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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. It was responsible for issuing emergency rations and helping white and black refugees return home — although many former slaves had no home to return to. But 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 help. Some segregated themselves from whites by taking to the hills, while some others clustered around the army posts that were a source of their protection and sustenance. Via the army, Northerners were donating food to relieve hunger in the "suffering South."

The South's economy 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.

Remaining in the South were those with pride for having fought for the Confederacy. The ideology that supported slavery had not disappeared among the veterans, and many of them still believed, as did some other common Southerners, that blacks were incapable of improvement and that no black should pretend to be equal or better in ability than any white. Among the whites, fear was creating alarm. There was fear that mass hunger was on the way and that blacks would be pillaging and rampaging. It was, they believed, was no longer safe for white children and women. And there was talk that the equality for blacks sought by "Yankee fanatics" would actually bring "Negro rule."

The South had a white supremacist vision, which included terror and violence; and the emancipationist vision, which sought full freedom, citizenship and Constitutional equality for African Americans. The white supremacist vision included the view that the Yankees" were responsible for the mess that their society was in. There were assaults against agents of the Freedmen's Bureau, and some of these agents were shot at, and a few killed. There were those who wanted to preserve what they called "white man's country." How to do this? 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.

With the end of the war, in 1865-66, white legislatures passed laws called Black Codes. These laws differed from state to state, but in general they prohibited blacks from voting, from sitting on juries. The laws limited black testimony against whites, forbade blacks from carrying weapons in public and outlawed interracial marriages. Laws were passed against vagrancy directed against blacks. And laws were passed that forbade blacks employment that was respectable for whites but thought 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.

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 southern whites. Most of these teachers were women – some of them sent by churches. Outraged southern 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 willing to who worked with the "carpetbaggers" were called "scalawags." In time the scalawags would be called "white trash," while some of the so-called trash were from families of wealth and former status — people who didn't feel challenged by a rise in status for Blacks. (A Southerner from a not-so wealthy family, Mark Twain, was among those whites opposed to the common attitude by his fellow whites toward blacks, and opposed to the mistreatment of Asians.)

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 Mississippi's convention resulted in 16 who were black and 24 whites who were considered "carpetbaggers." Of the 100 delegates, 67 considered themselves Republicans, and the Republican Party was becoming 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. Seventeen Blacks were elected to the U S House of Representatives and the U S Senate.

Klan groups had been spreading 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 lost 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 were living well 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 still saw blacks as ineducable and believed in the divine right of whites to rule — which fit with this era of extension of European rule over non-whites.

To preserve their culture and maintain the status it was common public separation of the races. In 1896 the Supreme Court in a case called Plessy versus Ferguson sided with Southern states that wanted "separate but equal" facilities for blacks. And by the turn of the century, "White Only" and "Colored Only" signs were ubiquitous. There were laws describing where blacks could and could not live, attend church, eat, use public toilets or drink water. Laws appeared against intermarriage. There were 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 existed — chain-gangs of men arrested on trumped-up charges and leased to mine owners, farms, logging companies and other industries. (http://www.pbs.org/tpt/slavery-by-another-name/themes/chain-gangs/)


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