights” this duty fell to the states, which seldom occurred, and when “those officials refused to act, blacks were left unprotected.” [17]

One of these was the case of United States v. Harris where the federal prosecutors had indicted “twenty members of a Tennessee lynch mob for violating section two of the enforcement Act, which outlawed conspiracies to deprive anyone of “equal protection of the laws.” However the Court struck down section 2 because the “lynching was not a federal matter, the Court said, because the mob consisted only of private individuals.” [18]

This remained the case until the 1960s when during the Freedom Rides when Mississippi again became a battleground in the Civil Rights movement. As students and educators came to the state to help register blacks to vote in 1964. This brought generations of barely concealed hatred to the surface. Bruce Watson in his book Freedom Summer wrote:

“In Mississippi’s most remote hamlets, small “klaverns” of ruthless men met in secret to discuss the “nigger-communist invasion of Mississippi.” They stockpiled kerosene, shotguns, and dynamite, then singled out targets – niggers, Jews, “nigger-lovers.” One warm April night, their secret burst into flames. In some sixty counties, blazing crosses lit up courthouse lawns, town squares, and open fields. The Klan was rising again in Mississippi. Like “White Knights” as their splinter group was named, the Klan planned a holy war against the “dedicated agents of Satan…determined to destroy Christian civilization.” The Klan would take care of your business, a recruiting poster said. “Get you Bible out and PRAY! You will hear from us.” [19]

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Eventual the violence of these people led to the killings of three of the organizers, Michael Schwerner, James Cheney and Andrew Goldman were killed by a group of Klansmen led by members of the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Department on June 21st 1964. The resultant search for their bodies and the subsequent investigation transfixed the nation and led to the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in 1964 and 1965.

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. Southerners 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.” [20] Most Northern leaders failed to appreciate this until it was far too late, and hindered by President Johnson’s opposition failed to win the peace in the South when they had the best chance. 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” [21] as certain was the case in the divided Republican Party of the Reconstruction era.

Notes

[1] Ibid. Goldfield American Aflame p.403

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

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

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

[5] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.526

[6] Ibid. Lane The day Freedom Died p.251

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

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

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

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

[11] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.208

[12] Ibid. Watson Freedom Summer p.46

[13] Ibid. Lord The Past that Wouldn’t Die p.22

[14] Ibid. Lord The Past that Wouldn’t Die p.23

[15] Ibid. Watson Freedom Summer p.41

[16] Ibid. Lane The day Freedom Died p.253

[17] Ibid. Langguth After Lincoln p.338

[18] Ibid. Lane The day Freedom Died p.253

[19] Ibid. Watson Freedom Summer p.12

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

[21] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.14

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1 Comment

Filed under civil rights, civil war, History, Political Commentary

One response to “The Klan, the Courts & White Rule: The End of Freedom

  1. Pingback: The Klan, the Courts & White Rule: The End of Freedom | Occupy The Bronx

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