In his classic 1955 work, "The Strange Career of Jim Crow", C. Vann Woodward wrote of the "forgotten alternatives" of America's racial history. Woodward focused on the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction periods, and his work scraped away layer upon layer of conventional wisdom that held that blacks and whites living together and sharing power as equals was a preordained failure.
The Strange Career of Jim Crow is one of the great works of Southern history. Indeed, the book actually helped shape that history. Published in 1955, a year after the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education ordered schools desegregated, Strange Career was cited so often to counter arguments for segregation that Martin Luther King, Jr. called it "the historical Bible of the civil rights movement."
The book offers a clear and illuminating analysis of the history of Jim Crow laws, presenting evidence that segregation in the South dated only to the 1890s. Woodward convincingly shows that, even under slavery, the two races had not been divided as they were under the Jim Crow laws of the 1890s. In fact, during Reconstruction, there was considerable economic and political mixing of the races. The segregating of the races was a relative newcomer to the region.
In "Black Reconstruction in America", W.E.B. Du Bois explicitly refuted the assumption that African Americans were “distinctly inferior creation, who can never successfully take part in modern civilization.” He implied that this assumption was held by many of his potential readers as well as historians who had previously written about Reconstruction. The book directly challenged dominant views of the time that the Reconstruction era in American history was a disaster for the South and for the country.
The exact dates demarcating Reconstruction are not universally agreed upon. Eric Foner suggets the years 1863 to 1877: the period from the Emancipation Proclamation to the year that the ideal of Reconstruction to protect the fundamental rights of all citizens gave way to southern "Redemption" and "home rule," the equivalent to white rule. Still others might point to 1883 as the end of Reconstruction, the year the Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional.
By law, at least, African Americans made significant gains for their rights as citizens during Reconstruction. Racism prevailed however, and once "Southern Redemption" took hold by the 1880s, racist policies continued and proliferated. Federal laws, Supreme Court decisions, and presidential initiatives would vacillate between furthering and hindering the civil rights of African Americans.
Prior to the Civil War the United States Constitution did not provide specific protections for voting. Qualifications for voting were matters which neither the Constitution nor federal laws governed. By the time of the Civil War, reforms over the previous half-century had whittled down property qualifications that excluded working class and poor white Americans from voting. Before emancipation, blacks residing in five New England states could vote. Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont, which contained only 6 percent of the northern black population, had extended the right to vote to blacks. In New York, blacks owning $250 in freehold property could also cast a ballot; however, the same property qualification did not apply to whites.
Reconstruction began before the war ended. A few weeks after Union General William T. Sherman concluded his march to the sea in Savannah, he met with twenty black men, including the Reverend Garrison Frazier, to discuss how to deal with tens of thousands of freed blacks who had left inland plantations and followed Sherman's forces to the coast. Frazier was asked, "What should we do with all these refugees?" He replied that the "best way we can take care of ourselves is to have land." Sherman responded with Special Field Order 15 to deliver "forty acres and a mule" to each freed slave.
Before Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, he had formulated a plan of reconstruction that would be lenient toward the defeated South as it rejoined the Union. He planned to grant a general amnesty to those who pledged an oath of loyalty to the United States and agreed to obey all federal laws pertaining to slavery. (The exclusion to the general amnesty would be high-ranking Confederate officials and military leaders.) Lincoln's plan also stated that when a tenth of the voters who had taken part in the 1860 election had agreed to the oath within a particular state, then that state could formulate a new government and start sending representatives to Congress.
Andrew Johnson was intent on carrying out this plan when he assumed the Presidency. This policy, however, did not sit well with certain radical Republicans in Congress who wanted to set up military governments and implement more stringent terms for readmission of the seceded states. As neither side was willing to compromise, a clash of wills ensued.
Following the Civil War, Congress amended the Constitution in ways that confirmed American democracy and raised the hopes of African Americans for attaining equality. The Thirteenth, ratified in 1865, ended the institution of slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment, proposed to the legislatures of the several States by the Thirty-ninth Congress, on 13 June 1866 [but not ratified until in 1868] conferred citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States and guaranteed equal protection under the law regardless of race. All the Southern state legislatures, with the exception of Tennessee, refused to ratify the amendments, some voting against it unanimously. In addition, Southern state legislatures passed "codes" to regulate the African-American freedmen. The codes differed from state to state, but some provisions were common. African Americans were required to enter into annual labor contracts, with penalties imposed in case of violation; dependent children were subject to compulsory apprenticeship and corporal punishments by masters; vagrants could be sold into private service if they could not pay severe fines.
The federal government did much to improve and aid the newly freed slaves through the establishment of the Freedmen's Bureau in 1865. Among the many services provided, the Bureau supplied legal aid, set up schools, and provided health care. Also during Reconstruction, African-American men gained seats in Congress: two in the Senate and twenty in the House of Representatives. Despite the accomplishments, racism operated to subvert equality and justice. Congress passed bills to ensure civil rights and enforce Reconstruction in the South with the passage of a civil rights bill in 1866.
The extension of the franchise to black citizens was strongly resisted. The adoption of restrictive "Black Codes" by southern states sought to secure white supremacy and keep blacks as a laboring class. The Ku Klux Klan was founded in late December 1865 in Pulaski, Tennessee by former Confederate soldiers, to perpetuate white supremacy. The KKK was led by Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate States of America, was one of the most effective military commanders on either side of the Civil War. The name of the Ku Klux Klan was derived from the Greek word kuklos, meaning circle, and clann, a Scottish Gaelic word for the traditional tribal units of Scotland that reflected the Scottish ancestry of many of the KKK's founding members. The Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia, the White Brotherhood, the Boys of 76 and other underground terrorist organizations attempted to use violence and intimidation to preserve the old regime's power. White insurgents staged bloody riots in Memphis and New Orleans in 1866. The rebels also drew support from the remnants of irregular Confederate units such as Quantrill's Raiders, which produced the outlaws Frank and Jesse James. Though Forrest formally disbanded the Klan in 1869, the activity of the Klan continued.
Burning a cross in the United States was inextricably inter-twined with the history of the Ku Klux Klan, which imposed a reign of terror throughout the South, whipping, threatening, and murdering blacks, southern whites who disagreed with the Klan, and "carpetbagger" northern whites. The Klan often used cross burnings as a tool of intimidation and a threat of impending violence, although such burnings have also re-mained potent symbols of shared group identity and ideology, serving as a central feature of Klan gatherings.
The Freedmen's Bureau overruled or suspended the more oppressive features of the "black codes" adopted by Southern states in 1865-1866. These codes excluded blacks from juries and prohibited racial intermarriage. Some required segregation in public facilities, and several prescribed more severe punishment of blacks than whites for certain crimes. Although decried by abolitionists, the North was, as a whole, in no position to condemn these codes, for many Northern states also adhered to the same restrictions or discriminatory actions. The black codes strengthened the resolve of Republican congressmen to keep the South on probation until they could work out means to protect the freedpeople and to guarantee the fruits of victory.
Many Northerners interpreted the Southern response as an attempt to reestablish slavery and repudiate the hard-won Union victory in the Civil War. It did not help that President Johnson, although a Unionist, was a Southern Democrat with an addiction to intemperate rhetoric and an aversion to political compromise. Republicans swept the congressional elections of 1866. Firmly in power, the Radicals imposed their own vision of Reconstruction.
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