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Robert Smalls and Freedom

Robert Smalls 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am going to be busy the next couple of days working on some things for my literary agent that hopefully will help my book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory! Race, Religion, Ideology, and Politics in the Civil War Era move towards publication. So for the next few days I will probably post very short articles of re-runs of older ones. This is an article that with a few minor changes that I posted here a year ago, and since today is the 155th anniversary of the act I thought it would be a good time to re-post it. I hope that you enjoy it. 

There are some people and events that are important but get swept up in broader historic events and today we remember the anniversary of an act of daring that led to freedom. This is the story of Robert Smalls, a slave in Charleston South Carolina. Smalls was hired out to work with the money going to his master. He worked in a number of jobs, but as a teenager fell in love with the sea. He went to work as a slave worker on the city’s waterfront where he started as a common dockworker, became a rigger, a sailmaker, and finally a wheelman, which basically was a ship’s pilot, since slaves were not permitted that title. Even so his abilities and knowledge of Charleston harbor well well known and respected by ship owners. 

The CSS (later USS) Planter 

When South Carolina seceded and the Confederacy went to war, Smalls was assigned as wheelman of the CSS Planter, a small and lightly armed transport. On the night of May 12th and 13th of 1862, Smalls took advantage of all three white officer’s absence ashore, by putting into effect an escape plan he had worked out with the other slave crew members of Planter. Smalls and seven other slaves got the ship underway, with Smalls donning the captain’s uniform and a straw hat similar to the captain’s. In the darkness the ruse was perfect, no Confederates ashore suspected anything as Planter stopped to pick up the escaped slaves family members at another wharf before Smalls sailed out past the range of the Confederate shore battery guns to surrender to the USS Onward. Smalls present the U.S. Navy with the ship, her cargo, which included four artillery pieces intended for a Confederate fort in the harbor, but more importantly a Confederate code book and charts showing the location of deadly undersea mines and torpedoes that had been laid in the harbor. 

Smalls quickly became a hero. Congress voted him and his crew the prize money for the ship, and he met with Secretary of War Stanton to argue the case that blacks should be allowed to serve. Smalls’ story helped convince Lincoln of allowing African Americans to serve in the United Staes forces. Smalls served as a civilian pilot working for the Navy and and the Army, serving in numerous battles. He was the pilot for the experimental ironclad USS Keokuk when that ship was heavily damaged by over 90 hits at Charleston. He was responsible for getting the ship safely out of range of the  Confederate batteries before she sank, thus saving many crew members. 

He then was reassigned to the USS Planter, now assigned to the Army. The ship got caught in a crossfire between the Union and Confederate forces and Planter’s captain ordered the ship to surrender. Smalls objected, knowing that any African American caught serving Union forces would not be treated as prisoners of war, but either returned to slavery or executed by order of the Confederate Congress. Smalls took command of the vessel and steered her out of harm’s way. He was appointed Captain of the ship and was present for the ceremonial raising of the American flag over Fort Sumter in April 1865. Smalls was the first African American to command a ship in the service of the U.S. Military.

After the war Smalls got an education and when the 14th Amendment was passed ran for office, serving in the South Carolina legislature and as a member of Congress. He fought against changes to the 1895 South Carolina Constituion that disenfhchised African Americans and codified the Jim Crow laws which had be upheld by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson. 

In 1889 Smalls was appointed U.S. Collector of Customs in Beaufort and served in that office until 1911. He also was director of a black owner railroad, and helped publish the black owners Beaufort Standard newspaper. He died in 1915 at the age of 75. 

Small’s courage and his fight for freedom, as well as others who did so should not be forgotten. 

Peace,

Padre Steve+ 

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Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: The Beginnings of a Book

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Hannah Arendt wrote:

“Slavery’s crime against humanity did not begin when one people defeated and enslaved its enemies (though of course this was bad enough), but when slavery became an institution in which some men were ‘born’ free and others slave, when it was forgotten that it was man who had deprived his fellow-men of freedom, and when the sanction for the crime was attributed to nature.”

It has been a very busy few weeks and one of the exiting things that is in the process of happening is that my literary agent has informed me that he has some promising leads in trying to get one of my book drafts published. The book, which I have given the tentative title Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory! Race, Religion, Ideology, and Politics in the Civil War Era began as one of the introductory chapters to my Gettysburg Staff Ride text and took on a life of its own. As I read, researched, and wrote my search led me to more and more aspects of slavery and abolition that opened my eyes to the very religious, and Christian justifications for both, especially the words of Southern preachers which I have a hard time getting out of my head because of how perverse those views were, and still are.

Over the past couple of years I have posted parts of it on this site and I feel that it is really important work as so many of the issues of the ante-bellum era in regard to the institution of slavery: the Civil War with emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment that outlawed slavery in the United States; Reconstruction with the Fourteenth Amendment which granted citizenship to freed African Americans, and which became foundational for other Civil Rights causes, and the Fifteenth Amendment which gave Black men the right to vote. These were followed by the Civil Rights act of 1875, and then with the end of Reconstruction came the return of White Rule, the overthrow of the Civil Rights Act, and the reestablishment of slavery by another name with Black Codes, Jim Crow, and violent White Supremacist groups, and finally the emergence of a new Civil Rights movement in the late 1940s. First Baseball and then the military were desegregated, then finally in 1964 the Voter’s Rights Act was passed and then in 1965 the a new Civil Rights Act.

During the interregnum between the end of Reconstruction and the high point of the Civil Rights movement, many African Americans, famous, and those not so famous worked to establish equality. Men like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B DuBois, Jackie Robinson, Benjamin O. Davis and Benjamin O. Davis Jr., James Meredith, John Lewis, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and women like Rosa Parks fought discrimination, segregation and racism through peaceful protests and strong personal leadership and example. The Buffalo Soldiers served their country proudly even though they faced discrimination almost everywhere in the United States. But they all persevered.

Their story is the story of America, and intertwined in it are the themes of religion, racism, ideology, and politics; sometimes used for the purpose of freedom, but all too often perverted to deprive others of that same freedom. The institution of slavery needed racist ideology and a theology to cover the evil that it was, and can be again. That is why I write about it, and why I led this article with the quote by Hannah Arendt. The fact that after a great Civil War that claimed the lives of about 750,000 American soldiers, North and South, that others within months attempted to re-establish slavery by other means, and then when Reconstruction ended succeeded in using the law to make Blacks both second class citizens as well treating them as less than human. The poison of this philosophy spread to Europe where Hitler and his Nazi Party zealots crafted race laws against the Jews that were based in part on the American model of Jim Crow and the Black Codes.

The resurgence of White Supremacist groups across the United States and in Europe show us that we cannot ignore history without ourselves committing similar crimes against humanity. I guess that’s why I started this article with the quote by Hannah Arendt. It wasn’t just the enslavement of people, it was the institutionalization of that as well as its defense by ideologues, business leaders, politicians, and worst of all, supposedly Christian religious leaders.

So anyway, that is why I write. Anyway, I’m going to have a lot to do working with my agent over the coming days and weeks. Have a great day. I’ll keep you posted.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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

“I Knew What I Was Fighting For” The Social Revolution of the Civil War: African Americans in the Navy

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African American Sailors formed part of the crew of Admiral Farragut’s flagship at the Battle of Mobile Bay

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am continuing my foray into African American History which for those that don’t know is really a key and often neglected part of American History. This is a several part series dealing with Emancipation, and the social revolution that it brought about in the United States Military. The process that began in 1862 has taken another century and a half to come to a much better state, and the men who pioneered the way deserve the credit for persevering in spite of prejudice, in spite of discrimination, and in spite of a country not appreciating them as they should have been. Their sacrifice not only pioneered the way for African Americans, but women, other minorities, and LGBTQ people. As a nation we are indebted to them.

Please enjoy,

Peace

Padre Steve+

black-sailor

Civil War African American Sailor

Unlike the Army, African Americans had served aboard United States Naval vessels since the Revolution, and were an important part of ship’s crews all through the age of sail and the Civil War. In 1798, Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert, a slaveholder “barred “Negroes or Mulattoes” from serving in the new navy, and the Marine Corps did the same. Given the need to fill out their crews, however, captains often took free blacks as crew members. Both free blacks and slaves had served in the Continental Navy, the state navies, and privateers during the revolution, but that precedent had been forgotten.” [1] Even so, the Navy would continue to recruit free African Americans and they would make up a significant percentage of the crews of U.S. Navy ships, part of the reason that since the earliest times in the colonies, free blacks had taken up a seafaring way of life serving on merchantmen or in the Royal Navy. Likewise, “life at sea during the eighteenth century was difficult and dangerous. Therefore navies were forced to enlist practically anyone who was willing to serve.” [2]

uss-miami-crew

The Integrated Crew of the USS Miami

During the War of 1812 free blacks comprised between ten and twenty percent of the crews of U.S. Navy ships. Captains like Oliver Hazard Perry who initial complained about having blacks on his ships became believers in their ability. At the battle of Lake Erie “blacks constituted one-fourth of his 400 man force aboard the 10-vessel fleet.” He was so impressed by their performance under fire that he wrote the Secretary of the Navy “praising their fearlessness in the face of excessive danger.” [3] During the war, the Secretary of the Navy lifted Stoddert’s ban on blacks serving and free blacks responded by joining in increasing numbers.

Unlike the Army, the Navy became a place for free blacks to find a place to serve their country, and when the Civil War erupted these men continued to serve, and they would continue to serve throughout the war, and the Union Navy enlisted a proportionally higher number of its personnel from free blacks, nearly seventeen percent than did the Army, a force of approximately 30,000 sailors. Navy officers like David Dixon Porter praised them. He recruited them for his Mississippi Squadron as “coal heavers, firemen, and even gun crews.” He wrote “They do first rate work, and are far better behaved than their masters,” he declared. “What injustice to these poor people, to say they are only fit for slaves. They are far better than the white people here, who I look upon as brutes.” [4]

In 1862 the Union Navy was facing a manpower shortage the Federal and state governments discouraged whites from serving in the Navy due to the vast manpower needs of the Army. The government did not provide “bounties for those who joined nor counting them in local recruiting quotas.” [5] When confronted with the thousands of escaped slaves, or “contrabands” Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles authorized their enlistment, and they were treated comparatively well. There were no segregated quarters due to the cramped conditions of shipboard life and as a result the men messed and were quartered in common spaces. Black sailors had complete control of their pay and had the same privileges as their white shipmates.

uss-galena-sailors

Most Naval officers had never been abolitionists before the war, and some had been defenders of slavery before the war, but their wartime experiences converted them to the abolitionist cause. Samuel Francis Du Pont wrote “I have never been an abolitionist… on the contrary most of my life a sturdy conservative on the vexed question.” He explained that he had “defended it all over the world, argued for it for it as patriarchal in its tendencies,” he admitted in 1861. “Oh my! What a delusion…. The degradation, the overwork, and ill treatment of the slaves in the cotton states is great than I deemed possible, while the capacity of the Negro for improvement is higher than I believed.” He noted that no officer in his squadron had voted for Lincoln, by April 1862 he wrote “there is not one proslavery man among them.” [6]

Affectionately known as “Black Jacks” these sailors served in some of the most critical actions fought by the Navy during the war, and aboard every kind of warship, including the new ironclads. Sadly after the war the opportunities for blacks began to decrease in the Navy. They still served but as the Navy became more technological, recruiters began to seek out more educated men to crew the ships of the new steel and steam navy. Increasing segregation and Jim Crow affected naval recruiting and by 1917 only about 7,500 blacks were still in the service. In the 1890s the navy began to exclude blacks from “all but the most undesirable jobs. Moreover, whites still would not tolerate blacks in blacks in positions of authority over them.” As a result promotion was rare, they worked in segregated conditions, and “to avoid friction between the two races,” commanders also segregated their eating and sleeping areas.” [7] With the exception of a successful experiment by Secretary of the Navy to integrate crews of certain auxiliary ships in 1944, these conditions would continue until President Truman ordered to integrate all branches of the military in 1948.

Notes 

[1] Daughan, George C. If By Sea: The Forging of the American Navy – From the Revolution to the War of 1812 Basic Books, A Member of the Perseus Books Group, New York 2008 p.320

[2] Fields, Elizabeth Arnett African American Soldiers Before the Civil War in A Historic context for the African American Military Experience – Before the Civil War, Blacks in the Union and Confederate Armies, Buffalo Soldier, Scouts, Spanish American War, World War I and II, U.S. Government, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington D.C. 1998, Amazon Kindle edition Progressive Management location 624  of 11320

[3] Ibid. Fields African American Soldiers Before the Civil War in A Historic context for the African American Military Experience location 668 of 11320

[4] McPherson, James M. War Upon the Waters: The Union and the Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 2012 p.137

[5] Ibid. Fields African American Soldiers Before the Civil War in A Historic context for the African American Military Experience location 844 of 11320

[6] Ibid. McPherson War Upon the Waters: The Union and the Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 p.137

[7] Kraeczynski, Keith The Spanish American War and After in A Historic context for the African American Military Experience – Before the Civil War, Blacks in the Union and Confederate Armies, Buffalo Soldier, Scouts, Spanish American War, World War I and II, U.S. Government, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington D.C. 1998, Amazon Kindle edition Progressive Management location 2842  of 11320

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Remembering the Four Freedom’s Speech

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

On January 6th 1941 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union Message to Congress and the nation. I spent the time to both both read it and listen to it the other day. It is a profoundly moving speech, not without controversy of course, but one which we need to hear again. It is a speech that like the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s  Gettysburg Address, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I have a Dream speech calls us to higher ideals, ideals that we often come up short in living up to, but ideals worth living for and to endeavor to attain in our lifetime.

 

When Roosevelt spoke the nation was in the midst of crisis. The United States was still recovering from the Great Depression. War threatened as Hitler’s Nazi German legions had overrun all of Western Europe and much much of North Africa. German U-Boats and surface ships were prowling the North Atlantic. Britain stood alone between Germany’s complete domination of Europe. Even the Soviet Union, a mortal enemy of Fascism had concluded a concordat with Hitler to divide Eastern Europe. Though no one yet knew it, Hitler was already planning to break his accord with Stalin and invade the Soviet Union.

In it Roosevelt made a comment that we should remember in light of the knowledge that Russia interfered in our election, and has been working tirelessly to split us from our allies and directly working against our efforts to fight ISIS, and the efforts of our soldiers in Afghanistan. He noted:

“I suppose that every realist knows that the democratic way of life is at this moment being directly assailed in every part of the world — assailed either by arms or by secret spreading of poisonous propaganda by those who seek to destroy unity and promote discord in nations that are still at peace.”

Roosevelt’s speech, which largely focused on the threat of Nazi Germany, also supported Britain and the exiled governments of nations conquered by Hitler.  As he outlined preparations to defend the United States, Roosevelt also called on Congress to pass Lend Lease to help those fighting the dictators, as well as increased opportunity at home. In response to the emerging threats and the unwillingness of some, including a strong pro-Germany lobby headed by prominent senators, American aviation hero Charles Lindberg, and and big business, Roosevelt challenged Americans to face up to them. He noted:

“As a nation we may take pride in the fact that we are soft-hearted; but we cannot afford to be soft-headed.  We must always be wary of those who with sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal preach the “ism” of appeasement.  We must especially beware of that small group of selfish men who would clip the wings of the American eagle in order to feather their own nests.”

On the domestic front Roosevelt reiterated the message of the New Deal, for even with war looming he did not want to see Americans lost in the exchange and he linked freedom abroad to the same at home. He noted:

“As men do not live by bread alone, they do not fight by armaments alone. Those who man our defenses and those behind them who build our defenses must have the stamina and the courage which come from unshakable belief in the manner of life which they are defending. The mighty action that we are calling for cannot be based on a disregard of all the things worth fighting for.”

He continued:

“Certainly this is no time for any of us to stop thinking about the social and economic problems which are the root cause of the social revolution which is today a supreme factor in the world. For there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy.

The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:

Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.

Jobs for those who can work.

Security for those who need it.

The ending of special privilege for the few.

The preservation of civil liberties for all.

The enjoyment — The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.

These are the simple, the basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.”

But the real heart of the message, applicable to all people everywhere Roosevelt enunciated a number of principles that are a beacon to all people. Firmly grounded in words of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address they are called the Four Freedoms. Those freedoms are an ideal, in fact they certainly were not practiced well then by Americans, nor now, but they are worth working to: Roosevelt said:

“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.”

The speech was important, and now as it did then it calls Americans to higher purposes, to higher ideals, and it recognizes that we have never fully measured up to our own words. At the time it was spoken, Jim Crow was still the law of the land, Mexican Americans were often treated as poorly as blacks, Native Americans had few rights; and barely a year later Japanese Americans would be taken from the homes, lose their business and be sent to detention camps for the duration of the war after Pearl Harbor, simply because they were of Japanese descent. But those abiding principles are things that we should never lose sight of, and always strive to realize.

Today the four freedoms that Roosevelt enunciated are under threat around the world and in the United States too. We live in an age of uncertainty, turbulence, division, inequity, as well as deeply ingrained cynicism. Unscrupulous authoritarian politicians are using that uncertainty and fear to roll back the very liberties that democratic institutions are founded on.

As a result, as a man who promised during his campaign to roll back the rights of many people it is important not to forget this speech. The same is true as state and local politicians set out to not only roll back the rights of some, but to enable religious people to discriminate against other citizens.

It is also important because the government of Russia led efforts to attack the country by influencing the election, and for years has been committing aggression against American allies and working against American and allied efforts around the world. Yet the the incoming administration is not only welcoming it, but attacking and trying to discredit the American intelligence officials who say that it happened, and condemning senators and congressmen of its own party who want to further investigate those attacks by Russia and impose sanctions.  

So I think that it is important to reflect on these events, and then turn to speeches like Roosevelt’s in order for us to strive for a higher purpose, not to lose hope, and give in to fear that would enable our freedoms and the freedoms of any citizen to be curtailed.

If you can please that the time to listen to it or read it at the following link: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/fdrthefourfreedoms.htm

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Fighting for the Proposition that “All Men are Created Equal” Reflections on the Gettysburg Address

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

One hundred and sixty three years ago Abraham Lincoln delivered a few short words at the dedication of the Soldier’s Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Those words, along with the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence are the American equivalent of secular scripture. Even more than the Constitution they define the ideal of what the United States can and should be.

Lincoln understood that ideal even during the midst of a war which devastated the nation and claimed the lives of nearly three quarters of a million American soldiers and sailors, from the North and the South. At Gettysburg, where just three and a half months earlier over 150,000 soldiers battled for three days, leaving about 50,000 dead, wounded, and missing on the battlefield. When Lincoln gave his remarks the cemetery, which now contains the remains of 3,577 Union soldiers, half unknown, was not yet half-full. Men were still engaged in the gruesome task of recovering the decaying remains from hasty graves all around the battlefield, as well as recovering and attempting to identify those who fell and remained where they died.

Lincoln understood that the sacrifice had to have a greater meaning, and he went back to that sacred proposition in the Preamble of the Declaration, the proposition that “all men are created equal.” It was a proposition that many in Europe mocked as impossible, and which many Americans believed only applied to white, male, property owners. But Lincoln saw beyond that and in his speech he began to universalize the proposition, and spoke of bringing forth “a new birth of freedom” and that Americans, both those gathered around him, and those who read the speech would “highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” 

I am ever the optimist that we will see that new birth of freedom, but I do expect in the coming years that we will again see many of those freedoms rolled back or curtailed as they were in the years following the re-establishment of white rule in the South, and the extension of Jim Crow to many places outside of the former Confederate States. Sadly, even the symbols of the Confederacy are on the rise, the Confederate Battle Flag is showing up in places that it never flew during the American Civil War.

I do believe that the ideals of Lincoln’s words are immortal, and are worth fighting for even when they are not popular, and even when the majority decides to crush the rights of the minorities that they despise, be they racial, religious, political, ideological, or even gender related. I do believe that we are at a crossroads, a crossroads where we will have to choose to fight for the rights of the weak in our legislatures and courts, and by our actions.

The Compromise of 1850 included the Fugitive Slave Act, a law designed to help slave owners recover their “property” anywhere in the country. It was a law that benefited slave states and overthrew the laws of Free States which were ordered to assist agents of the slave owners recover their human property. Many Northerners, even non-abolitionists were horrified by the new law and worked to protect African Americans in their communities. Southerners were infuriated and claimed to be the victims of Northern aggression and militant “Godless” abolitionists.

I expect that in the coming months that laws will be passed to discriminate against minorities of all kinds and that many of these laws will contradict individual state laws and protections. We are seeing White Nationalists like Stephen Bannon and Jefferson Beauregard Sessions as chief White House Counselor and Attorney General nominee. Neither have had any regard for the rights of racial minorities and may be setting civil rights policy. If those policies discriminate or roll back the rights of people they will have to be opposed.

Like the abolitionists we will have to make a choice, a moral choice and do what we can to mitigate those laws and protect those that they harm until the time comes when the people who passed them lose political power.

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Outside of my house I fly the 34 “Circle Star” Flag of the Union as well as the flag of the 69th New York Volunteer Infantry of the immortal Irish Brigade. They are symbols of my opposition to the neo-Confederate racism and xenophobia that is arising in the country. I will remain true to the Constitution, and I will never stop believing in or fighting for the proposition that all men are created equal, and that we shall indeed have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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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.

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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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The Offering We Bring: Memorial Day

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“Dark and sad will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors. The offering we bring to-day is due alike to the patriot soldiers dead and their noble comrades who still live; for, whether living or dead, whether in time or eternity, the loyal soldiers who imperiled all for country and freedom are one and inseparable.” From Frederick Douglass’ Memorial Day Speech 1884

Memorial Day, at one time known as Decoration Day is one of our most sacred civil holidays that we celebrate in the United States, or at least it should be. It was a holiday born out of the shedding of the blood of about 600,000 American soldiers, from the North and the South in the Civil War, a singular event that still echoes in our history and in some sense defines who we are. The sad thing is that many; if not most Americans it is simply another holiday, a chance maybe to get a three day weekend at the end of the school year and beginning of summer vacation. This is so because we and our government dominated by business interests and our own wallets for decades knowingly made the decision to sacrifice of the teaching of history and heritage at the altar of “education” that “produces jobs.”

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The Racecourse Cemetery

But the first observance of what we now know as Memorial Day is fascinating and it needs to be remembered. Frederick Douglass was absolutely right when he spoke the words that I began this article, and we need to remember the humble beginnings of this day which was first marked by recently freed slaves in Charleston South Carolina on May 1st 1865, barely two weeks after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and three weeks after the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House. Their commemoration was for the most part forgotten as Charleston sought to remove the vestiges of any Union sacrifice within the city limits in the 1880s.

The acrid smell of smoke of the last battles of the American Civil War was still lingering over many towns and cities in the South on May 1st 1865. Charleston South Carolina, the hotbed of secession was particularly hard hit during the war. In 1861 Cadets of the Citadel and South Carolina militia forces began the war with the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Union Forces laid siege to the city in late 1863, a siege which ended with the city’s surrender to Union forces on 18 February 1865. The day of the surrender was somewhat ironic. Charleston, the city most associated with the opening of the conflict surrendered to Union forces on the fourth anniversary of the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederacy. By the time of its surrender much of the city had been destroyed by Union siege artillery and naval forces.

Charleston had also been the home of three of the Prisoner of War Camps. One was located in the Charleston City Jail and the other at Castle Pinckney which had been one of the ante-bellum U.S. Army installations in the city. A third camp was erected on the site of the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in 1864. This was an open air camp and Yale Historian David Blight wrote that “Union soldiers were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.”

By the end of the war most of the white population of the city had left and most of those remaining were recently freed slaves. After their liberation and the city’s occupation by Federal forces, which included the famous 54th Massachusetts as well as the 20th, 35th and 104th US Colored Troops Regiments, about 28 these recently liberated Black men went to work and properly reinterred these 257 Union dead on the raceway building a high fence around it. They inscribed “Martyrs of the Race Course” on an arch above the cemetery entrance.

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On May 1st over 10,000 Black Charlestonians gathered at the site to honor the fallen. Psalms, Scriptures and prayers were said, hymns were sung and many brought flowers. A parade of 2800 children covered the burial ground with flowers. They were followed by members of the Patriotic Association of Colored Men and the Mutual Aid Society. This society’s members provided relief supplies to Freedmen and provided aid to bury those Blacks who were too poor to afford burial. More citizens followed many laying flower bouquets on the graves. Children then led the singing of The Star Spangled Banner, America and Rally around the Flag. The Brigade composed of the 54th Massachusetts and the 35th and 104th Colored Regiments marched in honor of their fallen comrades. Following the formalities many remained behind for a picnic.

Other communities established their own Memorial Day observances in the years following the war, but the event in Charleston was the first. The first “Official” commemoration was on 30 May 1868 when Union General John Logan who headed the veteran’s organization called The Grand Army of the Republic appealed to communities to honor the dead by holding ceremonies and decorating the graves of the fallen.

In the South three different days served a similar purpose. In Virginia people commemorated the day on June 3rd, the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the Carolinas marked the day on 10 May, the birthday of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. In much of the Deep South the event was conducted April 26th, the anniversary of the surrender of General Joseph Johnson’s Army to General William Tecumseh Sherman. For many in the South, still attempting to come to grips with their defeat the day would become about “The Lost Cause” or “the defense of Liberty” or “States Rights” and the war was often referred to as the “War of Northern Aggression.”

The “Martyrs of the Racecourse” cemetery is no longer there. The site is now a park honoring the fascinatingly complex Confederate General and post-Reconstruction Governor of South Carolina Wade Hampton. An oval track remains in the park and is used to run or walk by the local population and cadets from the Citadel. Thankfully, at long last in 2010, one hundred and forty-five years after the dedication of that cemetery a marker was placed in that park commemorating the cemetery and the event that we now recognize as the first Memorial Day.

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The Union dead who had been so beautifully honored by the Black population were moved to the National Cemetery at Beaufort South Carolina by the 1880s. Some state that the reason for this was that the cemetery had fallen into neglect, and this may be the case, but the event and their memory conveniently erased from memory of Charlestonians. I do not think that this would have happened had the people who had the bodies moved simply restored and maintained the cemetery. Had not historian David Blight found the documentation we probably still would not know of this touching act by former slaves who honored those that fought the battles, and gave their lives to win their freedom. Blight wrote in 2011 in the 1870s Charleston “had no place for the former slaves’ march on their masters’ racecourse.”

The African American population of Charleston understood the bonds of slavery and oppression. They understood the tyranny of prejudice in which they only counted as 3/5ths of a person. They understood and saw the suffering of those that were taken prisoner while attempting to liberate them from the tyranny of slavery. They stand as an example for us today.

But their suffering was not over. Within little more than a decade Blacks in the South would be subject to Jim Crow and again treated by many whites as something less than human. The struggle of they and their descendants against the tyranny of racial prejudice, discrimination and violence over the next 100 years would finally bear fruit in the Civil Rights movement, some of whose leaders, like the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. would also become martyrs. Unfortunately that struggle is not over.

Frederick Douglass spoke to Union Veterans on Memorial Day 1878. His words, particularly in light of the war and the struggles of African Americans since and the understanding of what those who were enslaved understood liberation to be are most significant to our time. It was not merely a war based on sectionalism or even “States rights,” it was a war of ideas, a war of diametrically opposed ideologies. He said:

“But the sectional character of this war was merely accidental and its least significant feature. It was a war of ideas, a battle of principles and ideas which united one section and divided the other; a war between the old and new, slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization; between a government based upon the broadest and grandest declaration of human rights the world ever heard or read, and another pretended government, based upon an open, bold and shocking denial of all rights, except the right of the strongest.”

Douglass’s words were powerful then and they resonate today as many of the same ideas that were the cause of the Civil War and were continued during Jim Crow are still alive. Unfortunately there are those in our society who labor daily to establish the “rights” of the strongest over the weak, the poor, the powerless and minorities of all kinds. Of course such actions, often wrapped in the flag, patriotism and buttressed with cherry picked quotes (many of which are fake, changed or taken out of context) from some of our founders are designed to re-establish the oligarchy of the power of the few, much like the men who owned the lives of the slaves and poor whites in the ante-bellum American South. Such actions do nothing but demean and trample the sacrifice of those who fought for freedom and the only remedy is to fight them with the full knowledge of truth.

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I do hope that today we will celebrate Memorial Day in a fitting manner. Let us honor those Americans who died that others might be free. Let us look back at what freedom actually means and not forget the sacrifices of those that gave, and still give their lives in the “last full measure of devotion to duty” that others might live. Take a moment today at noon to pause what you are doing and go silent for at least one minute, and remember.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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