The first black senators and representatives. Photo: Library of Congress The first black senators and representatives. Photo: Library of Congress

In the second of a two-part analysis, John Westmoreland explores the successes of Reconstruction, and the subsequent attempt to airbrush them from history


The first year, 1865-6

The first year of Reconstruction was a moment of tremendous possibilities. There was every chance that former slaves and poor whites in the South would join together to demand land, education and the vote. This unity would shut the discredited and broken planter aristocracy out of power. However, the machinations of Andrew Johnson, the incoming president who replaced Lincoln, would limit the pace of change and allow counterrevolutionary forces to emerge.

The deciding power lay in the hands of the northern capitalists headed by the Republican Party. However, after Lincoln’s death his running mate, Andrew Johnson, became president by default. Lincoln had wanted him because he was a southern Democrat who opposed the secession of the slave states. He thought this would offer the best chances of reconciliation at war’s end. But Johnson was, according to Frederick Douglass, a scowling, uncouth drunkard, who couldn’t hide his hatred for black people.

Johnson condoned the Black Codes that were passed to police and suppress the former slaves. The Codes meant that any black person who could not prove he had a job would be declared a vagrant, be imprisoned and forced to work – another form of slavery. Worst of all Johnson sought to restore the dispossessed planters to their lands, and recreate the old landed elite through issuing amnesties to confederate fighters and officials.

The Freedmen’s Bureau was established by Congress in 1865 to help former slaves and poor whites in the South. It was to provide food, housing and medical aid along with schools and legal assistance. It also attempted to settle slaves on former plantations. President Johnson vetoed its authority along with the proposed Civil Rights Bills that were necessary to formally confer citizenship on African-Americans.

Abolitionists and radicals in the North were enraged by the restoration of the planters. They used their dominant influence in Congress to hamstring Johnson. When Congress reconvened they denied the reinstated southern delegates a voice, and restored the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Had this commitment to freedom in the North been maintained we would never have seen Jim Crow.

With Johnson’s counterrevolutionary activities constrained a period of Radical Reconstruction ensued that saw the pinnacle of African Americans’ political achievements. Black men debated white men in Congress. Black men ran state legislatures. Black children flocked to schools and stepped on the ladder out of poverty and second class status.

However, the racists never accepted civil rights and resisted all attempts to raise the status of former slaves whom they still believed were subhuman. The Ku Klux Klan was formed in Tennessee in 1866. It drew in former slave hunters and criminals to become the military wing of the white supremacists

Radical Reconstruction

The years of Radical Reconstruction have to be understood in terms of the symbiosis of the radical northern politicians and the surging enthusiastic masses in the South. As George Novack has said of the northern Radicals:

“The more militant Radical leaders like Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner were the last of the great line of resolute representatives of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, like Cromwell, Robespierre, and Sam Adams. Stevens was a true friend of the Negro all his life, but he also recognized that the interests of capitalist industry could best be promoted by exterminating the slave power root and branch.”

The great achievement of the radicals is that through Congress they provided the military protective umbrella under which the democratic masses could act. The Colored People’s Conventions began by outlining a new Bill of Rights to repeal the Black Codes, the right to serve on juries, to vote, own land, to bear arms and to access free public education. And former slaves did not always wait for permission to act. Land was seized and local forms of administration were created to meet the needs of the situation. The basic demand in terms of land was to own 40 acres, and armed protection to fend off former owners was necessary. The land seizures did not go far enough, partly because the former slaves believed Republican promises to distribute land at a future date.

There are two measures of the success of Radical Reconstruction. The first success is in the field of politics. Two black men were elected to the Senate – Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce. Fifteen black men served in the House of Representatives. Many African Americans were elected to state legislatures and in South Carolina they were in a majority. Progressive reform was greatly enabled by the determination of newly enfranchised African Americans.

The second field of success was in education. Radical Reconstruction introduced universal free education with spectacular results. In South Carolina, in 1860, only 20,000 (all white) children were enrolled in schools. But by 1873 50,000 white children and 70,000 black children were enrolled. Despite Booker T. Washington’s remark that, “it was a whole race trying to go to school,” the figures show that the progressive reforms were benefiting poor white families too. And this is a crucial issue.

Black political leadership, working under the protection of northern arms, that benefited poor white southerners, offered a bright future to the South. But it didn’t take a genius to draw the political conclusions that flowed from it. Slavery had been as senseless as it was cruel and unjust. It had constrained and all but extinguished a vast human talent that could have been harnessed for the benefit of all. And what did it say about the planter class looking to claw its way back into power? 

Historians of Radical Reconstruction too rarely talk in terms of class. The fact that poor whites in the South were far more exploited than their northern brethren was a crucial issue for Marx. It explained why the southern aristocracy insisted on the ‘bond of whiteness’, to prevent poor whites making a common cause with the slaves. Marx knew then, and we insist today, that racism is there to divide the working class, and when it is removed the class becomes at once more conscious of its condition and its potential to fight for its interests. This explains why Radical Reconstruction was allowed to run out of steam, before being abandoned and finally reversed.

Under the presidency of the former Union General Ulysses S. Grant, and as the Radical Republicans’ influence in Congress weakened, northern interest in Reconstruction waned. Northern capitalism had problems of its own. Corporations were taking full advantage of their political power. The Union Pacific Railroad Company and Credit Mobilier scandals revealed bribery and contract manipulation. In New York Tammany Hall corruption was exposed.  Sulking confederates contrasted northern corruption with an idealised pre-war South when ‘gentlemen’ dominated politics and everyone knew their place. They seized on the opportunity to vilify so-called carpetbaggers – northern politicians and officials dominating southern legislatures – and equated the Civil Rights Acts as another northern waste of money foisted on the ever-suffering South.

In these circumstance every friendly southern hand offered by confederate ‘fellow Americans’ to Grant was shaken warmly. The army that had protected the gains made by the former slaves was steadily withdrawn. The process was given more urgency when the economy turned downwards after 1873. This gave the former slave owners more confidence, not just to terrorise African Americans from their lands and offices, but also to implement economic measures that forced them back into economic servitude to the planters. Poverty was probably a more deadly weapon in sucking energy from Radical Reconstruction than was terror.

The election of 1876 was not fought on civil rights. Northern Republicans were resentful of the resources still going to the South and abandoned any form of radical populism. The election descended into the mudslinging familiar to today’s electorate. A close call in the electoral arithmetic saw the Republican Rutherford Hayes triumph. Southern Democrats felt cheated and were determined to continue battle. Both sides met to see how best to overcome hostilities. The result was the ‘Compromise of 1877’ between the northern (Republican) capitalists and southern (Democrat) planters. Reconstruction was over and the white supremacists were re-established in the South. The two parties of the ruling class are still vying for office and the chance to serve wealth and privilege.

Burying Reconstruction

To the planters the period of Reconstruction was a nightmare. It showed that black people were capable of governing, and not just for themselves. It showed that the slave owners, their culture of mannered idleness and their arrogant egotism were worthless. More could be achieved through intellectual endeavour and free labour than slavery and the lash. It now fell to the planters to reinstate their power, blot out reconstruction from public memory and replace it with an idealised fairy tale of the ‘Gallant South’. The North may have won the Civil War but the South was to win the narrative about it.

The historian Henry Louis Gates has referred to the period after Reconstruction as the ‘first great social media campaign.’ The first stage in re-establishing White Power involved attacking African American success. Black people could simply not be seen to have succeeded. Black farmers were driven off the land, and courts and juries were rigged. The right to a fair trial and appropriate sentence was racialized. Voter registration was denied to black people. Schools were burned and black prisoners were made to revisit slave conditions through chain gangs hired out to the planters.

There were to be no publically acknowledged black heroes, but Confederate generals were to be immortalised in stone, plaque and fable. Chief among these was Confederate general and slave owner, Robert E. Lee. A cult of Lee was developed and has been defended ever since through for example, The United Daughters of the Confederacy. Military colleges and camps, steam boats and locomotives were named after Lee. This was the era in which conspiracy theories about Jews and big government were first contrasted to the idealised southern gentleman whose word was his bond.

It was also the period in which fake news emerged in the form of what Henry Louis Gates has called ‘textbook wars’. The white supremacists forced their account of the sectional conflict and Civil War into textbooks and history curriculums. It was a campaign very much akin to the attempts to sanitise and defend Israel today. In these utterly fake accounts the Civil War was not started by the South. The South were merely defending states’ rights, in this case the right to property (slaves). Thus the secessionist South becomes the gallant victim defending southern honour AND THE CONSTITUTION! This is the right wing ploy of turning the aggressor into the victim that we have seen so many times, and which Donald Trump regurgitates to this day.  

By the 1890s a white supremacist culture war was in full swing. It was a racist war of epic proportions and intended to wipe out any memory of the gains black people made during Reconstruction. Its methodology was to flood society with racist images of black people, images to delegitimise any protest against the oppression and humiliation suffered in daily life. This was the era of black people presented as ‘Sambo’. Households were full of such supposedly comic images. Grinning black faces might adorn the tassels on slippers, napkin rings, a tea cosy, nut crackers, and money boxes. In cartoon form (and later in films) black people are forever eating water melons (thanks Boris), getting eaten by alligators (a joke!), and stealing chickens or, just to emphasise their backwardness, looking fearfully at some modern technology.

It was a short step from ‘Sambo’ to imagine that black people were likely to be lustful, untrustworthy and dangerous if left to their own devices. There was literally no escape from negative images of black people, and it did permeate society. It did enable vicious racist murders to go unpunished. But more importantly it allowed everything black people did or said to be skewed to fit a racist narrative, delegitimising protests, political outlook or noble actions.

The Jim Crow laws, which completely segregated the South, were the legal expression of triumphant white supremacy. Jim Crow cried ‘never again!’ to the memory of Reconstruction.

Reconstruction today

The Black Lives Matter campaigns are demanding that we look again at history, and question the established views that have tried to airbrush systemic racism from its pages. Reconstruction is a vital period to study. Reconstruction offered the chance to unite poor black and white people around democratic and social justice. It was derailed by the desire of the capitalist class to put their profits before all else in a period where an organised labour movement was not yet formed, and could not hold them to account.

The US political establishment has got used to racism. Its liberal side might grimace at the excesses of Trump, but the racist right has always had a seat at the establishment’s table since Reconstruction ended. Racism is embedded in the USA. It was there at every stage of its growth to the capitalist colossus we see today.

The fight against racism in the USA is a working class issue, and a global issue too, as we see from the protests today. The US working class is very powerful, and if the coming struggle wipes the racist filth from its eyes it could well transform our world. We need to revisit Reconstruction and take back the hope of a better world.

Reconstruction in the USA: Black freedom denied – part 1 can be found here.

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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.

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