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Reconstruction and Civil Rights in the US South

The Civil War ended in May 1865 following the surrender of the South's generals. Slaves had been freed and involuntary servitude outlawed more than a year earlier. And unlike Britain there was no compensation to those who had been slave owners.

The US federal government had the "Freedmen's Bureau" run by the US Army and responsible for issuing emergency rations and helping white and black refugees return home — although many former slaves had no home to return to. There was a government program to sell land cheaply to former slaves. But as one former slave said:

It takes money to get started in farming. You got to have tools and seeds and things. All I really know how to do is grow cotton. note56

Some former slaves stayed with their previous masters. Plantation owners still needed help harvesting their cotton, and in exchange for this they were happy to feed and house their former slaves. And some offered their former slaves sharecropping, supplying them with seed, tools and a mule.

There were former slaves who found work at odd jobs for people who wanted inexpensive labor. Some blacks segregated themselves from whites by taking to the hills, while some others clustered around the army posts that were a source of protection and sustenance. Through the army, Northerners were donating food to relieve hunger in the "suffering South."

The North's economy continued with its growth, and the South's economy was depressed. Some who had been planters moved to prosperous cities in the North. Some left to take up farming on the plains or in the West. Some went to England, and fewer went to France. In Brazil slavery was still legal, and would be until 1888. Southern newspapers described Brazil as a wonderful place, and a few former planters went there.

On the losing side of a war and facing cultural coercions from their former enemy, there was fear, blame and loathing among the whites in the deep South. Remaining in the South were some who were proud of having fought for the Confederacy. Ideological support for slavery had not evaporated, and many veterans among those who believed that blacks were incapable of improvement and that no black should pretend to be equal or better in ability than any white.

Among white Southerners was fear that mass hunger was on the way and that blacks would be pillaging and rampaging. Many believed it was no longer safe for white children and women. And there was talk that the equality for blacks sought by "Yankee fanatics" would bring "Negro rule."

There was the view that the "Yankees" were responsible for the mess their society was in. There were assaults against agents of the Freedmen's Bureau. Some of these agents were shot at, and a few killed. A number of secret white societies formed, one of which was called the Ku Klux Klan, which began as a fraternal organization of Confederate army officer veterans.

Legislatures passed laws called Black Codes. These laws differed from state to state, but in general they prohibited blacks from voting and sitting on juries. The laws limited black testimony against whites, forbade blacks from carrying weapons in public, and forbade interracial marriages. Laws against vagrancy were passed directed against blacks. Laws were passed that restricted blacks from certain kinds of employment considered inappropriate for blacks. In South Carolina, for example, a black needed a special license and certificate provided by a judge to work in an occupation other than in agriculture or as a domestic.

The Federal Government Moves toward Correctness

Responding to the denial of rights to blacks, the US Congress refused to recognize representatives sent to it from the southern states, and the US Congress passed civil rights legislation that would, upon ratification, become the 14th and 15th amendments to the US Constitution. These amendments guaranteed the civil rights of all except Indians or anyone who had held office in the Confederacy. The legislation guaranteed that the right of men to vote could not be denied "on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." And former Confederate states were not to be readmitted to the Union until they ratified these amendments. State legislatures in each of the former Confederate states except Tennessee refused to ratify the amendments, and Tennessee in July 1866 was readmitted to the Union.

Refusals to ratify led to the passage of the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, which gave new life to the Freedmen's Bureau and sent an army of occupation, including a black militia, into the refusing states. The stated purpose of the military occupation was to protect persons and property, to add people to the voter rolls based on male suffrage and to supervise the election of conventions to draft new state constitutions. The military occupation suppressed Confederate historical societies, veterans' organizations and parades, and where military authority concluded that civil courts had failed to do their duty these courts were replaced by military tribunals.

With the military came people to help run the occupied states, and teachers who wanted to help educate Negro citizens — people called carpetbaggers by hostile whites. Most of these teachers were women, some of them sent by churches. Outraged whites verbally abused them. Whites refused to let them live in their communities, making the teachers dependent on blacks for a place to stay.

White Southerners who worked with the "carpetbaggers" were called "scalawags" and "white trash". Some of the so-called trash were from families of wealth. They were people who didn't feel challenged by a rise in the status of Blacks. (One Southerner from a not-so-wealthy family, Mark Twain, was among those whites opposed to the common attitude by his fellow whites toward blacks.)

Many Southern whites refused to cooperate with the Union's military occupation. In voting for delegates to the constitutional convention in Mississippi, for example, around half of the whites did not vote. The selection of delegates to the convention resulted in 16 who were black and 24 whites who were considered "carpetbaggers." Of the 100 delegates, 67 considered themselves Republicans (the Republican Party associated with the military occupation).

By the summer of 1868, "reconstructed" governments had been set up in Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina, and in 1870 reconstructed governments were set up in Mississippi, Texas and Virginia. These states ratified the 14th and 15th amendments to the US Constitution and were readmitted to the Union. Fifteen blacks were elected to the US House of Representatives and two (representing Mississippi) to the US Senate.

Klan groups had been growing throughout the South. They targeted black and white Republicans, hid their identities from the public and employed intimidation, violence and sometimes murder. The federal government fought back, in 1870-71 passing the Enforcement Acts, intending to prosecute and suppress Klan crimes.

Reconstruction Loses Ground

In the North, Democrats were criticizing reconstruction and making common cause with white supremacist fellow Democrats in the South. From the Democrats of Ohio came denunciation of the Republican Party's plan to impose racial equality on "unsuspecting Americans." There was talk of the federal government becoming a black and tan mongrel government" and of reconstruction producing "Negro supremacy in the South and a barbarian balance of power in the whole of the country." Some Ohio Democrats called for a return to "white freedom" and the "Union as our fathers formed it."

With all of the former Confederate states back into the Union, the withdrawal of a portion of the troops from the South began. In 1872 the Freedmen's Bureau was disbanded. The Amnesty Act of 1872 restored the vote to those whites who had been denied it. By 1876, conservatives were in power in most of the former Confederate states, running what they called "redeemed" governments. Some of these governments were inventing ways of limiting black voting, such as complicated ballot boxes, literacy tests and poll taxes.

In 1876, the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant was nearing an end, and that year another Republican was elected president: the governor of Ohio, Rutherford B. Hayes. He had won fewer votes than his Democrat opponent and through political maneuvering had won by one vote in the Electoral College. To avoid a filibuster by the Democrats, the Republicans agreed to withdraw the last of federal troops in the South and to appoint at least one Southerner to Hayes' cabinet.

In 1877 the last of the troops were withdrawn from the South. Enforcement of the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution in the South ended. With what appeared to be the end of the North's intrusions into the South, the Ku Klux Klan formally disbanded (to reappear again in 1915). Congress passed legislation to protect the civil rights of blacks (the Civil Rights Act of 1875) but the legislation was ineffective and eventually, in 1883, to be declared unconstitutional.

Some blacks in the South were living well enough despite the failure of reconstruction, but most former slaves were without property. Many were still working on plantations, and many were working as sharecroppers. Many whites still saw blacks as ineducable and believed in the Divine Right of whites to rule, and this fit with the white, European colonialist expansion in Africa that made it appear the white supremacists were on the right side of history.

Segregation was common, and in 1896 in a case called Plessy versus Ferguson, the Supreme Court would side with what was mendaciously called "separate but equal" facilities for blacks. "White Only" and "Colored Only" signs would be ubiquitous. There were laws describing where blacks could and could not live, attend church, eat, use public toilets or drink water. There would be literacy tests, poll taxes and long residency requirements for voting. Except in Maryland, Tennessee and Kentucky, nearly all those in the South identified as Negroes became disenfranchised. Fifty percent of the whites were caught by the same requirements and also disenfranchised. Meanwhile, outside the South most whites cared little about segregation in the South or welcomed it.

At the end of the century a new form of enslavement had arisen — chain-gangs of men arrested on trumped-up charges and leased to mine owners, farms, logging companies and other industries: "Slavery by another Name."


CONTINUE READING: Nationalism and Unifications in Europe

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