The Mixed Legacy of the Reconstruction Era
9 The Mixed Legacy of the Reconstruction Era
Union army general Rufus Saxton (1824–1908) had long been a friend to African Americans. He had been on hand in the Sea Islands (located off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia) in the summer of 1865, just after the end of the Civil War (1861–65). For a brief period, it appeared that the federal government would soon be distributing free land to the newly freed slaves, in recognition of the many years of unpaid labor they had provided and in compensation for the crime of slavery. The collapse of that promise was just one of many disappointments that African Americans had endured, and Saxton had shared in that disappointment.
In a letter written many years later to black South Carolina politician Robert Smalls (1839–1915), Saxton remembered a happier day: January 1, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation (a document issued by President Abraham Lincoln [1809–1865] that declared most slaves free) was signed. Describing the celebration of that event in Beaufort, South Carolina, Saxton, quoted in Reconstruction and Reaction: The Emancipation of Slaves, 1861–1913, wrote: "Never in all his round did a glad sun shine upon a scene of more dramatic power. What a day of promise that was!"
Unfortunately, that promise went mostly unfulfilled. Black and white citizens of the regions known as the North and the South had just completed a bloody war to determine both if the United States would remain one country and if slavery would continue to exist in the nation. During the Reconstruction era, the period stretching roughly from the end of the Civil War in 1865 to the inauguration of President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893; served 1877–81) in 1877, the black and white citizens of both the North and the South had participated in a great effort. They had attempted to remake a Southern society that had been devastated, both materially and socially, by four years of war. The outcome of that war had dramatically changed the ways in which both the Southern economy (which had been dependent on the unpaid labor of four million black slaves) and relationships between its people were ordered.
In the late 1860s and early 1870s, owing to some landmark legislation that a group called the Radical Republicans had pushed through Congress, the governments of the eleven Southern states that had previously seceded (separated themselves) from the Union were reformed in a shape never before seen in the United States, and not to be repeated for many decades after their downfall. They were multiracial democracies in which both blacks and whites were full participants. Whereas most African Americans had previously existed as noncitizens with no rights at all, they were now guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution the same civil and political rights long enjoyed by whites.
These revolutionary circumstances created a climate of hope, in which black Southerners dared to believe that they would one day achieve full equality with whites. Through a combination of factors, though, most of their hopes were dashed. Economic hardships and complexities proved a formidable obstacle to advancement, as did the waning interest of those powerful Northern supporters who had lent their energies and concern to the South. What proved most devastating, however, was the opposition of white Southerners, who simply could not envision or tolerate a world in which blacks and whites were equals. This resistance took the form of a loosely organized but deadly campaign of terror that involved attacks—including arson, beatings, whippings, rape, and murder—on blacks and their sympathizers. The central purpose of this brutality was to scare blacks into submission, to keep them from exercising their hard-won rights—especially the right to vote.
Reconstruction is dismantled, and the "Redemption" begins
One by one, beginning as early as 1869, the Southern states were "redeemed": they were taken back into control by the white supremacists (those who believe that people of northern European descent are inherently superior to others and ought to be in charge) who had ruled the South before the Civil War. Having previously taken an activist role in guiding Southern developments and trying to ensure justice for blacks, the federal government now turned away. The contested 1876 election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was resolved with a promise that, if the Democrats would accept Hayes's election, the government would leave the South alone to govern itself as it wished. The election, marked in the South by violence and election fraud, also sealed the fate of the last three states to be redeemed.
In later years, the story of this period told by white Southerners—and even by the Northern historians who shared their racist views of blacks as inferior to whites in intelligence and morality—would depict the Reconstruction era governments as hopelessly corrupt and incompetent. They would imply that a gang of dishonest, inept, illiterate (unable to read and write) blacks, aided by the Northern participants scornfully referred to as "carpetbaggers" (an offensive term for Northerners who came to the South after the Civil War to participate in Reconstruction), had been in charge of the South. They would insist that whites had been victimized by blacks, carpetbaggers, and scalawags (an offensive term for white Republicans who took part in Reconstruction) who had tried to get away with as much as they could.
Black achievements are reversed
By the later part of the twentieth century, revisionist historians had marshaled the facts to suggest a different scenario. They proved that in fact, most scalawags and carpetbaggers were well intentioned and competent, while many Democrats (the political party that had dominated the prewar years in the South) were also involved in corruption. Perhaps most significantly, they also showed that blacks actually held relatively few major offices in the Reconstruction governments. There had been no black governors, for instance, and only a few who had held such high offices as lieutenant governor or state treasurer; only two had been elected to the U.S. Senate, while fourteen had served in the U.S. House of Representatives, and blacks had held a majority only in the South Carolina state legislature.
Nevertheless, the achievements of blacks during this era had been remarkable, especially considering that so many of them had so recently been slaves with no access to education or political training. About six hundred served in state legislatures, and many more held local offices (such as sheriff and justice of the peace). For a few brief years, the Southern states had been the nearest thing to multiracial democracies ever seen in the nation, and such governments were not to be seen again for many, many years. As noted in A Short History of Reconstruction, "The tide of change rose and then receded, but it left behind an altered landscape."
Many of the changes that now occurred, as the Redeemer governments took control, happened very gradually. The new leaders were a loose group of Democrats and Unionists (supporters of the Union during the Civil War) who came both from the wealthy class of professionals and owners of plantations (large estates on which basic crops like cotton, tobacco, rice, and sugar were grown) and the middle or working classes of small farmers, many of whom lived in the upcountry regions of the South. Although some tensions existed between these groups, all were united in their determination to remove every trace of Reconstruction. They especially wanted to take political power away from blacks and to ensure white control over the black labor force.
New governments lower taxes, cut services
One of the biggest complaints against the Reconstruction governments was that they had raised taxes in order to pay for new public services such as school systems, prisons, and medical care for the poor. Before the war, plantation owners had paid few taxes on their property, and they resented their new obligations. So one of the first goals of the Redeemer governments was to slash property taxes and reduce state expenses. They put more of a burden on sharecroppers (farmers who produced crops on land rented from large landowners, with whom they shared their proceeds) and small farmers and laborers, who now had to pay taxes on many items, including tools. Meanwhile, in a regressive tax system (in which those who own the least property bear the biggest burden), people who owned large quantities of land paid little.
Not surprisingly, the new governments also backed away from the idea that the state should take on social responsibilities. Some now claimed they could not afford to fund public schools, and the gap between spending on schools for black and white students began to widen. Florida closed its state prison and stopped construction on the state's first agricultural college, while Alabama shut down its public hospitals. All across the South, governments showed that they felt no obligation to educate or provide free care for its citizens.
Black options narrow
Long considered the champion of black equality, the Republican Party began to disappear from the South as the campaign of violence and election fraud waged against those who dared to vote the Republican ticket took its toll. As the years passed, blacks held fewer and fewer seats in state legislatures and local governments, while those who remained in office faced strong hostility and opposition from the Democrats who dominated politics. This showed how successful the white supremacists had been in keeping blacks from the polls; for example, in Mississippi's Amite County, 1,093 blacks had voted in 1873, but three years later only 73 cast ballots.
Although the system of segregation known as "Jim Crow" (the name came from the black minstrel shows popular during the era, which featured exaggerated, stereotypical black characters) was not formalized until the 1890s, black people's political, economic, and social options were already being narrowed. New laws reminiscent of the very strict Black Codes (in which laws were put in place by the Southern governments during the administration of President Andrew Johnson [1808–1875; served 1865–69] that returned power to the former leaders of the Confederacy) reinforced plantation owners' control over their labor force. Vagrancy laws, for example, once again made joblessness illegal, and workers could be arrested for leaving a job before a contract had expired.
Most black Southerners were now working as sharecroppers, in a system that they preferred to the kind of gang-labor that had prevailed during slavery because it gave them more control over their time, work conditions, and families. But sharecropping also confined many blacks to a cycle of poverty and debt, for they were often forced to carry credit (incurred because they had to buy supplies before their crops were harvested) over from year to year, with no hope of ever catching up. Now the Redeemer governments increased the plantation owners' control over credit and property. The Landlord and Tenant Act of 1877, for example, made the entire crop the planters' property until rent was paid, and left it to the planter to decide when the tenant had fulfilled his obligations. Meanwhile, all efforts to organize workers into unions were quickly crushed.
A harsher criminal code
The Reconstruction governments had changed the penal code (the system of penalties for crimes), which had allowed for harsh penalties that were more often given to black defendants. The Redeemers now reversed that action. Those convicted of theft, for instance, faced a very high penalty. Arson was a capital offense, and a conviction for burglary could bring a life sentence. Under Mississippi's "pig law," someone who stole a pig or a cow (or any property worth more than $10) was automatically sentenced to five years in prison.
Throughout the South, the convict lease system was expanded. This allowed states to hire out prison inmates as laborers, often to do the most backbreaking, least desirable jobs that were otherwise hard to fill. The railroad, mining, and lumber industries all benefitted from this practice. Among these workers (most of whom were blacks imprisoned for minor crimes), death rates were very high; in a group of 204 convicts, for example, 20 died and 23 were returned to prison either ill or disabled, all within a 6-month period.
During Reconstruction, a considerable number of Southern cities and towns had had African American sheriffs and police officers, which had been a positive development in the eyes of blacks, who had often been treated unfairly by white law enforcement officers. Now there were few blacks on police forces or in state militias (a military force raised from a civilian population, to supplement regular army forces in an emergency).
A new kind of society takes shape
All these changes created an unusual economic situation in the South, where a small upper class of planters, merchants, and manufacturers prospered but the majority of citizens—both black and white—lived in poverty. By 1880, in fact, Southerners' average income level was only 40 percent of that of the North. Blacks were, not surprisingly, hardest hit by the South's economic woes, for many of them still suffered from such problems as illiteracy, malnutrition, and inadequate housing.
In some ways, however, blacks benefitted from the necessity of turning their focus inward. People with talent and ambition who might have gone into politics, if such an avenue had been open to them, turned their energies to education, business (opening stores, restaurants, barbershops, and funeral homes, for instance, that catered to black customers), the church, and the professions. Black educational institutions like Fisk, Howard, and Alcorn universities survived, and their graduates' accomplishments enriched black life. Thus strong black communities were built in many towns and cities, providing what would be a solid springboard for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Not all African Americans, however, were willing to passively accept their diminished status and opportunities. The triumph of the Redeemers led some blacks to consider migration, with a few training their sights on Africa but more focusing on the wide open grasslands of Kansas. Members of what was called the "Exoduster" movement believed that they would find a greater degree of political equality and an escape from the violence that plagued the South. There they would enjoy expanded educational and economic opportunities and—perhaps most attractive of all—they would no longer live side by side with the white Southerners who despised them. Even though black leaders like Frederick Douglass (c. 1817–1895) opposed the idea of migration because it seemed like an abandonment of the struggle for equality in the South, a significant number of ordinary blacks joined what came to be known as the Exodus. For the vast majority, however, moving away from South—whether to Africa or the West—was simply not a practical option.
A grim time for African Americans
As noted in Reconstruction and Reaction: The Emancipation of Slaves, 1861–1913, the great black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), commenting on the period that followed Reconstruction, wrote that enslaved blacks "went free, stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery." Du Bois would come to lead a new wave of activism in the early twentieth century. The waning years of the nineteenth century were grim ones for African Americans. An inhumane, illegal system of punishment called "lynch law" was practiced, by which blacks accused of crimes but usually not formally charged or tried would be brutally hanged by mobs of whites. During the 1890s, more than 150 such lynchings occurred, and the practice continued well into the twentieth century.
In 1887, Florida passed the first of the Jim Crow laws that would, as they spread across the South, make the segregation of schools and public facilities absolute. From now on, in addition to the traditional separation of black and white churches and schools, hospitals, prisons, hotels, restaurants, parks, and drinking fountains would be segregated. There would be separate waiting rooms, elevators, and cemeteries for blacks. Nearly every aspect of life would be divided to maintain a physical distance between black and white Southerners.
Plessy v. Ferguson
The controversial issue of segregation on the railroads, which was encoded into law in nine states, resulted in a Supreme Court ruling that would stand for more than fifty years. After several lower courts had ruled that segregation of the railroads was acceptable as long as black passengers were provided with "equal" accommodations, the case of Plessy v. Ferguson came before the Supreme Court. After purchasing a first-class ticket, a black Louisiana resident named Adolph Plessy (1862–1925) had refused to leave a whites-only railroad car. In his defense, he cited the Fourteenth Amendment, which supposedly outlawed discrimination on the basis of skin color.
The Court disagreed. It ruled against Plessy and in favor of the "separate but equal" doctrine, claiming, as quoted in Reconstruction and Reaction: The Emancipation of Slaves, 1861–1913, that the Fourteenth Amendment "could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality." Thus the legality of the "separate but equal" concept was reinforced, even though it was widely known that separate most assuredly did not mean equal. The idea and its application would survive until 1954, when the Supreme Court struck it down in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.
The Second Mississippi Plan
Keeping blacks under control required, more than anything else, preventing them from voting. When violence and election fraud became too much of a burden, the Redeemer governments turned to legal restrictions to keep blacks away from the ballot box. The state of Mississippi took the lead in an effort known as the "Second Mississippi Plan" (the first had been the campaign of terror that prevented blacks from voting in the elections of the mid-1870s; see Chapter 8). The state constitution was rewritten with new voting laws that, while still technically meeting the requirements of the U.S. Constitution, put on the books a number of "suppression clauses" designed to deny blacks—the majority of whom were poor and uneducated—the right to vote.
Examples include education and property qualifications, a poll tax (money to be paid before voting), and finally an "understanding clause" that required a voter to prove that he could read and understand a part of the state constitution. Blacks doubted that many white voters (a large number of whom were as little educated as blacks) would really have been able to pass this test. As it turned out, only 10 percent of blacks qualified to vote under the new laws, while two-thirds of whites did. The total number of voters in Mississippi was thus reduced from 257,000 to 76,000, almost all of them white.
Booker T. Washington: Dynamic Leader or Accommodationist?
The most prominent and respected black leader of the late nineteenth century, Booker T. Washington promoted a philosophy of advancement through self-sufficiency and accommodation to segregation. Although this approach initially held great appeal for both blacks and whites, the African American intellectuals of a later generation came to reject it.
Washington was born in 1856, the son of a slave mother who worked as a cook on a Virginia plantation. The identity of his white father is not known. After the Civil War, Washington moved with his family to Malden, West Virginia, where he worked for a short period in the area's salt furnaces and coal mines before becoming a house servant. He was able to attend school, and in 1872 he entered Hampton Institute, which was one of the first major educational institutions established for blacks.
Hampton Institute had been founded by Samuel Chapman Armstrong (1839–1893), whose belief in education based on practical skills would be carried on by Washington. After graduating in 1875, Washington returned to Malden to work as a teacher, but he soon came back to Hampton Institute as an instructor and was put in charge of some Native American students who had been sent to the school to learn about white farming methods.
In 1881, Washington was chosen by Armstrong to be the principal of a new, as yet unbuilt school in Tuskegee, Alabama. Washington supervised the school's construction, and by 1888 there were four hundred students studying such trades as farming, carpentry, shoemaking, and cooking on a campus of 400 acres. At the Tuskegee Institute, students were taught that self-respect, practical skills, strict discipline, cleanliness, and thrift would bring them economic independence and success. Segregation was seen as a fact of life that was not worth fighting.
As the leader of what soon became the most influential of African American institutions, Washington wielded considerable power; it was said that the "Tuskegee machine" could make or break careers. He was in great demand as a public speaker. One of Washington's most famous appearances was at the Cotton States and International Exposition, held in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1895. In a speech referred to as the "Atlanta Compromise," Washington told a white audience that economic equality was more important to blacks than social equality.
This message appealed to many whites, and it probably helped him maintain the valuable connections he established with rich, socially conscientious white men like Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919), George Eastman (1854–1932), andJulius Rosenwald (1862–1932), who contributed money to Washington's cause. One of these causes was the National Negro Business League, which Washington founded in 1900 in order to help African Americans achieve success in business. The next year marked the appearance of Washington's autobiography, Up from Slavery, which inspired both black and white readers with the story of a slave boy who grew up to achieve remarkable things.
Yet Washington's voice was notably silent about the injustices that were everyday realities in the lives of blacks, especially those living in the South, where Jim Crow laws restricted both behavior and rights. Later researchers discovered that Washington did, in fact, take part in some secret activism; for example, he provided funding for lawsuits to challenge some of the Jim Crow laws.
As hate crimes against blacks increased, a new generation of black thinkers and leaders emerged, equipped with an outlook decidedly different from Washington's. They thought that blacks should pursue education for its own sake and not just to learn a trade. They also believed that African Americans should demand the rights they were owed as U.S. citizens. The most prominent of these leaders, W. E. B. Du Bois, founded the Niagara Movement (which eventually became the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP) in 1905. The movement called for unqualified equality for blacks, and even approved of violence as a means to achieve it.
The African American community was now split into two groups, with the new generation criticizing Washington and his followers for quietly putting up with segregation, racism, and injustice. They also alleged that Washington had overlooked the growing population of urban African Americans, focusing instead on rural blacks. Nevertheless, Washington remained active as a speaker and public figure until his death in 1915. By that time, the student population at Tuskegee Institute had grown to fifteen hundred students.
W. E. B. Du Bois: A More Militant Form of Activism
An important figure in the African American community for many decades of the twentieth century, W. E. B. Du Bois called for militant activism and an immediate end to inequality and injustice. Born in predominantly white Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1868, Du Bois grew up mostly sheltered from racism. An excellent and industrious student, he attended Fisk University in Tennessee in the 1880s, where he experienced for the first time the harsh realities of the Jim Crow system of legalized segregation of blacks and whites and discrimination against African Americans.
After three years at Fisk, Du Bois transferred to Harvard University. He earned a bachelor's degree in 1888 and a master's degree in 1891, then set out on two years of travel and study overseas. On his return, he entered Harvard again, and in 1895 became the first black to earn a doctorate of philosophy (Ph.D.) from that university. Du Bois spent the next fifteen years teaching economics and history at Atlanta University. In 1896, he wed Nina Gomer (1872–1950); the marriage would last until her death in 1950.
In 1903, Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk, which would become one of the most influential works documenting the injustices committed against African Americans since the Civil War. Du Bois hoped the book would educate and influence white audiences and thus somehow stem the violence that was occurring across the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Instead, the violence continued and even intensified.
Increasingly convinced that only protest would bring about change, Du Bois founded the Niagara Movement in 1905. Its members demanded immediate and total equality—that is, not only political and civil rights but an end to segregation and other forms of social discrimination—a stance that put them in opposition to the accommodationist approach taken by Booker T. Washington and his followers. Eventually the Niagara Movement became the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Du Bois served as the editor of the organization's publication The Crisis for twenty-four years.
Du Bois viewed black advancement as an international issue, and in 1919 he helped organize the first of several Pan African Congresses. Participants called for an end to the European dominance of African countries, which had been colonized by such countries as Great Britain, Portugal, and Germany for several centuries. Du Bois's increasingly radical positions led to his being forced to resign from his Crisis post in 1934. He returned to Atlanta University and taught for ten years.
During the course of the 1940s and 1950s, Du Bois grew more and more sympathetic to the aims of communism (a system of government in which a nation's leaders are selected by a single political party that controls all aspects of society), which made him a target of suspicion to the democratic U.S. government. In 1951, the now eighty-three-year-old Du Bois was arrested and tried as an agent of the Soviet Union. Although the charges were eventually dropped, Du Bois continued to be harassed by the government and had his passport taken away for six years. In 1961, he officially joined the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Almost immediately he was invited by Kwame Nkrumah (1909–1972), the president of Ghana, to make his home in that West African nation. Du Bois died in Ghana's capital, Accra, in 1963.
Meanwhile, a new political movement called Populism was gathering steam across the nation, but in the South, at least, it was not one that favored expanded rights for blacks. Made up mostly of small farmers and poor whites, the Populist movement was opposed to the political dominance of the wealthy, conservative class of planters and professionals. Although they supported improved schools, tax reform, and other progressive actions, their devotion to a more democratic society did not extend to African Americans. In fact, one of the most famous and respected Populist leaders, Benjamin R. Tillman (1847–1918), had actually written South Carolina's "understanding clause."
Two new black leaders emerge
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a new African American leader emerged in the South. Born a slave in Virginia in 1856, Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) graduated from Hampton Institute (a black college) in 1875. Six years later, he became principal of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which would become a leading center for black education and activism. Washington urged blacks to acquire vocational training (in the skilled trades, for example) rather than formal education as the best route toward progress. In his famous Atlanta Compromise speech in 1895, he told a white audience that blacks were more interested in economic advancement than in political and social equality. Washington urged African Americans to practice the values of patience and hard work while waiting and preparing for full citizenship, and he accepted segregation as inevitable given the hostility between the races.
Impressed by Washington's dynamic leadership and practical advice, many blacks became his followers. His views offended some, however, especially up-and-coming black intellectuals like W. E. B. Du Bois, who became Washington's harshest critic. Educated at Fisk and Harvard universities, Du Bois helped to spark a new trend in black activism. His belief that blacks should seek liberal education and not vocational training and that they should actively pursue equality, not wait for whites to grant it, caused a split with Washington and his followers. Du Bois's beliefs were the basis for the Niagara Movement which, as he wrote in his autobiography, demanded for African Americans "every single right that belongs to the freeborn American, political, civil, and social."
The Jubilee, and hard years ahead
The year 1913 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and African Americans across the nation honored the occasion with numerous "Jubilee" celebrations. This was a time to take stock of black achievements and advancements, which included an illiteracy rate that was down from 90 percent in 1865 to 70 percent in 1913. Blacks now owned 128,557 farms, 550,000 homes, and 38,000 businesses. Yet the black middle class was still tiny, with most African Americans still living under distressing conditions of poverty, racism, and limited opportunities.
Just as some members of an earlier generation had viewed departure as a solution to these ills, Southern blacks living in the early years of the twentieth century began a migration that would continue for several decades. In search of greater freedom and more options, they began moving first to the larger Southern cities (the black populations of which increased by 32 percent in the 1890s and 36 percent between 1900 and 1910) and then to the North. The entry of the United States into World War I (1914–18) created a demand for workers, and blacks answered the call, with an estimated two million migrating to Northern cities by 1920. There they lived in densely packed, segregated communities, in which they began to develop a strong sense both of their distinct African American identity and their potential power.
The period of economic downturn known as the Great Depression (1929–41)—sparked by the stock market crash of 1929—caused widespread unemployment, poverty, and suffering for millions of U.S. citizens of all races. But it also gave a boost to the fledgling labor movement, which led the struggle to expand and protect the rights of workers. This, in turn, helped to nurture the civil rights movements, as radical labor organizers from the North went south to try to help black farm workers form unions. Although they did not succeed in their main goal, they did foreshadow the civil rights workers who would spread across the South in the 1950s and 1960s, working to register voters and to overturn the white supremacy that kept African Americans from reaching their full potential.
Evaluating the Reconstruction era
Clearly, the end of the Reconstruction era would usher in a long stretch of years full of hardships, struggle, and accumulating anger and resistance. These years would finally result in the gains of the late twentieth century, as racism—the kind that had been encoded in law, anyway, if not always the kind that resided in people's hearts—would be vanquished and African Americans would begin to take their rightful places at all levels of U.S. society. In looking back on Reconstruction, many commentators have labeled this period a failed experiment.
The Twentieth-Century Civil Rights Movement
By the middle of the twentieth century, public outrage over the injustices endured by African Americans since their liberation from slavery, along with the emergence of dynamic black leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), helped to create a new wave of momentum. The result was a modern civil rights movement that would dramatically change not only the lives of African Americans but the face of U.S. society itself.
In 1954, in a series of landmark cases known collectively as Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the policy of "separate but equal" that had been used to justify the segregation of public schools in the South. But it was the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott that is more often cited as the spark that set off the civil rights movement. The boycott began when a work-weary black woman named Rosa Parks (1913–) was arrested after refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on one of the segregated city buses in Montgomery, Alabama. The city's black community quickly mobilized to organize a boycott, which lasted for thirteen months and resulted in the integration of the buses.
Because of the activism of King, whose philosophy of nonviolent resistance struck a chord with many thousands of supporters, and other dedicated opponents (both black and white) of racism and discrimination, the following decade was one of great change. It resulted in the passage of some important pieces of legislation in the mid-1960s, especially the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. These acts affirmed the federal government's commitment to protecting the civil and political rights of all the nation's citizens.
As the 1960s progressed, however, black dissatisfaction with their continuing low economic status and limited opportunities mounted. This was especially true within the growing African American communities in the crowded, crime-ridden, inner-city ghettoes of the North and West. In contrast to King's nonviolent approach, leaders like Malcolm X (1925–1965) and the Black Panthers called for strong, even armed resistance to oppression.
Beginning in the Harlem section of New York City in the summer of 1964, a series of bloody riots erupted across the nation, resulting in devastating losses of life and property. Racial disturbances rocked the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965 and a number of other cities in 1967 (including Detroit, Michigan; Washington, D.C.; Chicago, Illinois; and Atlanta, Georgia).
President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69) soon appointed a special commission to investigate the causes of the riots. The report of the Kerner Commission found that a complex mix of factors that included poverty, frustration, and police misbehavior had created explosive conditions in the innercity ghettoes. The report could not, however, suggest an easy solution to these problems. Meanwhile, more riots broke out in 1968 after the assassination of King, but this time the government responded quickly and strongly.
As the end of the twentieth century approached, it was clear that African Americans had made great strides in political, economic, educational, and other areas, becoming fuller members of mainstream U.S. society than ever before. Yet social segregation was still a reality, as were ongoing outbreaks of violence (the Ku Klux Klan, for instance, continued its reign of terror well into the twentieth century), and the poverty and hopelessness endured by many blacks still presented great obstacles to African American advancement.
In the immediate aftermath of Reconstruction, white supremacists went to work to characterize it as a disaster during which blacks and carpetbaggers had run amuck through the South, victimizing the white Southerners who should have remained in charge all along. Influential historian William A. Dunning (1857–1922) and his followers perpetuated this myth and shaped public thinking dramatically. Thus in the famous and wildly popular 1915 film The Birth of a Nation by D. W. Griffith (1875–1948), the white Southerners' cause and even the Ku Klux Klan were glorified and blacks portrayed negatively. The national bestseller The Tragic Era by Claude G. Bowers (1878–1958) portrayed blacks and carpetbaggers as villains and whites as their victims.
Meanwhile, the more complex and favorable realities of the Reconstruction governments—which black congressman John Roy Lynch (1847–1939), a lone voice of praise, called "the best those states ever had" in his 1913 book The Facts of Reconstruction—faded from the wider public memory. In a scholarly sense, these realities would not be uncovered until the revisionist historians (those who presented revised views of a long-standing opinion of a historical event) who emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century began to publish their research. But within the black community itself, both the achievements and the disappointments of Reconstruction would be long and well remembered.
"Perhaps the remarkable thing about Reconstruction," writes one of the leading revisionists, Eric Foner, "was not its failure but that it was attempted at all and survived as long as it did." Yes, the Redeemers had succeeded in achieving through terror what they could not through legal means. Yes, the rights so briefly enjoyed by African Americans had been swept away, their leaders expelled from public life. (Although South Carolina political boss Robert Smalls had been elected to Congress as late as 1884, many others had died in poverty, like former lieutenant governor Alonzo J. Ransier [1834–1882], also of South Carolina, who ended his life as a Charleston street sweeper.) Still, six hundred blacks had been elected to state legislatures, and many more had served at the state and local levels. Most importantly, three amendments had been added to the U.S. Constitution. The vast importance of these pieces of legislation would come to light again in later years, when they would provide the legal basis for sweeping changes in U.S. society.
Meanwhile, in the scrapbooks and memories of black families would remain the faded pictures of Reconstruction heroes in whom they would, for generations to come, take quiet pride. Along with that pride would exist sadness and even outrage at the way this important period was portrayed. During the Great Depression, interviewers funded by the federal Works Progress Administration traveled through the South, recording their conversations with former slaves. Reflecting on the difference between black impressions of Reconstruction and the popular view of it, one eighty-eight-year-old African American, quoted in A Short History of Reconstruction, said, "I know folks think books tell the truth, but they shore don't."
For More Information
Cox, LaWanda C., and John H. Cox, eds. Reconstruction, the Negro, and the New South. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.
Golay, Michael. Reconstruction and Reaction: The Emancipation of Slaves, 1861–1913. New York: Facts on File, 1996.
Kirchberger, Joe H. The Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: Facts on File, 1991.
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