Africans in America: Part Five

By KWAME SOMBURU

The defeat of the Confederacy meant that the Southern slavocracy ceased to exist as a power. It caused the expropriation of four million slaves, worth approximately $4 billion, half of the slave owners’ capital.

In addition, the war caused a two-thirds devaluation in the worth of their land, and destroyed much of their fixed capital, buildings, and machinery. It also left them indebted to the Northern capitalists for pre-war debts, and holding worthless Confederate war bonds.

In general, Southern businesses after the war were owned and controlled by Northern capitalists. Former ruling-class slaveowners became high-paid flunkies of the victorious Northerners.

Some former slaveowners left for places in the Western hemisphere where slavery still existed-such as Brazil, where they established a community called Americana. (It still exists, and Confederate memories and traditions are still revered and celebrated.)

If the Northern Republican politicians, and their industrial capitalist masters, had wanted to give real freedom, justice, and equality to the former slaves, quasi-free Blacks, and even the miserable, duped “poor whites,” they could have. But that was not why the war was fought. It is not in the nature of capitalism to do anything but enrich the few at the expense of the many.

Immediately after the war, under President Andrew Johnson, the former slaves were re-enslaved in a form that lasted into this century, and still exists in a somewhat modified and muted form. Chain gangs of African Americans became a common sight in the South.

The vast majority of Southern whites simply took it for granted that the former slaves and those who were allegedly “free” before the Civil War, would remain subordinate to whites in every respect. “Black Codes,” passed by newly reorganized Southern state governments, were enforced by the Johnson administration in Washington. The Black Codes varied from state to state, but these were their general objectives:

  • They declared any Black without employment to be a vagrant, who could be arrested and hired out to the highest bidder. Blacks were forbidden to leave jobs before the expiration of the period they had been hired for.
  • Some states authorized employers to inflict corporal punishment on Black workers.
  • The codes deprived Blacks of the right to vote, sit on juries, or give testimony against whites.
  • Punishments for the same crimes and misdemeanors were more severe for Blacks than for whites.

President Johnson allowed the former Confederacy to hold elections in which only whites could vote.

When the Southern contingent of those elected to Congress in the 1865 elections arrived in Washington to take their seats, included in their ranks were the former vice president of the Confederacy, six former Confederate cabinet members, 58 former Confederate congressmen, four former Confederate generals, and five former Confederate colonels.

The actions of the Johnson administration are not surprising, considering his background and the forces he represented. Johnson was a former Democratic senator from Tennessee. He was chosen as the Republican Party vice-presidential candidate in 1864, when the party attempted to broaden its base by including pro-union “War Democrats.”

The Ku Klux Klan

Racist whites organized after the Civil War to prevent the gains that Black people thought they had won as a result of the war and amendments to the Constitution.

In Memphis in 1866, according to The New York Times, armed whites “commenced firing upon every Negro who made himself visible. … From 15 to 20 were killed.”

In October 1865, white workers in Baltimore went on strike in protest against Blacks working as shipbuilders and longshoremen. The police and city government supported the strikers, and Blacks were driven from the shipyards.

The Black workers held a meeting where Isaac Myers “the first important Black labor leader in America,” proposed that a workers’ cooperative be formed. In 1869, he proposed that Black workers organize a National Labor Union. Myers stated that the aim of the new union would be “to organize the colored mechanics of Maryland,” in situations where white mechanics would not work with them or let them into their unions.

Many whites in the South cherished and revered the memory of their former power of life and death over Blacks-slave or free.

What they especially remembered was the widespread practice of night patrols-white men specially deputized for the purpose of prowling Southern roads, enforcing the curfew for slaves, looking for run-aways, and guarding rural areas against the threat of Black uprisings. The law authorized them to give a specific number of lashes to any violators of white supremacist laws.

In December 1865, six young ex-Confederates met in a law office to form a secret club, which they called the Ku Klux Klan. They originally decided to call themselves the Knights of the Golden Circle. The Knights of the Kuklos was suggested to avoid confusion with an older organization called the Knights of the Golden Circle. Kuklos is a Greek word for “circle.”

This was agreed to, and the Kuklos Klan resulted, which soon became the Ku Klux Klan. They described their organization as:

An institution of Chivalry, Humanity, Mercy, and Patriotism; embodying in its genius and its principles all that is chivalric in conduct, noble in sentiment, generous in manhood, and patriotic in purpose; its peculiar objects being … to protect the weak, the innocent, and the defenseless, from the indignities, wrongs, and outrages of the lawless, the violent, and the brutal….

Southern aristocrats controlled the Klan, and poor whites made up its rank and file. By 1868, it had more than 500,000 members, and committed millions of terrorist acts-such as lynchings, tar-and-featherings, massacres, and burning the houses and farms of Black people.

The Klan was made to order for the immediate needs of the Southern ruling class to reassert its control. Eventually, it also met the needs of the Northern capitalists, when they decided to abandon the former slaves and poor whites for the sake of unity among exploiters.

Radical Reconstruction

With the elections of 1866, the industrial capitalists assumed full political control of the country. In order to cement a temporary alliance between the capitalist class and the Black population, the radical wing of the Republican Party pressed for electoral and judicial democratic rights for Blacks.

Whatever concessions were given up were the result of vigorous pressure from Blacks and their radical political allies, such as Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, and abolitionists such as Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass.

During the Radical Reconstruction period, Blacks won the right to vote without educational or property requirements. The Fifteenth Amendment, guaranteeing the right to vote to any male citizen, was ratified in 1870. (And so, the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s actually regained franchise rights that had been granted almost 100 years earlier.)

Black voters and their allies sent 14 Blacks to Washington. These were congressional representatives from six Southern states and two senators from Mississippi. More were elected but were refused their seats on various racist pretexts.

Black legislators passed many reforms-including the establishment, for the first time in the South, of free public education. The full question of Black rights, however, was never settled satisfactorily for the former slaves. This can be seen in regard to the question of land.

Historian W.E.B. DuBois pointed out: “Again and again, crudely but logically, the Negroes expressed their right to the land and the deep importance of this right.” But the Northern capitalists had other ideas. They wanted a cheap, docile, labor force-not an independent force of land owners, especially former Black slaves.

The Freedman’s Bureau only partially fulfilled the early promises of land (“40 acres and a mule”) to the almost 4 million former slaves. Later, the government took back most of the land that the people did manage to acquire.

At the same time, however, the government had no problem with giving land away to former slave masters and capitalist exploiters. Thus, the allegedly “Pro-Black” Republican Party of “Massa Linkum” pardoned Jefferson Davis-the racist traitor and slave master-and gave him back his plantation, which had been parceled out to former slaves.

A colossal gift of land to the railroad companies is another example of the government’s real priorities. Lincoln and succeeding presidents gave the Union Pacific more land than the combined area of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe received over 2,928,928 acres in Kansas.

By 1872, the giveaway to the capitalists of land taken by force from the Native Americans had amounted to 155,000,000 acres-an area estimated to be almost equal to the New England states, New York, and Pennsylvania combined.

Reconstruction is overturned

Massacres, tortures, and assassinations of Blacks continued unabated. They were carried out by terrorist groups ranging from the Democratic Party to the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camelia, the White Brotherhood, the Pale Faces, and the ’76 Association.

In the state election of 1875, Mississippi Democrats simply resolved to use as much force as necessary in order to win. Local Democratic clubs organized themselves into irregular militia companies and armed themselves with rifles.

They paraded through the areas of heavy Black population and dispersed Republican meetings. They provoked riots in which hundreds of Black people were killed and they posted armed pickets to prevent Blacks from registering to vote. In some instances, federal troops sided with the white terror gangs.

The election results of 1876 were bitterly disputed by the Republicans and Democrats. During the campaign of 1876, the Republicans split into two factions-the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds. Each faction supported a different candidate, but Rutherford B. Hayes became the compromise candidate at the convention and opposed the Democratic candidate, Samuel J. Tilden.

Just before the election, President Grant sent federal troops to South Carolina and Louisiana to protect the rights of Black voters, in order to gain support for the Republican ticket.

Tilden received almost 250,000 more popular votes than Hayes. Both parties claimed victory because four states had submitted two sets of electoral returns, one by the Democrats and one by the Republicans. Congress had to create a special electoral commission to decide the winner. During the debate, members of both parties threatened to seize the government by force.

The commission had a Republican majority, so the Democrats did not expect a fair decision. However, they agreed to accept the decision if the Republicans would withdraw federal troops from the South.

The Republicans agreed, and just 56 hours before Inauguration Day, in March 1877, Hayes was formally announced as the winner. One of his first acts was to withdraw the troops. That gave the former Confederates complete political control over their state and local governments for the first time since the Civil War.

The white supremacists now became considerably more bold, unrestrained, and powerful. The tide turned against Blacks and their allies. Demoralization and splits occurred in their movement.

Attorney General Alphonso Taft wrote Hayes that “it is a fixed and desperate purpose of the Democratic Party in the South that the Negroes shall not vote, and murder is a common means of intimidation to prevent them.”

The withdrawal of federal troops from the South meant that the government could use them against other victims of the ruling capitalists-the Northern industrial workers and those Native American peoples who were still fighting to keep their land.

The year 1877 heralded the start of massive class struggles between the working class and the capitalists.

In July, workers seized control of the railroads. General strikes, almost revolutionary in character, were carried out in a dozen major cities; President Hayes threatened to order martial law. The use of thousands of federal troops against the workers was decisive in bringing the strikes to a halt.