The First and Second Reconstructions held out the great promise of rectifying racial injustices in America. The First Reconstruction, emerging out of the chaos of the Civil War had as its goals equality for Blacks in voting, politics, and use of public facilities. The Second Reconstruction emerging out of the booming economy of the 1950’s, had as its goals, integration, the end of Jim Crow and the more amorphous goal of making America a biracial democracy where, “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave holders will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” Even though both movements, were borne of high hopes they failed in bringing about their goals. Born in hope, they died in despair, as both movements saw many of their gains washed away. I propose to examine why they failed in realizing their goals.
My thesis is that failure to incorporate economic justice for Blacks in both movements led to the failure of the First and Second Reconstruction. The First Reconstruction came after the Civil War and lasted till 1877. The political, social, and economic conditions after the Civil War defined the goals of the First Reconstruction. At this time the Congress was divided politically on issues that grew out of the Civil War: Black equality, rebuilding the South, readmitting Southern states to Union, and deciding who would control government.1 Socially, the South was in chaos. Newly emancipated slaves wandered the South after having left their former masters, and the White population was spiritually devastated, uneasy about what lay ahead. Economically, the South was also devastated: plantations lay ruined, railroads torn up, the system of slave labor in shambles, and cities burnt down.
The economic condition of ex-slaves after the Civil War was just as uncertain; many had left former masters and roamed the highways.2 Amid the post Civil War chaos, various political groups were scrambling to further their agendas. First, Southern Democrats, a party comprised of leaders of the confederacy and other wealthy Southern whites, sought to end what they perceived as Northern domination of the South. They also sought to institute Black Codes, by limiting the rights of Blacks to move, vote, travel, and change jobs,3 which like slavery, would provide an adequate and cheap labor supply for plantations. Second, Moderate Republicans wanted to pursue a policy of reconciliation between North and South, but at the same time ensure slavery was abolished.4 Third, Radical Republicans, comprised of Northern politicians, were strongly opposed to slavery, unsympathetic to the South, wanted to protect newly free slaves, and keep there majority in Congress.5 The fourth political element, at the end of the Civil War was President Andrew Johnson whose major goal was unifying the nation. The fifth element were various fringe groups such as, abolitionists and Quakers. Strongly motivated by principle and a belief in equality, they believed that Blacks needed equality in American society, although they differed on what the nature of that should be.6 The Northern Radical Republicans, with a majority in Congress, emerged as the political group that set the goals for Reconstruction which was to prevent slavery from rising again in the South. At first, the Radical Republicans thought this could be accomplished by outlawing slavery with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.
But Southern Democrats in their quest to restore their rule in the South brought back slavery in all but name, by passing Black Codes as early as 1865. Both Moderate Republicans and Radical Republicans in Congress reacted. Joining together in 1866, they passed a bill to extend the life and responsibilities of the Freedmen’s Bureau to protect newly freed slaves against the various Black Codes. President Johnson vetoed the bill, but Radical and Moderate Republicans eventually were able to pass it.7 The Black Codes and President Johnson’s veto of all Reconstruction legislation that was unfavorable to the South caused Moderate and Radical Republicans to change their goals from just ending slavery to seeking political equality and voting rights for Blacks.8 The new goals, were based on humanitarian and political considerations. Northerners had grown increasingly sympathetic to the plight of the Blacks in the South following numerous well publicized incidents in which innocent Blacks were harassed, beaten, and killed.9 The extension of suffrage to Black males was a political move by the Republicans in Congress who believed that Blacks would form the backbone of the Republican Party in the South, preventing Southern Democrats from winning elections in Southern states, and uphold the Republican majority in Congress after the Southern States rejoined the Union. As one Congressman from the North bluntly put it, “It prevents the States from going into the hands of the rebels, and giving them the President and the Congress for the next forty years.”10 Until the 1890’s, this policy of achieving equality through granting political rights to Blacks worked moderately well.
During Reconstruction, newly freed slaves voted in large numbers in the South. Of the 1,330,000 people registered to vote under Reconstruction Acts 703,000 were Black and only 627,000 were White.11 Even after 1877, when federal troops were withdrawn12, Jim Crow laws did not fully emerge in the South and Blacks continued to vote in high numbers and hold various state and federal offices. Between 1877 and 1900, a total of ten Blacks were elected to serve in the US Congress.13 This occurred because Southern Democrats forged a unlikely coalition with Black voters against White laborers14. Under this paternalistic order Southern Democrats agreed to protect Blacks political rights in the South in return for Black votes15. But voting and election figures hide the true nature of Black political power during and after Reconstruction. Few Blacks held elective offices in relation to their percentage of the South’s population.16 And those in office usually did not wield the power, which during Reconstruction continued to reside with Moderate and Radical Republicans in Congress, whites who ran Southern state governments, and federal troops.
Emancipated slaves had little to do with either fashioning Reconstruction policy or its implementation. Blacks political rights were dependent upon alliances made with groups with conflicting interests White Northern Republicans and White elites in the South.17 Though they pursued political equality for Blacks, their goals were shaped more by self-interest than for concern for Black equality. By 1905 Blacks lost their right to vote. In Louisiana alone the number of Black voters fell from 130,334 in 1896 to 1,342 in 1904.18 The number of elected Black public officials dropped to zero. The disenfranchisement of Blacks was accomplished through good character tests, poll taxes, White primaries, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and intimidation.
By 1905, whatever success politically and socially the Reconstruction had enjoyed had been wiped out.19 Following on the heels of disenfranchisement came implementation of comprehensive Jim Crow laws segregating steamboats, toilets, ticket windows and myriad of other previously non-segregated public places. 20 Two historians, C. Van Woodward and William Julius Wilson, both pin point specific events such as, recessions, class conflicts, imperialist expansion to explain the rise of Jim Crow. Wilson’s21 and Woodward’s22 analysis is lacking because the United States has undergone many recessions and many times minority groups such as Jews, Irish, and Eastern Europeans and have been blamed for taking away the jobs of the lower-class; and yet these groups have not had their votes stripped away from them and did not have an elaborate set of laws constructed to keep them segregated in society as Blacks have. The only community of people in the Untied States who have been victims of systematic, long-term, violent, White Supremacy have been Native Americans.
And Native Americans, like Afro-Americans, have been predominately powerless economically and politically. This points to the conclusion that the systemic demise of the First Reconstruction stems from the failure of Reconstruction leaders to include economic justice for Blacks as a goal; thus dooming the Reconstruction movement from the outset. The failure of pursuing a policy of economic redistribution forced Blacks into fragile political alliances that quickly disintegrated (as can be seen in 1877 and 1896); Blacks were forced to rely on the Radical Republicans and Federal troops to give them their rights and later their former slave masters, the Southern Democrats, to safeguard their rights.23 The disintegration of these agreements were caused directly by the events that Woodward and Wilson point to, but these political agreements were inherently fragile and would have inevitably unraveled because of their very nature. These political alliances had conflicting interests. The poor sharecropper and the White elites of the South were inherently unequal.
The former slaves were looked on not as equals, but as inferior.24 Whatever well meaning reforms were instituted were done so paternalistically and for Southern Democrats own interests. And when an alliance with Blacks no longer served the interests of the whites they were easily abandoned. When the Blacks agreement with the Southern Democrats unraveled Blacks were left economically naked except for the loin cloth of political rights. But this loin cloth was easily stripped from them, because lacking economic power, they were unable to make other political allies, their economic position allowed them to be easily intimidated by White land owners, they had no way to lobby the government, no way to leave the South, few employment opportunities, and for many Blacks no education.25 The leaders of the Reconstruction failed to understand that without economic justice Blacks would be forced into a dependency on the White power structure to protect their rights and when these rights no longer served the interests of this power structure they were easily stripped away. Reconstruction Acts and Constitutional Amendments offered little protection to stop this stripping away of Black political rights.
The Reconstruction leaders failed to understand the relationship between political rights and economic power, if they had they might not have rejected measures that could have provided former slaves with the economic power to safeguard their political rights. Two possibilities presented themselves at the outset of the First Reconstruction. A Quaker and Radical Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania, Thaddeus Stevens, proposed that the North seize the land holdings of the South’s richest land owners as a war indemnity and redistribute the land giving each newly freed Negro adult male a mule and forty acres.26 Thaddeus Stevens a bitter foe of the South,27 explained that a free society had to be based on land redistribution: Southern Society has more the features of aristocracy then a democracy… It is impossible that any practical equality of rights can exist where a few thousand men monopolize the who landed property. How can Republican institutions, free schools, free churches, free social intercourse exist in a mingled community of nabobs and serfs, of owners of twenty-thousand-acre manors, with lordly palaces, and the occupants of narrow huts inhabited by low White trash? Stevens plan in the Republican Press though drew unfavorable responses.
The plan was called brash and unfair. Only one newspaper endorsed it and that was the French paper La Temps which said, “There cannot be real emancipation for men who do no possess at least a small portion of soil.”28 When the bill was introduced in Congress it was resoundingly defeated by a majority of Republicans. Stevens was alone in understanding the tremendous institutional changes that would have to take place to guarantee the emancipation of a people. If the former slave did not have his own land he would be turned into a serf in his own nation a stranger to the freedoms guaranteed to him and a slave all but in name. The other alternative the leaders of Reconstruction had was expanding the Freedmen’s Bureau from a temporary to a permanent institution that educated all former slaves and ensured that former slaves had a viable economic base that did not exploit them. Instead, the Freedmen’s Bureau lasted merely five years, and only five million dollars were appropriated to it. Its mission to educate and protect the Freedmen was meet in only a small way in this short amount of time and when the Freedmen’s Bureau shutdown it left the education of former slaves to local governments which allocated limited if any funds.29 Although proposed by a few Republicans the Freedmen’s Bureau also refused to set a minimum wage in the South to ensure that former slaves received a fair wage from their former slave masters. Instead, the Freedmen’s Bureau was instrumental in spearheading the formation of sharecropping by encouraging both former slaves and plantation owners to enter into sharecropping agreements.30 By the time the Bureau ceased operations in 1870, the sharecropping system was the dominant arrangement in the South.
This arrangement continued the poverty and oppression of Blacks in the South. As one Southern governor said about sharecropping, “The Negro skins the land and the landlord skins the Negro.”31 The Freedmen’s Bureau missed a great opportunity; had its mission been broadened, its funding increased, and its power been extended, it could have educated the Black population and guaranteed some type of land reform in the South. Because neither Thaddeus Stevens plan for land redistribution or an expansion of the Freedmen’s Bureau took place, Blacks were left after slavery much as they were before, landless and uneducated. In the absence of an economic base for Blacks, three forces moved in during the 1890’s wiping out the political successes of Reconstruction: the white sheets of White supremacy, the blue suits of politicians all too eager to unify whites with racism, and the black robes of the judiciary in cases like Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896 stripped away Blacks’ social and political rights.
The Civil Rights movement came nearly ninety years after the First Reconstruction. The goals of the Second Reconstruction involved at first tearing down the legal Jim Crow of the South, but by the March on Washington in 1964 the goals had changed to guaranteeing all Americans equality of opportunity, integr …