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Race in Reconstruction

Ku Klux Klan organized

The Klan has been described by historian Clarence E. Walker as one of the "original American terrorist organizations." Most white southerners viewed literacy, political equality, or any advancement for blacks as a loss to whites. Terrorist groups like the Klan, the Knights of the White Camelia, the Red Shirts, and several others formed during Reconstruction to maintain the preexisting social order of white supremacy in the South.

Membership and Activities

After bribery failed, their members—led by merchants, Democratic politicians, and planters—used violent coercion to eliminate their competitors, white and black. These groups recognized that Reconstruction had to be undermined so that the experiment would fail and that blacks would never again receive such an opportunity. When Klansmen kidnapped and whipped Georgia Representative Abram Colby in 1869, he claimed to know who they were. As Colby testified three years later to a Congressional Committee investigating the matter, some of the individuals involved were "first-class men in our town," doctors, lawyers, and farmers. They broke into his home, kidnapped him, took him to the woods and made him remove his clothes. They whipped him for at least three hours "with sticks and straps that had buckles on the ends of them," and then left him for dead. Such cases were not uncommon. White men would line up to whip and burn black men who had been made to strip and tied to rocks. White women participated by sewing the white robes and hoods that the Klansmen used as disguises.

Unintended Consequences

Ironically, the Klan helped to prolong the Reconstruction period that it formed to defeat. Just as many Republicans were becoming reluctant to persist in their involvement with southern society, the KKK campaign galvanized Congress. In response to the Reconstruction governments' pleas for assistance, Congress passed three Enforcement Acts in 1870 and 1871. By the spring of 1871, if states failed to do so, federal district attorneys could prosecute anyone who conspired to deprive citizens of the right to serve on juries, hold office, enjoy equal protection under the law, or vote. In passing this legislation, the government entered uncharted territory and began to resemble a modern form.

Federal Intervention and Its Limitations

President Grant sent federal marshals into the South to arrest hundreds of Klansmen, and the ensuing trials effectively brought an end to organized terrorism in the South, at least until the end of the Reconstruction period. Yet outbreaks of racial violence preceded and followed the formation of the KKK. Between 1868 and 1871, Klan members killed over 150 people in the plantation county of Jackson, in the Florida panhandle, including black leaders and a Jewish merchant named Samuel Fleischman, who was a "scalawag" and was known for dealing fairly with black customers. In 1871, the same year as the passage of the Enforcement Acts, thirty blacks and a white Republican judge were murdered in Meridian, Mississippi. Two years later, the single most deadly attack occurred in Colfax, Louisiana, when whites stormed the entire town with a cannon and hundreds of freed people were murdered, including fifty black militiamen who had already surrendered.

North of Slavery

For all of its intractability on white supremacy and the forced subordination of blacks, the white South hardly held a monopoly on widespread racist sentiments. The North was the birthplace of segregation, particularly in its urban areas. Blacks were separated from whites in northern omnibuses, stagecoaches, railway cars, and steamboats, or they were excluded altogether. They could not sit alongside whites in theaters or lecture halls, and they could only enter restaurants or hotels as servants. In 1860, only five northern states allowed blacks to vote on equal terms with whites, and each of those states contained very small black populations. The entire region contained less than ten percent of all African-Americans in the United States. Race riots took place five times in Philadelphia (1832-49); in Cincinnati, where over half the black inhabitants were driven out of town (1829); and sporadically in New York City, culminating in the infamous Draft Riots (1863), to name just a few. Nonetheless, for all their similarities, northerners during Reconstruction demanded that the white South recognize the fact of emancipation.

The Demise of Reconstruction

Reconstruction ended for a number of reasons. Although the government's refusal to redistribute land to freed people was long remembered as a betrayal with ominous repercussions, this failure was not the cause of Reconstruction's demise. Southern white terrorism and violence, intent on destroying black leadership and coercing black labor, was the principal cause of the collapse and the subsequent takeover by the so-called Redeemers. This counterrevolution was permitted through the lack of federal presence in the South, from the ever-decreasing troop levels to the understaffed Freedmen's Bureau. Northerners lost interest in the cause of the freed people as the Reconstruction period extended to over a decade past the Confederate capitulation at Appomattox.

Corruption and Class Warfare

The multiple scandals and corruption charges that plagued several of the most high-ranking members of the Grant presidency, with the notable exception of Grant himself, disillusioned many Republicans and created an internal split within the party that led to the defection of the Liberal Republicans in 1872. Northerners, who had been developing an industrial base since the antebellum period, became preoccupied with the specter of class warfare represented by a rapidly mushrooming inequality of wealth and the emergence of a seemingly permanent working class of unskilled and impoverished workers. The National Labor Union (NLU) formed in 1866 to represent the grievances of skilled and unskilled workers, farmers, and reformers, and waged an unsuccessful campaign for an eight-hour workday. The financial panic of 1873 helped to bring about the demise of the NLU, but economic hardship also turned public attention back towards home and the financial centers of the Northeast. In the summer 1877, railroad employees sparked a chain reaction down the tracks and mounted the first nationwide strike in the country's history; ironically, the federal troops that had just been withdrawn from the South that same year were ordered by President Hayes to suppress the strikers, in the first such use of troops during a labor conflict.

"New" Immigration and White Supremacy

The postwar surge of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe sparked bigoted fears of invasion by inferior hordes and Catholics, and prompted sympathy among many Anglo northerners for the plight of the white southerner amidst a "backwards" minority. Even those northerners who did not subscribe to the increasingly popular pseudo-scientific racial theory tended to conclude that if blacks could not succeed with the rights and liberties accorded them by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, then it must be a failure of blacks themselves. This view neglected to consider the difference between the rights and freedoms accorded in theory and those actually enjoyed in practice, but few wished to revisit the case after so many years of southern white intractability and failed government attempts at policing the region and seeking to protect its minority inhabitants.

"The Corrupt Bargain"

By the presidential election of 1876, voting irregularities in Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana led to the establishment of a Senate committee to determine the outcome. By this time, the Republicans were ready to make a deal. Few Radicals were still alive, and the party had assumed the role of ally to the big business interests who were rapidly amassing power and capital while turning the country into the world's foremost industrial power by the turn of the century. Although Democrat Samuel J. Tilden had won the popular vote—itself a measure of northern voters' will to put the conflict behind them—the Senate committee was stacked with one more Republican than Democrat, and when Rutherford B. Hayes emerged the victor by one electoral vote, he was ready and willing to make the infamous "Corrupt Bargain" (not to be confused with the first "Corrupt Bargain" of 1824, and also known as the "Compromise of 1877") that removed federal troops from the South in order to pacify the opposition. The troops would not return for another eighty years—a new record for durability of sectional compromises in world history. The end of Reconstruction signaled northern complicity in allowing the South to dictate the shape and content of the period's history, in return for their acceptance of Republican dominance at the executive level and their cooperation in permitting and promoting new economic opportunities. All of these compromises were made at the expense of the black population, who would be increasingly disfranchised, economically marginalized, and socially persecuted in the decades that followed until the Civil Rights Movement.

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