B. Post-Slavery--Reconstruction & Resistance; Jim Crow Era

For a brief time following the Civil War, hopes for improved racial justice were high. In addition to Congress' proposal of the Constitutional Amendments described above, the federal government undertook various other actions to attempt to aid the former slaves' transition to freedom. General William T. Sherman, for example, following his famous "March to the Sea" from Atlanta to Savannah in the War's last year, issued Special Field Order No. 15 in January 1865 confiscating certain coastal land in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina and dividing it into parcels of up to forty acres for the benefit of some 18,000 freed slaves and other blacks in the region.


1. 1865-1877--Reconstruction

With Abraham Lincoln's assassination on April 14, 1865, President Andrew Johnson inherited the executive responsibility for rebuilding the post-War Union. Under Johnson's Reconstruction policies, which started in May 1865 (with which he was often at great odds with Congress), "the former Confederate states were required to uphold the abolition of slavery ... swear loyalty to the Union and pay off their war debt. Beyond those limitations, the states and their ruling class--traditionally dominated by white planters--were given a relatively free hand in rebuilding their own governments."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Southern states did not go quietly into the night--rather, nearly all of them quickly began passing laws ("black codes") designed, ultimately, to ensure the availability of African-Americans as a cheap labor force. "While the codes granted certain freedoms ... including the right to buy and own property, marry, make contracts and testify in court (only in cases involving people of their own race)--their primary purpose was to restrict blacks' labor and activity." Further:

Some states limited the type of property that blacks could own, while virtually all the former Confederate states passed strict vagrancy and labor contract laws, as well as so-called "antienticement" measures designed to punish anyone who offered higher wages to a black laborer already under contract.

Blacks who broke labor contracts were subject to arrest, beating and forced labor, and apprenticeship laws forced many minors (either orphans or those whose parents were deemed unable to support them by a judge) into unpaid labor for white planters.

Passed by a political system in which blacks effectively had no voice, the black codes were enforced by all-white police and state militia forces--often made up of Confederate veterans of the Civil War--across the South.

The passage and enforcement of the black codes enraged many in the North, who thought the codes, besides denying blacks their basic human rights, breached core ideals underlying notions of free labor. Partly in response to the black codes, the radical Thirty-Ninth Republican Congress passed a series of measures designed to cement and guaranteed the fair and equal treatment of African-Americans.

For example, Congress created the U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen's Bureau) through the Freedmen's Bureau Acts of 1865 and 1866. In addition to providing medical aid, housing, food, schools, and legal assistance, the Freedmen's Bureau was authorized to set apart for freedmen "such tracts of [not more than forty acres of] land within the insurrectionary states as shall have been abandoned, or to which the United States shall have acquired title by confiscation or sale, or otherwise." By such representations, the prospect of "forty acres and a mule" thus became the great hope toward greater independence for millions of newly-freed slaves.

In 1866 Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment (ratified by the states in 1868), requiring states to provide "equal protection" to all persons. Then, Congress passed the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which mandated southern states ratify the Fourteenth Amendment before they could rejoin the Union and passed the Fifteenth Amendment in 1869 (ratified by the states in 1870).

The laws were enacted over the vetoes of President Johnson, himself a Tennessean who firmly opposed the radical Republicans' Reconstruction plans for protecting African-Americans. Among his other disruptive actions, besides the vetoes of legislation, Johnson restored land to former Confederates whom he had pardoned, and fired Freedmen's Bureau employees whom he viewed as too assertive in promoting black Americans' rights.

After Andrew Johnson's disappointing tenure in serving out Lincoln's term, the election of President Ulysses Grant in 1868 was a positive development from the standpoint of black Americans. Grant, as Lincoln's highest ranking General during the Civil War, had long-before established himself as sympathetic to the plight of the slaves, and that concern continued into his Presidency.

The efforts of President Grant and others toward greater racial justice were fiercely opposed by Southern (and Northern) racists, most notably evidenced by the particularly virulent and violent actions of the Ku Klux Klan. In his recent biography of Ulysses Grant, Ronald White describes the situation:

In the name of white supremacy, the KKK beat, whipped, maimed, kidnapped, and hanged thousands of black citizens. Their main aim became voter suppression of newly franchised African Americans, who they know would vote overwhelmingly Republican in local and state elections. In the 1870 state elections, the Klan's tactics allowed white Democrats to make substantial gains in several southern states.

At first the Klan applied economic pressure, threatening black laborers with the loss of employment if they voted for Republicans. As they moved into other southern states, night-riding Klansmen terrorized African-Americans in their homes and churches.

In response, and at the urging of President Grant, Congress passed three Enforcement Acts in 1870 and 1871 (the last known as the "Ku Klux Klan Act") to end the terrorism and authorize the president to use armed forces and to suspend habeas corpus, if necessary, to protect the freedmen. In the face of strong resistance from the states, Grant proclaimed, "I will not hesitate to exhaust the powers thus vested in the Executive ... for the purpose of securing to all citizens of the US the peaceful enjoyment of the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution and laws." Grant firmly believed the federal government should provide a leading role in protecting the rights of the black freedmen and Native Americans, since most states had shown themselves to be unwilling or unable to do so.

Grant worried, though, that increasing numbers of Republicans in Congress were beginning to capitulate to the "retreatist attitudes" of many in the North, and waffle on the issue of protecting African-Americans in the South. Within the South itself, racism was rampant. As Grant's Attorney General Amos Akerman, himself a Georgia Republican, put it, "[There is] a perversion of moral sentiment among the Southern whites which bodes ill to that part of the country for this generation."

In late 1871, after "outrages" were committed against hundreds of black voters (including two murders) in South Carolina, and the Klan refused to disperse after a presidential order, Grant went against his cabinet's advice in sending troops into the state, suspending the writ of habeas corpus, and empowering Akerman and his federal agents to arrest more than one hundred racist agitators. "In 1871 alone, federal grand juries brought three thousand indictments."

Despite "charges that he was acting like a tyrant," and the fact that his "aggressive campaign against the KKK alienated many of his former Republican allies," Grant won reelection by overwhelming margins in 1872, largely due to his support among the black vote in both the South and North. Frederick Douglass, for his part, enthusiastically endorsed Grant, declaring: "To me, it does not seem likely that the Republican party will find a candidate of equal strength as General Grant ... I know Grant well .... At all times he gave every aid to the development of the industry and of the improvement of the colored race."

The year 1872 also saw, however, the demise of the Freedmen's Bureau, created seven years earlier with such high hopes, which demonstrated the continuing erosion of support among Republicans for racial justice. The Bureau had been beleaguered for some time, to the point where "even among the agency's supporters in Congress and its own personnel, there was disagreement over what type of assistance the government should provide and for how long." So, in response to the politics of race and Reconstruction, Congress, in part under pressure from white Southerners, shut down the Bureau.

Clearly, serendipity was not smiling upon supporters of racial equality after 1872. Progress was stunted by the huge gains made by Democrats in the 1874 mid-term elections (made possible by concerted voter suppression efforts as well as a crippling economic depression in 1873 and 1874), and Grant's advocacy was further weakened by political scandals within his administration. The coup de grace was the "Compromise of 1877," involving the disputed presidential election of 1876--again with reports of widespread voter intimidation by Democrats--when Republicans agreed, in exchange for the Southern Democrats' support for Republican nominee Rutherford Hayes, to remove federal military oversight and to support home rule in the South. Without such oversight, the Southern States--which had always fiercely resented and resisted the Freedman's Bureau and other aspects of Reconstruction--were free to enact their racially discriminatory practices and policies, and "the endeavor to reconstruct the nation on a platform of civil rights for the freedmen had essentially ended."


2. 1877-1954--Post-Reconstruction; "Jim Crow"

The 1877 withdrawal of federal troops from the South allowed terrorism against blacks--lynching, rape, and arson--to resume virtually unchecked; and any hopes for providing greater opportunities for many blacks living under a sharecropping system, which was little better than slavery, were dashed. Even then, a small silver lining remained as late as 1885, however, in that some measure of African-Americans' political gains still remained. While touring South Carolina for several weeks that year, black journalist T. McCants Stewart wrote: "I can ride in first-class cars on the railroads and in the streets ... I can stop in and drink a glass of soda and be more politely waited upon than in some parts of New England." Stewart reported that he "saw a black policeman arrest a white criminal, and he saw whites casually talk with black strangers .... The morning light is breaking," he told his readers.

That optimism proved to be fleeting. Very quickly, "blacks would lose almost all they had gained .... Worse, denial of their rights and freedoms would be made legal by a series of racist statutes, the so-called Jim Crow laws." Jim Crow created a system of apartheid that separated whites from non-whites in virtually every aspect of society: jobs, schools, restaurants, restrooms, public transportation, and recreational facilities.

White supremacist dogma prevailed. "In the depression-wracked 1890s, racism appealed to whites who feared losing their jobs to blacks. Politicians abused blacks to win the votes of poor white crackers.' Newspapers fed the bias of white readers by playing up (sometimes even making up) black crimes." The crowning blow occurred when a black man sued to challenge an 1890 Louisiana law mandating separate train cars for blacks and whites, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, reasoning that the Fourteenth Amendment equal protection clause allows for "separate but equal" accommodations for people of different races, thus paving the way for another sixty years of blatant, officially-sanctioned oppression.

Soon, laws were passed across the South separating blacks from whites; and blacks' voting rights were also targeted through a variety of measures--such as limiting the "voting right to those who owned property or could read well, to those whose grandfathers had been able to vote, to those with good characters,' [or] to those who paid poll taxes." The Supreme Court upheld these measures, too, and they worked as intended: "In 1896, Louisiana had 130,334 registered black voters. Eight years later, only 1,342, 1 percent, could pass the state's new rules."

The oppression of African-Americans during this period was all-encompassing:

Jim Crow laws touched every part of life. In South Carolina, black and white textile workers could not work in the same room, enter through the same door, or gaze out of the same window. Many industries wouldn't hire blacks: Many unions passed rules to exclude them ....

By 1914, Texas had six entire towns in which blacks could not live. Mobile passed a Jim Crow curfew: Blacks could not leave their homes after 10 p.m. Signs marked "Whites Only" or "Colored" hung over doors, ticket windows, and drinking fountains. Georgia had black and white parks. Oklahoma had black and white phone booths.

Prisons, hospitals, and orphanages were segregated as were schools and colleges. In North Carolina, black and white students had to use separate sets of textbooks. In Florida, the books couldn't even be stored together. Atlanta courts kept two Bibles: one for black witnesses and one for whites.

Racist groups were ascendant around the turn of the century. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan, revived in 1915, used terror and expressly promoted violence as a way to keep African-Americans "in check." These decades were marked by horrendous crimes. Nearly 3,000 lynchings occurred throughout the South during this period (some estimates range much higher). Racist representations of blacks permeated popular culture, such as in D.W. Griffith's film Birth of a Nation, (which was even screened--to President Woodrow Wilson's enduring disgrace--at the White House in 1915). Southern whites, "literally were put to the torture" by "emissaries of hate" who inflamed "the negroes' egotism" and even inspired "lustful assaults" by blacks upon white womanhood.

Ta'Nehisi Coates described the reality of African-American life in the early twentieth century:

[P]olitical violence was visited upon blacks wantonly .... Black schools and churches were burned to the ground. Black voters and the political candidates who attempted to rally them were intimidated, and some were murdered. At the end of World War I, black veterans returning to their homes were assaulted for daring to wear the American uniform. The demobilization of soldiers after the war, which put white and black veterans into competition for scarce jobs, produced the Red Summer of 1919: a succession of racist pogroms against dozens of cities ranging from Longview, Texas, to Chicago to Washington, D.C. Organized white violence against blacks continued into the 1920s--in 1921 a white mob leveled Tulsa's "Black Wall Street," and in 1923 another one razed the black town of Rosewood, Florida--and virtually no one was punished.

Lawyer and Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson, a frequent modern-day public commentator, added:

[W]hen I teach my students about African-American history, I tell them about slavery, I tell them about terrorism, the era that began at the end of Reconstruction that when on until World War II. [Most people] don't really know very much about it, but for African-Americans in this country, that was an era defined by terror. In many communities, people had to worry about being lynched, they had to worry about being bombed. It was the threat of terror that shaped their lives. And these older people come up to me now, and they say "Mr. Stevenson, you give talks, you make speeches. You tell people to stop saying we're dealing with terrorism for the first time in our nation's history since 9/11." They tell me to say, "We grew up with that."


a. The Dunning School of History

The attitude that developed among Southern whites in the decades after the Civil War was one of profound victimization. "By the turn of the century ... Reconstruction was widely viewed as little more than a regrettable detour on the road to reunion," historian Eric Foner explains. "To the bulk of the white South, it had become axiomatic that Reconstruction had been a time of savage tyranny' that accomplished not one useful result, and left behind it, not one pleasant recollection."'

A major factor in the perpetuation of these racist attitudes--for nearly another one hundred years after the Civil War, both in the South and North--was the virtual takeover of the American History branch of the academic establishment by Southern sympathists in the early twentieth-century. Specifically, a group of young scholars from the South studying Reconstruction at Columbia University were taught by the eminent Professor William Archibald Dunning that blacks were "children" utterly incapable of appreciating the freedom that had been thrust upon them.

Foner comments, "[t]his rewriting of Reconstruction's history was accorded scholarly legitimacy--to its everlasting shame--by the nation's fraternity of professional historians [and] shaped historical writing for generations .... Few interpretations of history have had such far-reaching consequences as this image of Reconstruction," Foner continues, "[which] did much to freeze the mind of the white South in unalterable opposition to outside pressures for social change and to any thought of eliminating segregation, or restoring suffrage to disenfranchised blacks. They also justified Northern indifference to the nullification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments."

Among the first to call the Dunning School's accounts into question was W.E.B. Du Bois in various papers and his monumental 1935 book, Black Reconstruction. Du Bois argued in 1909 that, contrary to the conventional wisdom told by the Dunning historians, "[t]he Negro governments in the South accomplished much of positive good .... We may recognize three things which Negro rule gave to the South: .... (1) Democratic government; (2) Free public schools; and (3) New social legislation." He added that Reconstruction's failure to improve the plight of blacks could be explained by the federal government's failure to support the Freedman's Bureau "for ten, twenty or forty years with careful distribution of land and capital and a system of education for the children." DuBois's work was essentially ignored by mainstream historians, however, even though many of his perspectives would be validated generations later by acclaimed professional historians.

By the mid-twentieth century, the Dunning School had come under increasing criticism, leading to its ultimate demise by the end of the 1960s. "Despite its remarkable longevity, the demise of the traditional [Dunning School] interpretation was inevitable," Professor Foner suggests. "Once objective scholarship and modern experience rendered its racist assumptions untenable, familiar evidence read very differently, new questions suddenly came into prominence, and the entire edifice of the Dunning School had to fall."


b. Federal Government Collusion

Racial prejudice was not limited to private citizens or, for that matter, to state and local governments; in fact, discriminatory practices "extended even into the upper reaches of American government," explains Coates. "The New Deal is today remembered as a model for what progressive government should do--cast a broad social safety net that protects the poor and afflicted while building the middle class .... [But] progressives rarely note that Roosevelt's New Deal ... rested on the foundation of Jim Crow."

Columbia University Professor of History Ira Katznelson suggests that "[t]he Jim Crow South was the one collaborator America's democracy could not do without." Evidence of that sorry relationship during the New Deal abounds:

The omnibus programs passed under the Social Security Act in 1935 were crafted in such a way as to protect the southern way of life. Old-age insurance (Social Security proper) and unemployment insurance excluded farmworkers and domestics--jobs heavily occupied by blacks. When President Roosevelt signed Social Security into law in 1935, 65 percent of African-Americans nationally and between 70 and 80 percent in the South were ineligible. The NAACP protested, calling the new American safety net "a sieve with holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through."

[Moreover, t]he oft-celebrated G.I. Bill similarly failed black Americans, by mirroring the broader country's insistence on a racist housing policy .... The historian Kathleen J. Frydl observes in her 2009 book, The GI Bill, that so many blacks were disqualified from receiving Title III benefits "that it is more accurate simply to say that blacks could not use this particular title."

Moving then into the 1940's, 50's, and 60's, the federal government systematically excluded African-Americans from federal home mortgage loan programs, thus denying them the single greatest long-term wealth generation opportunity among twentieth-century Americans. "It was the Home Owners' Loan Corporation, not a private trade association," Coates explains, "that pioneered the practice of redlining, selectively granting loans and insisting that any property it insured be covered by a restrictive covenant--a clause in the deed forbidding the sale of the property to anyone other than whites." As a result of redlining, "[m]illions of dollars flowed from tax coffers into segregated white neighborhoods. One man said his black neighbor was probably a nice guy, but every time I look at him I see $2,000 drop off the value of my house."'

With these practices, "[f]or perhaps the first time, the federal government embraced the discriminatory attitudes of the marketplace," suggests historian Kenneth T. Jackson. "Previously, prejudices were personalized and individualized; FHA exhorted segregation and enshrined it as public policy. Whole areas of cities were declared ineligible for loan guarantees." The Fair Housing Act officially banned redlining in 1968, but "[b]y then the damage was done--and reports of redlining by banks have continued."

The federal government's active role in the widespread, systemic discrimination against African-Americans throughout much of the twentieth century is an outrage. After all, "[t]he federal government is premised on equal fealty from all its citizens, who in return are to receive equal treatment. But as late as the mid-20th century, this bargain was not granted to black people, who repeatedly paid a higher price for citizenship and received less in return."


c. Southern Memorialization

Another aspect of the historical revisionism of the period was the effort by various groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) to literally memorialize the Old South by erecting hundreds of statues and monuments, glorifying Confederate figures and principles throughout the South and beyond. The Southern Policy Law Center reports that most of the 718 statues and monuments to the Confederacy identified as of April 2016 were erected during the period from 1900-1920, with a smaller spike again during the Civil Rights Era from 1955-1965.

Today, and in recent years, the presence of these symbols and memorials is finally being challenged. The Confederate Battle Flag was banished from the South Carolina State Capitol following the murder of nine African-American parishioners in their Charleston church by white supremacist Dylann Roof on June 17, 2015. However, the Battle Flag still "maintains a publicly supported presence in at least six Southern states," as of April 2016, most prominently as the dominant feature of the Mississippi state flag.

Many other Confederate statues have been removed or are slated for removal. A statue of Robert E. Lee was covered and scheduled for removal in Charlottesville, Virginia--which prompted the white supremacist gathering last August leading to clashes with counter-protestors and the murder of Heather Heyer.

The heated debates over Confederate statues have shown a nation in denial and at war with its past. "America has been adept at evasion," suggests columnist Roger Cohen. While America has plenty of monuments to the horrors of the European Holocaust,

[b]y comparison, the great American crime of slavery, the laceration and lynching of black bodies, was scarcely memorialized .... How, after all, could those Confederate statues stand for so long and so prominently in so many American cities when they memorialized men who took up arms for slavery and in opposition to the Union?

It was on the occasion of the removal of the last of four Confederate statues in New Orleans in May 2017 that Mayor Mitch Landrieu commented:

[There are] truths about our city that we must confront. New Orleans was America's largest slave market: a port where hundreds of thousands of souls were bought, sold and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor of misery of rape, of torture ....

These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for .... Surely we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong.

Mayor Landrieu thus touches upon the elements required for successful processes of truth and reconciliation--first, the truth: honest, unblinking acknowledgement of, and acceptance of responsibility for, mistakes of the past. He moves then to reconciliation:

[U]nlike when these Confederate monuments were first erected as symbols of white supremacy, we now have a chance to create not only new symbols, but to do it together, as one people ....

Let us remember what the once exiled, imprisoned and now universally loved Nelson Mandela and what he said after the fall of apartheid. "If the pain has often been unbearable and the revelations shocking to all of us, it is because they indeed bring us the beginnings of a common understanding of what happened and a steady restoration of the nation's humanity."