The Rollback and the Response: Jim Crow to Civil Rights

KKK-Nast

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I have a revised section of my Cicil War text “A Great War in an Age of Revolutionary Change.” I have being doing some final touches on it before I start working on final edits before seeking a publisher. I think it is important and timely in a day when state legislatures throughout the “Old South” are passing laws that seek to restrict voting rights against minorities and the elderly in order to diminish their political power, or to pass legislation designed to discriminate against LGBTQ people based solely on religious dogma. 

In such a world it is important to remember what happened to African Americans after Southern Whites reclaimed power following the collapse of Reconstruction.

Have a great day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

The Supreme Court, Congress, the Presidents as well as state governments systematically rolled back the rights of African Americans after Reconstruction ended. The Courts were the first to do this and once they had set the precedent were followed by the now Democrat controlled Congress and President Grover Cleveland. 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…” [1] Associate Justice Joseph Bradley who had so eviscerated the Enforcement Act again played his hand in overturning a law that he despised on principle. He had written when Grant first signed the act in 1875 “to deprive white people of the right of choosing their own company would be to introduce another kind of slavery…. It can never be endured that the white shall be compelled to lodge and eat and sit with the Negro. The latter can have his freedom and all legal and essential privileges without that. The antipathy of race cannot be crushed and annihilated by legal enactment.” [2] In writing to overturn the Civil Rights Act of 1875 Bradley wrote that such laws were made African Americans a “special favorite of laws” and ignored the fact that in most of the country blacks were indeed not a favorite and were in fact still the subject of discrimination, segregation, political disenfranchisement, systematized violence, murder and lynching.

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

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.” [4]

In 1896 the Supreme Court in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson upheld the black codes and Jim Crow laws. 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 the Constitution only guaranteed or protected a people’s political rights in the social arena that African-Americans could not interact with whites and assumed their racial inferiority.

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 the Court’s majority 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 “our Constitution is color blind” [5] 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.” [6]

As eloquent and as correct as Justice Harlan’s argument was, it was not sufficient to turn the tide of the new Court backed segregation laws. Harlan “was fighting a force greater than the logic of justice; the mood of the Court reflected a new coalition of northern industrialists and southern businessmen-planters.” [7] The “separate but equal” measures approved by the Court majority in Plessy v. Ferguson led to the widespread passage of Jim Crow laws, not only in the South but in other areas of the country. 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.” [8]

In order to get around the Fifteenth Amendment state governments in the South employed a strategy of subterfuges to suppress the African American vote. Along with the ever present threats of voter intimidation from armed White Supremacist groups, the states complicated the processes of voter registration and voting in order to make it nearly impossible for blacks to vote and into political oblivion. “Redeemer” governments in the post-Reconstruction South through the use of literary tests and poll taxes, the later which required people to pay in order to vote. The literacy and educational requirements mandated that “perspective registrants to “interpret” a section of the state constitution, and enacted standards which few blacks could fulfill, such as limiting registration to those whose grandfathers had voted.” Of course few blacks could meet the latter requirement as their grandfathers had been slaves and ineligible to vote. The laws were so devious that “when a journalist asked an Alabama lawmaker could pass his state’s understanding” test, the legislator replied, That would depend on entirely on which way he was going to vote.” [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]

Violence was used with great effect and between 1880 and 1968 approximately 3,500 people were murdered or lynched throughout the South. In 1892 alone 235 blacks were lynched “and throughout the decade, whites lynched an average of 150 southern blacks per year.” [16] 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.” [17] 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.” [18]

The effects of these actions were shown in the number of African Americans in elected office. In 1869 there were two African American United States Senators and twenty black members of the House of Representatives. After Reconstruction ended these numbers dwindled and “the last black left Congress in 1901.” [19]

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.” [20]

Many Southern states, especially Mississippi continued to tighten Jim Crow throughout the first half of the twentieth century. “In 1922 a new Jim Crow law kept up with the times by segregating taxis. In 1930 another new law prohibited “publishing, printing, or circulating any literature in favor of or urging inter-racial marriage or social equality.” [21] Not only were physical barriers being erected, but thought and free speech was now illegal if one supported equal rights.

martin-luther-king-jr

This remained the case until the 1960s when during the Freedom Rides when Mississippi again became a battleground in the Civil Rights movement. In 1961 James Meredith, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, became the first black to ever be admitted to the University of Mississippi. His admission was fought by the university, Mississippi politicians including U.S. Senator James Eastland, Governor Ross Barnett, numerous congressmen and state representatives, and a populace that threatened violence and even war if the Federal government or courts order them to comply. Governor Barnett spoke for many when he made a statewide television address in September 1961 “We must either submit to the unlawful dictates of the federal government or stand up like men and tell them ‘NEVER!’” [22] He then called for the arrest of any federal officials who attempted to hold a state official for defying federal court orders. Backed by federal court orders to admit Meredith, and by the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy called Barnett on September 24th.

“Governor,” Kennedy observed, “you a part of the United States.”

            “We have been a part of the United States, but I don’t know whether we are or not.”

            Are you getting out of the Union?”

            “It looks like we are being kicked around – like we don’t belong to it.”

            Back to specifics again, Kennedy ended the talk with a typical crisp wrap-up. “My job is to enforce the laws of the United States.” [23]

The resultant conflict nearly came to violence as thousands of Mississippians, whipped into an anti-black and anti-federal government frenzy by their elected leaders, radio, and television and newspaper commentators and supported by the KKK, the John Birch Society and other groups mobilized to fight the “invasion.” Eventually a deal was reached to admit Meredith on September 30th. As Meredith entered the campus he was protected by Federal Marshals and Border Patrol officers, as well as the State Police, which had just a few hours before been deployed to keep Meredith and the federals out. Despite this thousands of people ringed the campus, and the Confederate Battle Flag was raised over the Civil War memorial on campus. The rioters uttered death threats and assaulted anyone who supported Meredith. Members of the press, even southerners, faculty members and civilian supporters were beaten, bricks, stones and bottles thrown, tires of federal vehicles slashed. Finally the marshals themselves were attacked and eight injured, forcing them to deploy tear gas to protect themselves and the State police withdrew.

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James Meredith being escorted to Ole Miss

Eventually U.S. Army MPs and mobilized National Guard units were called up and battled Molotov cocktails that were being thrown by the anti-integration protests to relieve the beleaguered marshals and border patrolmen. The troops finally cleared the campus and ended the riot. During the riot 160 marshals were hurt, some 28 of who were wounded by bullets fired by the protestors. The next morning with Meredith admitted to the university a local clergyman saw the Confederate flag still flying and “with firm step, he strode out to the pole, loosened the halyard and lowered the Confederate flag.” [24]

The battle to integrate Ole’ Miss was over. Meredith graduated peacefully in August of 1963 and by then Mississippi abandoned its defiance of Federal authority, but many in the state still protested the admission as well as the later passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Violence still occurred and even intensified at times as the Civil Rights movement, now led by Dr. Martin Luther King Junior made headway. King wrote in the Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

“One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” [25]

In South Carolina, which had fought integration in the courts outgoing Governor Ernest F. Hollings read King’s letter and knew that he had been on the wrong side of history. The Democrat Governor realized that the handwriting was on the wall, and that South Carolina was different than Mississippi. Hollings knew that South Carolina’s racism was the old aristocratic type, which gave more value to an orderly society. As such Hollings told the legislature:

“As we meet, South Carolina is running out of courts. If and when every legal remedy has been exhausted, the General Assembly must make clear South Carolina’s choice, a government of laws rather than a government of men. As determined as we are, we of today must realize the lesson of once hundred years ago, and move on for the good of South Carolina and our United States. This should be done with dignity. It must be done with law and order.” [26] When Clemson University admitted its first student later in the year, there was no violence.

Hollings later remembered that for years he had supported and enforced the Jim Crow laws in his state. However, King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail changed him, it was for him a moment like the Apostle Paul on the Road to Damascus. He admitted, “as governor, for four years, I enforced those Jim Crow laws. I did not understand, I did not appreciate what King had in mind… until he wrote that letter. He opened my eyes and set me free.” [27]

More violence would occur in Mississippi and other states during the 1960s. During the Freedom Rides, students and educators came from around the nation 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.” [28]

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 of 1964 and 1965.

After he left office, Ulysses Grant gave an interviewer a sober assessment of Reconstruction’s failure. Grant concluded that at the end of the war what the South really needed was a benevolent dictatorship until it could be fully reintegrated into the Union. Instead the South remained defiant and using subterfuge mixed with targeted violence wore down the will northerners to fully pursue and implement Reconstruction. He told the interviewer:

“Military rule would have been just to all… the Negro who wanted freedom, the white man who wanted protection, the Northern man who wanted Union. As state after state showed a willingness to come into the Union, not on their terms but upon ours, I would have admitted them. The trouble about the military rule in the South was that our people did not like it. It was not in accordance with our institutions. I am clear now that it would have been better to suffrage, reconstruction, State governments, for ten year, and held the South in a territorial condition. But we made our scheme, and we must do what we must with it.” [29]

Grant was correct in his analysis. The policies enacted by the North in 1865 that were considered benevolent were seized upon as signs of weakness in the defeated South. The leaders of the South knew that the Republican Party was a coalition and worked to push the fault lines of the Republicans until they broke, and they were successful. The Confederacy may have lost the war in a military and economic sense, but in the “ways that mattered most to white Southerners – socially, politically, and ideologically – the South itself did not.” [30] Grant died in 1885 hailed throughout the nation, but knowing that he was unable to secure the new birth of freedom, that he and his friend Abraham Lincoln and so many others had fought for in the Civil War.

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. In retrospect, a harsh peace and a long period of nation building may have benefited the nation more than botched reconstruction, but as Grant noted “our people did not like it.”

Southerners may have lost the shooting war, but they could not and would not accept the peace. By successfully wearing down the will of the people of the North and exploiting the fissures in varying components of the Republican Party, they succeeded in winning the things most important to them in regard to race relations and White Supremacy.

After the war, White 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.” [31] Most Northern leaders, politicians, the media and the clergy 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” [32] as certain was the case in the divided Republican Party of the Reconstruction era. By the time Ulysses S. Grant was elected President many in the North were already tiring of Reconstruction and African Americans and when he resorted to harsh yet effective means of quelling violence and enforcing the laws many, even in his own Republican Party rebelled, ensuring the former Confederates of a political and social victory that took nearly another hundred years to end, if indeed it is truly ended, a proposition that I think is ludicrous as for many the Civil War is not over.

Notes

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

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

[3] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.526

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

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

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

[7] Ibid. Zinn A People’s History of the United States pp.204-205

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

[9] Ibid. Goldfield Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History p.197

[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. Goldfield Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History, Updated Edition, p.206

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

[18] Ibid. Langguth After Lincoln p.338

[19] Ibid. Zinn A People’s History of the United States p.200

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

[21] Ibid. Lord The Past that Wouldn’t Die p.25

[22] Ibid. Lord The Past that Wouldn’t Die p.139

[23] Ibid. Lord The Past that Wouldn’t Die p.159

[24] Ibid. Lord The Past that Wouldn’t Die p.231

[25] King, Martin Luther Letter from a Birmingham Jail 16 April 1963 Retrieved from https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html 15 September 2016

[26] Bass, Jack and Nelson, Jack The Orangeburg Massacre Mercer University Press, Macon and Atlanta 1984, 1996 & 2002 pp.11-12

[27] Ibid. Goldfield Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History, Updated Edition, p.74

[28] Ibid. Watson Freedom Summer p.12

[29] Ibid. Lane The day Freedom Died p.254

[30] Ibid. Lane The day Freedom Died p.254

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

[32] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.14

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