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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class

Learning Objective Four:

Identify how African Americans benefited from Reconstruction legislation. Describe the Compromise of 1877 and its affect on re-establishing white supremacy in the former Confederacy. 

Reconstructing Society


Under the congressional Reconstruction program, state constitutional conventions met and Southern voters elected new, Republican-dominated governments. By 1870, all of the former Confederate states had completed the process. However, even after all the states were back in the Union, the Republicans did not end the process of Reconstruction because they wanted to make economic changes in the South.




The war had devastated the South economically. Southern planters returned home to find that the value of their property had plummeted. Throughout the South, many small farms were ruined. The region’s population was also devastated. Hundreds of thousands of Southern men had died in the war. The Republican governments began public works programs to repair the physical damage and to provide social services.




Another difficulty facing the new Republican governments was that the three groups that constituted the Republican Party in the South—scalawags, carpetbaggers, and African Americans—often had conflicting goals. Scalawags were white Southerners who joined the Republican Party. Many were small farmers who wanted to improve their economic position and did not want the former wealthy planters to regain power. Carpetbaggers were Northerners who moved to the South after the war. This negative name came from the misconception that they arrived with so few belongings that they carried everything in small traveling bags made of carpeting.


The third and largest group of Southern Republicans—African Americans—gained voting rights as a result of the Fifteenth Amendment. During Reconstruction, African-American men registered to vote for the first time; nine out of ten of them supported the Republican Party. Although many former slaves could neither read nor write and were politically inexperienced, they were eager to exercise their voting rights.


The differing goals of scalawags, carpetbaggers, and African Americans led to a lack of unity in the Republican Party. In particular, few scalawags shared the Republican commitment to civil rights for African Americans. The new status of African Americans required fundamental changes in the attitudes of most Southern whites. However, many white Southerners refused to accept blacks’ new status and resisted the idea of equal rights.




Before the Civil War, African Americans had been denied full membership in many churches. During Reconstruction African Americans founded their own churches, which often became the center of the African American community, and the only institutions that African Americans fully controlled. Many African American ministers emerged as influential community leaders who also played an important role in the broader political life of the country. With 95% of former slaves illiterate, former slaves required education to become economically self-sufficient. In most of the Southern states, the first public school systems were established by the Reconstruction governments. The new African American churches, aided by missionaries from Northern churches and by $6 million from the Freedmen’s Bureau, worked to create and run these and other schools. Atlanta, Fisk, and Howard Universities, for instance, were all founded by religious groups such as the American Missionary Association. Thousands of African Americans also took advantage of their new freedom by migrating to reunite with family members or to find jobs in Southern towns and cities.




After the war, African Americans took an active role in the political process. Not only did they vote, but for the first time they held office in local, state, and federal government. Nevertheless, even though there were almost as many black citizens as white citizens in the South, AfricanAmerican officeholders remained in the minority. Out of 125 Southerners elected to the U.S. Congress during congressional Reconstruction, only 16 were African Americans. Among these was Hiram Revels, the first AfricanAmerican senator. African Americans also served in political offices on the state and local levels. In January 1865, General Sherman had promised the former slaves who followed his army 40 acres per family and the use of army mules. For the most part, however, former slaves received no land. Most Republicans considered private property a basic American right, and thus refused to help redistribute it. As a result, many plantation owners in the South retained their land.




Without their own land, freed African Americans, as well as poor white farmers, could not grow crops to sell or to use to feed their families. Therefore, economic necessity forced many former slaves and impoverished whites to become sharecroppers. In the system of sharecropping, landowners divided their land and assigned each head of household a few acres, along with seed and tools. Sharecroppers kept a small share of their crops and gave the rest to the landowners. In theory, “croppers” who saved a little might even rent land for cash and keep all their harvest in a system known as tenant farming.


The Collapse of Reconstruction


Most white Southerners swallowed whatever resentment they felt over AfricanAmerican suffrage and participation in government. Some whites expressed their feelings by refusing to register to vote. Others were frustrated by their loss of political power and by the South’s economic stagnation. These were the people who formed vigilante groups and used violence to intimidate African Americans.




The most notorious and widespread of the Southern vigilante groups was the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The Klan’s goals were to destroy the Republican Party, to throw out the Reconstruction governments, to aid the planter class, and to prevent African Americans from exercising their political rights. To achieve these goals, the Klan and other groups killed perhaps 20,000 men, women, and children. In addition to violence, some white Southerners refused to hire or do business with African Americans who voted Republican. To curtail Klan violence and Democratic intimidation, Congress passed a series of Enforcement Acts in 1870 and 1871. One act provided for the federal supervision of elections in Southern states. Another act gave the president the power to use federal troops in areas where the Klan was active. Although Congress seemed to shore up Republican power with the Enforcement Acts, it soon passed legislation that severely weakened the power of the Republican Party in the South. In May 1872, Congress passed the Amnesty Act, which returned the right to vote and the right to hold federal and state offices to about 150,000 former Confederates. In the same year Congress allowed the Freedmen’s Bureau to expire. These actions allowed Southern Democrats to regain political power.

 In the election of 1876 a Republican defeat seemed certain. The economic depression (1873) and the political scandals of the Grant administration were having their effects upon the American populous .The Democrats, determined to make reform the issue of the campaign, nominated Samuel J. Tilden of New York.

The Republicans nominated Rutherford B. Hayes . Hayes had been governor of Ohio three times and his record was good enough to command the backing of party moderates .

Tilden had a reputation as a reformer because he had exposed and broken the notorious Tweed Ring and had sparked many reforms as governor of New York. The Republicans nominated Rutherford B. Hayes . Hayes had been governor of Ohio three times and his record was good enough to command the backing of party moderates . When the first election reports came in Tilden appeared to have won a sweeping victory . He had carried New York, New Jersey, Connecticut , Indiana, and apparently all of the South. To settle the deadlock in Congress over the electoral votes, Congress on January 29, 1877, set up an Electoral Commission of 15 members (five each from the House , the Senate, and the Supreme Court) to pass on the credentials from the four states whose votes were in dispute.

The committee had seven Democrats, seven Republicans, and the fifteenth member was Judge Bradley, who was non-partisan . As it turned out, it was Judge Bradley who named the next President of the United States. By a straight eight to seven vote the commission awarded all four contested states to Hayes.

According to Mr. Stevens, an intimate friend of Judge Bradley, Judge Bradley first gave the state of Florida and thus the election to Tilden. However, between midnight and sunrise Bradley changed his mind and gave the Presidency to Hayes. The Democrats were understandably upset and many talked of filibustering to halt the legal count of votes by Congress. Some Democrats saw filibustering as a way in which to gain a political compromise, and this philosophy was the one which emerged as victorious.


At the same time Hayes' advisors, James Garfield among them, advised him to attract Southern support by promising a new policy . Since Democratic businessmen were more anxious for peace than Tilden, Hayes became President, and a political compromise was reached .

The Compromise of 1877 consisted of the following :

  • Removal of all federal troops from the southern states.
  • Appointment of at least one southern Democrat into Hayes's Administration.
  • Construction of a second transcontinental railroad in the South called the Texas and Pacific.
  • Legislation enacted to help industrialize the South.

Next, the South wanted the return of home rule. There were three generally recognized parts of this unwritten agreement of self-rule which ended.

Social Reconstruction in the South until the civil rights movement of the 1960's. The North would hereafter keep hands off the "Negro problem."

The rules governing race relations in the South would be written by Southern whites.

Finally, these rules would concede the Blacks limited civil rights. In other words, they would soon become second class citizens.   

Congress, which had enacted three constitutional amendments and half a dozen enforcement acts all designed to protect Blacks now threw in the sponge and turned the "Negro problem" over to the South. That was what the South demanded as the price of reunion , and as the price would be paid by the Blacks, the North did not

find it exorbitant.


Abandoned by Congress and the President, the Blacks were now repudiated by the courts. In a long series of decisions the courts underwrote white supremacy, states rights, laissez faire, and virtually nullified the fourteenth and fifteenth Amendments insofar as they applied to the rights of Blacks. What proceeded was a concerted effort to reduce all non-white people living in United States to second class citizenship through the law and short of that, violence.  

In the famous case Plessy vs. Ferguson. 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court sanctioned segregation by declaring "separate but equal" facilities constitutional.


Until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Plessy was the constitutional foundation for the entire structure of Jim Crow laws in America.

The Plessy Court established the SEPARATE BUT EQUAL DOCTRINE. This doctrine held that Blacks were not denied equal protection of the laws safeguarded by the Fourteenth Amendment when they were provided with facilities substantially equal to those available to white persons. 

In 1898, the Court took another step toward laissez faire in the case of Williams v. Mississippi (or United States) by approving a Mississippi scheme for depriving the Blacks the ballot.


The plan, which had been adopted in 1890, combined the poll tax, the literacy test, and residence requirements to reduce the number of Black voters to a handful. Thus with the official approval of the federal courts and the cooperation of the Republican party , the work of Reconstruction had been undone by the end of the nineteenth century . Third, Hayes promised to appoint a leading Southern ex-Whig to his cabinet. This part of the Compromise was fulfilled when David Key of Tennessee was appointed Postmaster General.


Finally , Hayes and the Republicans promised they would be sympathetic to Southern demands for the development of a railroad system within the South. This part of the Compromise was not forthcoming as the South did not live up to the second demand of the Republicans by making James Garfield speaker of the House of Representatives . On these terms the heated dispute for the Presidency and control over the Reconstruction process came to an end on March 2, 1877, two days before Inauguration Day .


Beyond using the law to return African Americans back to second class citizenship, the most effective method was sadly the use of violence.

For many African Americans growing up in the South in the 19th and 20th centuries, the threat of lynching was commonplace. The popular image of an angry white mob stringing a black man up to a tree is only half the story. Lynching, an act of terror meant to spread fear among blacks, served the broad social purpose of maintaining white supremacy in the economic, social and political spheres.


Pervasive Threat

Author Richard Wright, who was born near Natchez in southwest Mississippi, knew of two men who were lynched -- his step-uncle and the brother of a neighborhood friend. In his book Black Boy, he wrote: "The things that influenced my conduct as a Negro did not have to happen to me directly; I needed but to hear of them to feel their full effects in the deepest layers of my consciousness. Indeed, the white brutality that I had not seen was a more effective control of my behavior than that which I knew."

Rise in Black Prominence

Although the practice of lynching had existed since before slavery, it gained momentum during Reconstruction, when viable black towns sprang up across the South and African Americans began to make political and economic inroads by registering to vote, establishing businesses and running for public office. Many whites -- landowners and poor whites -- felt threatened by this rise in black prominence. Foremost on their minds was a fear of sex between the races. Some whites espoused the idea that black men were sexual predators and wanted integration in order to be with white women.

Public Events

Lynchings were frequently committed with the most flagrant public display. Like executions by guillotine in medieval times, lynchings were often advertised in newspapers and drew large crowds of white families. They were a kind of vigilantism where Southern white men saw themselves as protectors of their way of life and their white women. By the early twentieth century, the writer Mark Twain had a name for it: the United States of Lyncherdom.

Headlines and Grisly Souvenirs


Lynchings were covered in local newspapers with headlines spelling out the horrific details. Photos of victims, with exultant white observers posed next to them, were taken for distribution in newspapers or on postcards. Body parts, including genitalia, were sometimes distributed to spectators or put on public display. Most infractions were for petty crimes, like theft, but the biggest one of all was looking at or associating with white women. Many victims were black businessmen or black men who refused to back down from a fight. Headlines such as the following were not uncommon:

"Five White Men Take Negro Into Woods; Kill Him: Had Been Charged with Associating with White Women" went over The Associated Press wires about a lynching in Shreveport, Louisiana.

"Negro Is Slain By Texas Posse: Victim's Heart Removed After His Capture By Armed Men" was published in The New York World Telegram on December 8, 1933.


"Negro and White Scuffle; Negro Is Jailed, Lynched" was published in the Atlanta Constitution on July 6, 1933.

Newspapers even printed that prominent white citizens in local towns attended lynchings, and often published victory pictures -- smiling crowds, many with children in tow -- standing next to the corpse.

Charred corpse of Jesse Washington among the ashes, 1916

He had been sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman. No witnesses saw the crime; he allegedly confessed but the truth of the allegations would never be tested. The grand jury took just four minutes to return a guilty verdict, but there was no appeal, no review, no prison time.

Instead, a courtroom mob dragged him outside, pinned him to the ground, and cut off his testicles. A bonfire was quickly built and lit. For two hours, Jesse Washington — alive — was raised and lowered over the flames. Again and again and again. City officials and police stood by, approvingly. According to some estimates, the crowd grew to as many as 15,000. There were taunts, cheers and laughter. Reporters described hearing “shouts of delight.”

When the flames died away, Washington’s body was torn apart and the pieces were sold as souvenirs.

Thousands of Victims

In the South, an estimated two or three blacks were lynched each week in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Mississippi alone, 500 blacks were lynched from the 1800s to 1955. Nationwide, the figure climbed to nearly 5,000.


Killed for Being "Insolent"

Although rape is often cited as a rationale, statistics now show that only about one-fourth of lynchings from 1880 to 1930 were prompted by an accusation of rape. In fact, most victims of lynching were political activists, labor organizers or black men and women who violated white expectations of black deference, and were deemed "uppity" or "insolent." Though most victims were black men, women were by no means exempt.


One Woman's Crusade

According to black journalist and editor Ida B. Wells, who launched a fierce anti-lynching campaign in the 1890s, the lynching of successful black people was a means of subordinating potential black economic competitors. She also argued that consensual sex between black men and white women, while forbidden, was widespread. Thus lynching was also a means of imposing order on white women's sexuality. Wells, who would later help found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was forced to flee Memphis after her offices were torched.

Total Repression

With lynching as a violent backdrop in the South, Jim Crow as the law of the land, and the poverty of the sharecropper system, blacks had no recourse. This triage of repression ensured blacks would remain impoverished, endangered, and without rights or hope. Whites could accuse at will and rarely was a white punished for a crime committed against a black. Even for those whites who were opposed to lynching, there was not much they could do. If there was an investigation, white citizens closed ranks to protect their own and rarely were mob leaders identified.


Violence Tapered Off

Violence against blacks would taper off during the second World War and rise again after the passage of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision that nullified the country's separate-but-equal doctrine. Armed with hope, blacks began to register and organize people to vote. Local NAACP chapters began sprouting up in small towns.

Shock Over Till

When Emmett Till was murdered, the head of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins, lambasted Mississippi and called Emmett's murder a lynching. "It would appear from this lynching that the State of Mississippi has decided to maintain white supremacy by murdering children."

The brutal slaying of a 14-year-old boy was shocking, and when the killers later confessed to the crime in an article published in Look magazine, African Americans and others who supported civil liberties realized they would have to organize en masse and risk their lives in order to bring change.