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What We're Up Against Part 1

(Above, Freedmen of the 1868 Louisiana State Government, during Reconstruction)

(I began this perspective on our current times before the tumultuous events of the last week. Those, I am not yet prepared to address.)

People speak of this moment of political protest and activism, so momentous, sustained and focused on systemic racism and all its manifestations, that it may herald the 3rd Reconstruction. That term posits our current struggle along the continuum of the unfinished work of equality that faced the nation at the end of the Civil War.

At the close of the war, full amnesty and pardon was offered to rebels provided they sign the following oath of allegiance to the Union:

I, _____, do solemnly swear or affirm, in presence of Almighty God, that I will henceforth faithfully support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Union of the States thereunder. And that I will, in like manner, abide by and faithfully support all laws and proclamations which have been made during the existing rebellion with reference to the emancipation of slaves, so help me God.

Let me share the following from a Southern Woman (from They Were Her Property ) who had just signed that oath:

“The only reason why so many swore the oath was to protect themselves against Yankee and Negro insolence and to preserve the remnant of their property…many who swore the oath did not mean it and had no intention of keeping the promises they made. Who considers it binding? No one. Not one person whom I have heard speak of it but laughs at and repudiates every obligation it imposes.”

So, that was the emotional starting point of Reconstruction (in the above scheme, the 1st such period).

That Reconstruction, 1865-1877, attempted to transform the former Confederate states through redressing the political, social and economic inequities of slavery. The Union was on it: even before the war’s end, an act of Congress created The Freedman’s Bureau – officially the Bureau of Refugees, Freedman and Abandoned lands - to help the 4 million newly emancipated Blacks as well as poor whites in the South, with a wide mandate to provide food, clothing, medical services and land. Intended as a temporary agency to bridge the immediate post war transition, the Freedman’s Bureau was manned by Union soldiers under the authority of the War Department.

Sadly, Vice President Andrew Johnson, who became president after the assassination of Lincoln three days after the war's end, was a Tennessee slaveholder who, though opposed to Succession, sympathized with the Confederacy. He favored allowing the South to determine the role and rights of the formerly enslaved (no imagination needed there!), opposed voting rights for Blacks, and opposed the Freedman’s Bureau. So, as he appointed military governors to rule until new civilian governments could be formed, he offered Blacks no role.

Then, add this perspective: You, all your neighbors and kin were willing to rebel, cede from the federal union and go to war to preserve the institution of slavery, for all it meant for life as you know it. As far as you are concerned, those enslaved were created by God inferior to serve you, are incapable of managing themselves, and are less than human. Four bloody years later, you have been vanquished. Friends and family are dead, widows and orphans abound, fields untilled, mansions burned, silver and furniture confiscated, and the enslaved liberated. The victors become an occupying force, and suddenly not only has your wealth been lost (the value of the enslaved prior to the rebellion exceeded the value of banks, railroads and industry in the US combined), but those who previously acknowledged your superiority, upon whose toil you depended, whom you could accost, sell, whip, punish, trade, rape at will, are standing up straight, looking you in the eye, refusing your orders.

No surprise, the vanquished white Southerners were simmering. They resented Union occupation. They particularly resented the Freedman’s Bureau, which quickly established schools for the newly freed (remember, it was illegal to teach a slave to read or write). An especially galling charge of the Freedman’s Bureau was negotiating contracts. As Southerners tried to keep the formerly enslaved working their land by any means, they found educated white men reviewing the terms of any contract or oral agreement. And if they failed to abide by conditions of the contract, or as had been common, to deliver agreed upon wages, their Black workers could appeal to the Bureau, which would do the unheard of – take the word of Blacks - ensuring the rights of the Freedmen.

With Johnson’s approval, the war torn South quickly held state constitutional conventions, excluding Freedmen. Ex-Confederate leaders won elections for state offices and the US Congress. In the words of South Carolina’s Provisional Governor, ‘this is a white man’s government.” Those governments rapidly they enacted “Black codes” mirroring those of colonial times, prohibiting Blacks from voting, serving on juries or traveling freely, and limiting Black occupational choices and restricting property, contract and labor rights, “ensuring their availability as a labor force.”

Northerners accused Southern whites of trying to restore slavery and the US Congress refused to seat Southerners elected under these new constitutions.

(I’m going to skip over the political party affiliation and machinations here, a choice that may make historians crazy. But following the trajectories of party politics is confusing, and ultimately, irrelevant. Individuals make their choices, and must be judged on their actions.)

What followed? Violent outbreaks: whites burnt newly built Black schools, churches, and homes, robbed, raped and murdered Freedmen. Particular venom was directed at Blacks recently mustered out of the Union Army. These “riots” were only quelled by Federal troops. (Similar episodes exploded when Black GIs returned from WW1 and WW2, said due to the combustion of Southern whites reacting to the uniforms which indicated status and tours of duty altering the expectations/behavior of Blacks, who, invariably, were treated better abroad. In one of the most egregious post WW2 episodes, Isaac Woodard was blinded by a South Carolina sheriff. After local officials failed to act, Truman ordered an investigation and federal prosecution. At trial, the sheriff, Shull, admitted he struck the soldier in the eyes with his billy club! His defense attorney said to the all white jury, "if you rule against Shull, then let this South Carolina secede again." Shull was acquitted, a travesty which catalyzed Truman's decision to desegregate the armed forces.)

But the violence lead to National outrage which shifted political power in Congress (2020 note: VOTE!!!). Black codes were repealed in some states, in a final salvo to prevent Northern intervention in reconstruction, but it was too late. Congress passed the first Civil Rights Act of 1866, which declared all male persons born in the United States to be citizens "without distinction of race or color, or previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude." It also outlined specific rights:

  1. "to make and enforce contracts"

  2. "to sue, be parties, and give evidence" in court

  3. "to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property"

  4. "to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property, as is enjoyed by white citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, and penalties, and to none other"

President Johnson promptly vetoed this law. This law, he stated, would “…establish for the security of the colored race safeguards which go indefinitely beyond any that the General Government has ever provided for the white race. In fact, the distinction of race and color is by the bill made to operate in favor of the colored against the white race.” (Sound familiar?)

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 became the first major bill in the United States signed into law after overturning a presidential veto. Johnson’s opposition to reconstruction lead to his Impeachment by the House, but the removal vote failed in the Senate by 1 vote.

Reconstruction saw the passage of the13th Amendment abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude (with its Achilles’ heel “except as punishment for a crime”, see Ana DuVernay’s 13th movie) and in 1868, the 14th Amendment granting birth right citizenship. Enfranchisement of Blacks, with voting rights, lead to many Black elected leaders, as the image of the Black elected officials in the 1868 Louisiana above attests. (How different would the Congress of today look, without decades of gerrymandering and voter suppression?) The Freedman’s Bureau mandate was extended. It established thousands of schools, and in 1867 helped found Howard University, in Washington DC (named after a Civil War hero and Commissioner of the Bureau) a historically Black college. The Bureau built hospitals, and offered legal assistance, and continued negotiating and adjudicating labor contracts.

Sadly, the Bureau was undermined by Johnson, who fired “Black sympathizing” agents. Hobbled by insufficient funding, and under pressure from white Southerners, the Freedman’s Bureau closed in 1872. Violent white backlash continued, enforced by the newly formed original American terrorist group, the Ku Klux Klan. Ulysses S. Grant, elected in 1868, enforced the protection of Blacks in the South, and his actions nearly obliterated the KKK. But tensions remained.

In response to the violations of African American rights, the second Civil Rights Act (1875), known as the Enforcement Act, guaranteed African Americans equal treatment in public transportation and public accommodations and service on juries.

Economic woes, racism, a sense that Reconstruction had failed and partisan party politics sapped the North of interest in helping Southern Blacks. Reconstruction was seriously hobbled by the Compromise of 1877, which, to settle the disputed 1876 election the Congress elected a Northerner, President Rutherford B Hayes, on the condition that Reconstruction come to an end, and that US Army troops be withdrawn from the three states where they remained. But the final death knell sounded in 1883, when the Supreme Court declared the Enforcement Act of 1875 unconstitutional, essentially legalizing Jim Crow and Black disenfranchisement.

And so the effort to redress the systemic inequities of 250 years of Black enslavement ended after 18 years. Not until 1964 would another Civil Rights Act pass.

So why did I spend so much time talking about events of 150 years ago?

To reframe our current conversation.

Because what we are facing now is unfinished business, a reckoning and reconciliation that never happened. The North won the war. The South surrendered on the battlefield but that was a military surrender. They never surrendered the mind set behind succession: preservation of slavery. Hearts and minds were not won. Southern attitudes were not changed, unless you consider the ramifications of adding rage, wounded pride, perceived humiliation and resentment to extreme racial prejudice. Those who enslaved denied the humanity of Blacks. (I could write a book about how the institution poisoned the humanity of Southern whites, but I digress.) Chattel ownership no longer legal, white Southerners, who ached to return to their Antebellum grandeur and pride, after 12 years of chafing under Union occupation, simply tweaked the law and reverted to systematic economic exploitation of Blacks. The following glimpse into the post Civil War South was captured by a reporter for Atlantic Magazine, who spent 3 months traveling the South in 1886, as part of a special February 1866 Issue: The Civil War. “The war has taught this people only that the physical force of the nation cannot be resisted. They will be obedient to the letter of the law, perhaps, but the whole current of their lives flows in direct antagonism to its spirit.” “Till all these hateful walls of caste are thrown down, we can have neither intelligent love of liberty, decent respect for justice, nor enlightened devotion to the idea of national unity. “There is everywhere a lack of intellectual activity. Schools, books, newspapers,--why, one may almost say there are none outside the cities and towns. The situation is horrible enough, when the full force of this fact is comprehended; yet there is a still lower deep,--there is small desire, even feeble longing, for schools and books and newspapers. The chief end of man seems to have been "to own a nigger." In the important town of Charlotte, North Carolina, I found a white man who owned the comfortable house in which he lived, who had a wife and three half-grown children, and yet had never taken a newspaper in his life. He thought they were handy for wrapping purposes, but he couldn't see why anybody wanted to bother with the reading of them.” A stinging indictment, to be sure, the fairness of which I cannot judge. But though the entire 1866 issue is fascinating, this excerpt highlights some of the divide we still face in 2020.

To be continued.


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