Klu Klux Klan Klu Klux Klan Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In the first of a two-part analysis, John Westmoreland examines the contradictions of American society which laid the basis for black oppression to persist after the Civil War

‘There was one thing that the white South feared more than negro dishonesty, ignorance, and incompetency, and that was negro honesty, knowledge, and efficiency.’
W.E.B. Du Bois

The United States of America is a contradiction that baffles the world. On the one hand the USA is a leader in science and technology, a space-age super power. And yet it is home to some of the most backward ideologies in modern times. In modern history the rise of scientific reasoning has tended to drive God from, or at least from dominance, in the educational and political spheres. Not so with Uncle Sam.

Out of a population of 326.7 million over 40 per cent believe in the Rapture (Christian believers will rise into the clouds to meet God). The figure is higher among Evangelicals. Creationism – the literal belief that God made the world in seven days – is held by pretty much the same people. These beliefs are stronger in the southern and western states, weaker in the North East.

From this fertile soil of magical thinking prejudices against Blacks, gays, atheists, communists, Jews and any liberals who would give them house room are endemic. These people live in fear and paranoia, absorb conspiracy theories about ‘big government’ with Jewish control of Washington, the media and the CIA, and overwhelmingly support Trump.

African Americans have felt the full weight of this ideology, which has manifested itself in horrific and sustained violence. Suffice it to say that at its peak in the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist organisation dedicated to driving black people out of political life through terror, had over 4 million members nationwide. It is the largest political organisation in the history of the USA.

It didn’t have to be this way. The American Civil War (1861-5) that began over the secession of the slave states turned into a revolutionary war against the slave power after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was read out on January 1, 1863. Lincoln was forced by radicals and northern abolitionists to turn the war against the institution of slavery. Until then he had been content to leave this human property in subjugation. The Proclamation is a dull and uninspiring document, but the act of its passing drew massive reserves of manpower and enthusiasm into the conflict. Governor Andrew of Massachusetts rightly observed that the Emancipation Proclamation was “a poor document but a mighty act.”

After the Emancipation Proclamation former slaves flooded into the Union army, while others took up arms against their masters. Slaves often took over plantations and farmed them for themselves. The crushing of the planter aristocracy was in no small measure down to their former slaves. The planter class who had dominated the office of the President and the federal government were now dispossessed, dishonoured and broken. The Civil War was a revolutionary war because property, both human and landed, was liberated from the grip of a pre-capitalist class – an aristocracy.

The defeat of the planter aristocracy by the northern capitalists is what launched the USA into becoming the capitalist colossus that we see today. It was the second stage of a bourgeois revolution that had begun in the Revolutionary War of Independence (1775-83) that had seen the American colonists shake off the British yoke and found a republic.

The vexing conundrum that historians writing about the period after the Civil War face, is why the victorious capitalists didn’t cement the routing of the planters with a simple democratic solution, one that had been shown to work. Far reaching democratic empowerment for ex-slaves and the poor white labourers would forever eliminate the planter aristocracy.

1865 was a good vantage point to survey the outcome of the French Revolution. Constitutional reform and the creation of a citizenry with the right to equality before the law and the right to participate in political life, despite numerous counter attacks, had given the capitalist class unrivalled pre-eminence.

Before the French Revolution Europe had an ethnic minority that was excluded and despised. Jews were largely forced to live in ghettoes, a ‘people apart’, unprotected by the law and proscribed by the Catholic Church and feudal rulers.  Under Bonaparte’s leadership the ghettoes were torn down and Jews became citizens, and citizens who were to add mightily to the economic and cultural progress of their host nations. Couldn’t a similar democratic path be trodden in the USA?

Yet for most of the years since 1865 Blacks have been fighting against vicious racism in a vastly unequal society. The answer to this conundrum, and the baffling paradox that we started from, is to be found in the period following the Civil War, the period known as Reconstruction.

Reconstructing the Union.

The victors of the Civil War were the northern capitalists. They had secured for themselves the federal government, finance, taxation and foreign policy. They wanted to set about reconstructing the Union with the restoration of the rebel states, and reconciliation. The revolutionary forces that had fought and defeated the slave holders had their own ideas about what Reconstruction meant.

As had been the case in the English and French Revolutions, the revolutionary armies, their agitators and radicals, became an obstacle to the untrammelled power of the bourgeoisie once political power had been conquered from the aristocracy. And the northern capitalists were a long way from being petty bourgeois. The north was already an industrial powerhouse. Railroads and steam power were about to conquer the new soil of the homesteaders into one vast pulsating market. The industrial revolution was complete and American ingenuity was making itself felt in every manufacture.

The one economic similarity with the earlier revolutions in Europe would be the question of land reform in the rebel states, now that the planters were dispossessed.

Karl Marx had also anticipated what a victory for the Union armies would mean. Like the northern capitalists Marx could see that the defeat of the slave power would create the world’s largest and most powerful working class. That is as long as the battle cry of ‘freedom’ was taken up by organised labour.

The hope for a radical Reconstruction lay with the 180,000 former slaves who had fought for Lincoln in the Union army.

The end of the Civil War was a period of tremendous excitement about what the future might bring. The forces that could transform the South were former slaves and the poor white farmers. And with many cities in the south devastated by war land was the object of all the southern poor. The acquisition of land was the way to get out of poverty, and the way to get social status. It was the most visible and tangible way to bury the slave power. Former slaves knew that the plantations had been created by their sweat and blood. Their claim to land was every bit as deserved as was the famers staking their claim to land in the west.

On top of their claims to land, former slaves could only enjoy their victory if the legal and political restrictions slavery had forced on them were reversed. It may seem an absurdity to us today, but a massive issue for former slaves was the right to marry, and to have custody of their own children. Newspapers and store fronts were crammed with adverts asking for the whereabouts of children that had been sold off. Reunited families then needed public provision in education and the defence to their legitimacy that the vote and their own political representatives could give.

These demands were eloquently voiced during the canvass for the Constitutional Convention of 1867 by a Negro voter at Selma, Alabama who held up a red (Radical) ticket and shouted: “Forty acres of land! A mule! Freedom! Votes! Equal of white man!”

But Radical Reconstruction was to be contested. The dehumanisation of black humanity that had been used to justify slavery would not simply die out now the institution was ended. In his last speech at Appomattox, on April 11 1865, Lincoln said that he was considering giving the vote to black army veterans – if they were intelligent enough – and “who serve our cause as soldiers”.

These cautious words signed Lincoln’s death warrant. In the audience was one John Wilkes Booth who told his friend, “That means nigger citizenship! Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make”.

Would the racist remnants of the Confederacy be able to thwart a democratic Reconstruction? As historian George Novack has argued:

‘There were only two real powers in the South.  First and foremost was the Federal government headed by the Republican Party and controlled by the industrial capitalists. They controlled the military power. The other power was the might of the aroused masses headed by the four million Negro freedmen with their allies among the small farmers and poor whites.

If these two powers had marched along together down freedom’s road, they would have constituted an invincible combination.’

But as we shall see the various elements in the anti-slavery coalition had conflicting interests. There was no balance of power between the contending parties either. The Union army that was occupying the South was under the direction of the northern capitalists, headed by the Republican Party. The revolutionary activity of the freedmen could only go as far as northern arms allowed.

The Northern capitalists were glad to see the end of the slave power, but they were uneasy about seizing private property, especially seizure by the poorest inhabitants of the Union. This was a precedent to be avoided at all costs. This crack in the anti-slavery alliance would be exploited by the former planters who wanted to return to their privileged position.

Reconstruction in the USA: Black freedom denied – part 2 can be found here.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.