Editor’s Note: This is the fIfth article in an 11-part Series on Race in America – Past and Present sponsored by the Kellogg Foundation. It has been edited for space considerations.
Children in elementary school often come home with the idea that the purpose of the Civil War was to end slavery, but if that were true, then why did it take Abraham Lincoln so long to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and why was it less than universally popular in the Union states?
If you see the movie Lincoln, you get a much fuller picture of the contingency of emancipation, and of the difficulty of passing the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery completely. But why didn’t Lincoln and the Congress think to address at the same time the obvious question of what status the freed slaves would have after that?
After Lincoln’s assassination, Congress and the state governments settled that matter by passing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which gave the former slaves full civil rights and voting rights-but why was it necessary for exactly the same rights to be reenacted, after enormous struggle, nearly a century later, during the civil rights era?
The answers to all these questions are essentially the same: For most of American history, White America has been highly ambivalent, or worse, about the idea of full legal equality for Black Americans. Emancipation itself was a forced move, an obvious consequence of the war only in retrospect; it happened because in war zones in the Confederate states, slaves left their plantation homes and appeared at Union army encampments (they were known at the time as “contraband”), and somebody had to decide what to do about them; sending them back to their owners would be both morally suspect and a form of material aid to the enemy.
Reconstruction — the tumultuous decade or so that followed the Civil War — was an enormous shaping force in American history, and not just in the area of race relations.
The word “Reconstruction” is somewhat misleading in the American case, because it implies that the main challenge was managing the tension between punishing the South for seceding and getting it back on its feet economically and politically. In this instance the more pressing question was what the lives of the millions of freed slaves in the South would be like.
In the period just after the Civil War, Lincoln’s vice president and successor, Andrew Johnson, was impeached for moving too slowly on these matters, and for being too lenient with the South. Then the fiercely antislavery “radical Republicans” took power, rammed through the Fourteenth (civil rights) and Fifteenth (voting rights) Amendments, maintained the presence of federal troops in the South to enforce those laws, and ran a proto-War on Poverty through a new federal agency called the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was meant to help the freed slaves.
Just as the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment were enormously controversial in the North as well as the South, so too – only more so – were these “radical Reconstruction” measures.
The freed slaves never got “forty acres and a mule,” a land-reform idea that has resonated through the years but wasn’t enacted (see “Rumors of the Land” but they did get the basics of citizenship-most importantly, the right to vote. One of the most amazing achievements in the history of Black America was the creation, in just a few years, of an elaborate political machinery — Republican, of course –that produced far higher (in fact, pretty close to 100 percent) voter turnout among freed slaves in the South than the United States as a whole has now.
One result of this was that the South elected dozens of Black officials to national office, and another was that state and local governments delivered, at least to some extent, what the freed slaves wanted, notably education at all levels.
The Ku Klux Klan, which began in the immediate aftermath of the war and was suppressed by federal troops, soon morphed into an archipelago of secret organizations all over the South that were more explicitly devoted to political terror. These organizations — with names like White Line, Red Shirts, and White League — had shadowy ties to the more respectable Democratic Party. Their essential technique was to detect an incipient “Negro riot” and then take arms to repel it.
There never actually were any Negro riots; they were either pure rumor and fantasy that grew from a rich soil of White fear of Black violence (usually entailing the incipient despoliation of White womanhood) or another name for Republican Party political activity, at a time when politics was conducted out of doors and with high-spirited mass participation.
The White militia always won the battle, if it was a battle, and nearly all the violence associated with these incidents was suffered by Black people. In the aggregate, many more Black Americans died from white terrorist activities during Reconstruction than from many decades of lynchings. Their effect was to nullify, through violence, the Fifteenth Amendment, by turning Black political activity and voting into something that required taking one’s life into one’s hands.
The Army was in the South to enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteen Amendments, and it became increasingly clear that without its presence, the white South would regionally nullify those amendments through terrorism. But the use of federal troops to confront the white militias was deeply unpopular, including in the North.
President Ulysses S. Grant, perhaps out of conviction and perhaps out of political calculation (Black Southern voters were a big part of the Republican electoral base), placed himself close to the pro-Reconstruction edge of White opinion. Every member of his Cabinet was more hostile to Reconstruction than he was. But he did not feel confident that he could empower federal troops again and again to enforce black voting rights until the South finally accepted those rights. The crucial moment came in the fall of 1875 (election dates were less standardized then than they are now), when Mississippi and Ohio held state elections.
Grant tried to compromise by sending a negotiator to Mississippi to broker a peace treaty between the Republicans and the White Line organization, but the Democrats immediately violated the treaty, there was a wave of electoral violence in November, and the Democrats swept back to power (while the Republicans held Ohio).
The next year, militia organizations across the South copied “the Mississippi plan” for Black vote suppression, and this was one reason the 1876 presidential election ended in a tie-which was resolved by the Republicans promising to withdraw federal troops from the former Confederacy, in return for the presidency. From that point on, enforcement of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments in the South grew increasingly lax.
By the 1890s the Southern states were able legally to institute the Jim Crow system, which formally rescinded Black civil rights and voting rights, without challenge from the federal government.
In 1957, Congress passed a civil rights bill, and President Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops to the South to ensure Black Americans’ rights (specifically, the right to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas) – the first time either had happened since 1875.
Once your ear is tuned to hear them, echoes of Reconstruction are all around us today. The distinctive voting patterns of the South are a product of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and the dramatic switch in the South’s political loyalties beginning in the 1960s is a direct result of the Democratic Party’s aligning itself with the original goals of Reconstruction.
It’s no accident that African-Americans are consistently the group with the most favorable view of government; essentially all of their progress toward full legal equality came as a result of government — specifically, federal government-action. Periods of greater state and local power were periods of at best no progress, and at worst more terror.
Nicholas Lemann a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and the author of “Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War.” This article was originally published by the Washington Monthly Magazine.