Black History Month
We print below, edited for publication, the first part of a presentation given by Spartacist League/U.S. Central Committee member Alan Wilde to internal meetings of the International Communist League in Mexico City, New York City and Chicago.
“When Edwin Ruffin, white-haired and mad, fired the first shot at Fort Sumter he freed the slaves.” This simple yet extraordinary sentence, which encapsulates the Civil War, comes from W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1935 work, Black Reconstruction in America. Ruffin was a notorious slaveowner and the Confederate soldier reputed to have fired the first shot of the war in April 1861. A year and a half before, in December 1859, he attended the execution of the great abolitionist John Brown to revel in Brown’s demise. But by April 1865, four years after Ruffin blasted his rifle, a social revolution had taken place: Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant, the North emerged victorious and four million human beings held in bondage won their freedom. Ruffin understood the monumental nature of this transformation. He committed suicide in June of that year.
The Civil War was the pivotal event of American history that redefined the very nature of this country. This was expressed even in terms of grammar. After 1865, the U.S. was no longer referred to with the plural “are,” signifying a federation of independent states, but the singular “is,” signifying the consolidation of a single capitalist nation-state. Out of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the American Constitution was fundamentally altered with the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The Thirteenth abolished slavery; the Fourteenth defined citizenship for the first time in U.S. history, granting it to anyone born in this country or naturalized; the Fifteenth granted universal male suffrage.
On the most fundamental level, the Union victory meant the victory of the capitalist social order—“free labor,” as it was termed—over the slavocracy and its system of slave labor. The America we see today is less the product of the American Revolution of 1775-83 and more the product of the Civil War and Reconstruction period.
It is not easy to speak comprehensively about Reconstruction, the period following the Civil War when the defeated Southern states were supposed to be “reconstructed” and brought back into the Union. Reconstruction was a tumultuous, brief and extraordinary period of American history defined by an unprecedented experiment in interracial democracy. It was an era of exceptional developments, all taking place simultaneously and impacting one another. For example, this period marked the emergence of an American labor movement, combative and engaged in often-violent struggle. At the same time, this movement was politically backward and immature, not least on the issue of race.
Reconstruction was also the period, with the final destruction of the slavocracy, that saw the embryonic growth of an American imperialist ruling class—expressed in massive industrial development, the creation of monopolies and trusts and the consolidation of American finance capital. Mark Twain didn’t call it “the Gilded Age” for nothing. It was also expressed in gunboat diplomacy against Korea in 1871 and a failed attempt to annex Santo Domingo (now known as the Dominican Republic).
It was a period of westward expansion—freed from the threat of the spread of the slave system—bringing with it new markets and increasing capitalist investment and growth. It also brought more wars with various Native American tribes. Many of the troops initially charged with maintaining the rule of the national government over the defeated Southern states were eventually siphoned off to fight these wars. It was the period of the 1871 Paris Commune in France, the first time the working class seized power, and the Great Panic of 1873, which touched off what was known until 1929 as the Depression. Both events had an enormous conservatizing effect on the U.S. bourgeoisie.
Above all, it was the period when black Americans, freed from bondage, exercised and fought for their rights in every form. As you hear this story, with its debates in the halls of Congress, with its introduction of drastic and important new laws and constitutional amendments, bear in mind that at the same time there is a massive human wave of former slaves staking their claim to U.S. citizenship—fighting to be recognized as Americans and to define citizenship on the basis of expanded political rights for all. For the first time, a public education system—for black people as well as impoverished and illiterate poor whites—was founded in the South and was widely expanded in the North.
Throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction, black people bravely fought at the risk of life and limb for their freedom and their rights. And that striving by the freedmen for political and social equality was met with the most brutal acts of terror at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia, the White Leagues and other race-terrorist outfits. A few years ago, PBS put out a documentary titled “Reconstruction: The Second Civil War.” Indeed, the Reconstruction period can be characterized as the most violent period of American history outside of the Civil War. With only a small handful of exceptions that violence went in one direction: to suppress the rights of the freedmen.
Nonetheless, if you can imagine in 1860 telling a white American—Northerner or Southerner—that in 10 to 15 years not only would black people be free but they would exercise political rights as citizens and that over 1,500 of them would serve in various legislative, executive and administrative posts throughout the South—the very land where they were once slaves—you would have been reasonably considered insane. But that was, in fact, what happened. And that was, in fact, what was ultimately defeated.
Reconstruction was a period of enormous promise but also of promises unfulfilled. As we aptly wrote in “Black and Red—Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom” (1966, reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 9):
“Capitalist and slave alike stood to gain from the suppression of the planter aristocracy but beyond that had no further common interests. In fact, it was the Negroes themselves who, within the protective framework provided by the Reconstruction Acts and the military dictatorship of the occupying Union Army, carried through the social revolution and destruction of the old planter class.”
The defeat of Reconstruction did not begin with the 1877 Compromise, when the handful of federal troops remaining in the South were withdrawn to their barracks. Its seeds were sown almost from the beginning with the refusal of even the Radical faction of the Republican Party (except for a very small number that included Pennsylvania Representative Thaddeus Stevens) to carry out a program of land confiscation from the old slave oligarchy and distribution of that land to freedmen and landless whites.
The indisputably radical program of equal political rights collided with the reality facing the former slaves, whose condition was one of destitution and lack of property. Land was the key question. Yet it was precisely land that the bourgeoisie denied to the former slaves.
American Capitalism and Black Oppression
As we wrote in the Programmatic Statement of the Spartacist League/U.S. (2000): “While many freedmen desired to have the former plantations redistributed to those who tilled them, the American bourgeoisie was not interested in a thoroughgoing social reconstruction of the South. Northern capitalists looked at the devastated South and saw an opportunity not for building a radical democracy but for exploiting Southern resources, and the freedmen, profitably.” The bourgeoisie’s aim was not to create a class of independent black yeomen but to get the agricultural workforce, namely blacks, back to toiling for the landowners.
While the Civil War was a tremendous social revolution, it was also a belated one, the last great bourgeois-democratic revolution. The belated nature of this revolution meant that as soon as it effected one of the greatest acts of expropriation in history—the freeing, without compensation, of four million people branded as chattel or property—an act necessary for the further development of American capitalism, the bourgeoisie was unwilling to go further on the economic front.
Consider as a point of reference the 1848 revolutions in Europe, when the bourgeoisies in several European countries made common cause with the forces of aristocratic reaction against the insurgent proletariat. This period marked the end of the historically progressive role played by the European bourgeoisies. In their March 1850 address to the Communist League, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels emphasized that “it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes have been forced out of their position of dominance,” the working class has taken state power and the revolution has spread internationally. “For us the issue cannot be the alteration of private property but only its annihilation, not the smoothing over of class antagonisms but the abolition of classes, not the improvement of the existing society but the foundation of a new one.”
Contrasting the Civil War and Reconstruction era to the period of the French Revolution, American Communist Party historian James Allen wrote in Reconstruction: The Battle for Democracy 1865-1876 (1937): “The Second American Revolution took place at a much later period, when the bourgeoisie was already so highly matured that, in relation to a rising proletariat and farming middle class in the North, it was becoming reactionary. The rapidity of capitalist development was sapping seriously the revolutionary potency of the bourgeoisie.” It took six decades from the start of the French Revolution in 1789 until 1848 for the nature of both the bourgeoisie and the laboring classes in Europe, specifically France, to decisively change. In the U.S., instead of 60 years, there was about a decade between the end of the Civil War and the end of Reconstruction.
The bourgeois order that emerged out of the French Revolution saw its biggest enemy in feudal-derived forces of reaction in France and throughout Europe. In contrast, the consolidated bourgeois order that emerged out of the U.S. Civil War was confronted with tumultuous demands by the freedmen in the South for land and tumultuous labor upheavals in the North.
From today’s vantage point, there is a quality of tragic inevitability when dealing with Reconstruction, even if this or that contour could have been different. The bourgeoisie was not going to complete the radical social transformation in the South. The labor movement, although combative, was too politically backward and immature. The freedmen and their allies fought with all their might but were simply too weak. Nonetheless, our purpose as Marxists looking back at this period is to try to understand how and why things turned out the way they did, not least because we fight to change the world today.
The defeat of Reconstruction is like a wide brush painting American reality to this day. Out of this defeat, black people were consolidated as a race-color caste, a permanent mark of capitalist America. Black people have always been an integral part of the U.S. economy. Their stolen labor laid the foundation of American capitalism. Yet, they are in the mass forcibly segregated at the bottom of society.
Every bourgeois society has some national, religious or ethnic minority that faces discrimination and oppression. Black oppression in the U.S., however, has unique characteristics. It is a strategic component of the bourgeois order, with its material basis embedded in the very nature of American capitalism. The U.S. civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s successfully fought to overturn legal segregation in the South. But as we often point out, when it moved North it faced the intractable reality of segregation and oppression built into American capitalism itself. Yes, there is a black president, and sanctimonious bourgeois ideologues pat themselves on the back over the supposed accomplishments of “post-racial” America. But that intractable reality of black oppression remains and can be measured in mass unemployment, impoverishment, segregation, ghettoization and imprisonment.
Black oppression is the bedrock of U.S. capitalism and to touch it in any serious way is to touch the question of revolution. As a caste, black people face oppression regardless of their social class. At the same time, black oppression is deeply and fundamentally intertwined with class in this country. As veteran American Trotskyist Richard S. Fraser put it, “The Negro question appeared upon the scene as a class question.” In the main, the black person was a slave, then a sharecropper or tenant farmer and then part of the multiracial working class. For the bourgeoisie, racist poison is an invaluable tool to keep the working class—white, black, immigrant—divided and its potential revolutionary power checked. For the American proletariat to free itself from wage slavery, it must answer the unresolved question of Reconstruction, that is, racial oppression, by fighting for black liberation through socialist revolution.
The Civil War and Its Background
The First American Revolution, the War of Independence, put an end to British rule over the 13 colonies, paving the way for the expansion and development of the indigenous economy. However, it was not a social revolution but more a political one over who would call the shots in the colonies. The nature of the revolution defined its fundamental conservatism.
Left unresolved in the American Revolution was the question of slavery—i.e., the very course and nature of economic development in the newly formed United States. What emerged was a strengthening of the slaveowners’ powers. For example, written into the U.S. Constitution is the “Three-Fifths Compromise,” which counted black slaves, concentrated in the South, as three-fifths of a person for determining the total number of state representatives in Congress. It, among other things, helped ensure Southern domination of American politics. Of the first 16 presidents, concluding with Abraham Lincoln, eleven were slaveowners, and several of the remaining five had close familial relations who engaged in human bondage.
As a slave society—i.e., a society where the primary mode of production was based on slave labor—the South resembled ancient Rome. American slavery, North or South, quickly came to be equated with black skin. Rome never had to justify slavery; it simply was the prevailing mode of production. In contrast, American slavery, existing in the framework of world capitalism with its claims to rights and liberties, demanded justification. Slavery thus came to be conflated with black skin color, giving birth to the social concept of race.
The slave order had a dialectical relationship with capitalism, helping to foment its growth while also restraining that growth and being restrained by it. The key role played by slavery and all-round bloody plunder in the primitive accumulation of capital was powerfully captured by Marx in Capital: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterise the dawn of the era of capitalist production.” Concluding that capital comes into this world “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt,” Marx asserted: “The veiled slavery of the wage-labourers in Europe needed the unqualified slavery of the New World as its pedestal.”
American slavery, well into the 19th century, played an important role in the development of international capitalism. For example, in 1860 about 75 percent of the cotton used in British textile production came from the American South. Southern plantation agriculture, “King Cotton,” supplied the principal exports for the early American bourgeois state, providing the financial resources for the growth of mercantile and industrial capitalism in the North. At the same time, the Southern plantation system acted as a brake on the growth of industrial capitalism.
Throughout the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War, repeated “compromises” sought to offset what was called the “irrepressible conflict” between the North and South. However, each compromise only delayed the inevitable conflict and further entrenched the power of the slavocracy. The abolition of slavery required a brutal civil war in which more than 620,000 soldiers were killed.
Each social order, capitalist and slaveowning, sought expansion. For the South, expansion was a question of life and death, not least because slave-based plantation agriculture tended to overwork the soil, requiring the acquisition of new land to maintain crop production. And the question that always arose was whether newly incorporated states would be free or slave. It was precisely for the sake of expanding the slave power that the U.S. invaded Mexico in 1846-48, in the process stealing half of Mexico’s territory.
The 1850s saw a number of events that brought the question to a head. Coming off the Mexican-American War was the “Compromise of 1850,” which made California a free state but put off a decision on the rest of the former Mexican territories, opening the door to slavery. As part of that compromise, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act mandating that Northern states, where slavery had been abolished years or decades before, return runaway slaves to their owners. Not only were slaves returned to their masters, but many free black people in the North were captured and enslaved by what abolitionists aptly called “bloodhounds.” Then, in 1857 the U.S. Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case denied citizenship rights to all blacks, including free men, declaring that black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
There also was “Bleeding Kansas,” a localized expression of the conflict to come, fought with arms in hand over whether Kansas would be a free or a slave state. In Kansas, John Brown built a reputation as a fighter for black freedom. His raid on the armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859 by a multiracial band of fighters aiming to spark a slave rebellion can be said to mark the real opening of the Civil War.
As a military act, Brown’s raid was a failure. But as a political act, it was a strike for freedom that paved the way for the Second American Revolution and the destruction of slavery. Foreshadowing the coming war, the military officer in command of defeating and capturing Brown and his men was Robert E. Lee, who went on to become the celebrated general of the Confederate army. On 2 December 1859, the day of his execution, John Brown scrawled a small note that stated: “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away; but with blood.” That was to come shortly thereafter, following the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln as president.
It is useful to recall what the political parties represented at the time. The dominant one was the Democratic Party, which was a coalition of Southern and Northern forces. In the South, it was the party of the slavocracy, and the slavocracy held sway in the party. In the North, it represented merchant capitalists who profited from trade, particularly in cotton, with the South. Its popular base in the North was the white urban poor, especially immigrant workers such as Irish Catholics. In both South and North, it was thoroughly racist.
The Republican Party formed in the 1850s around opposition to the expansion of slavery. Republican ideology was encapsulated well by the title of historian Eric Foner’s 1970 book Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men. The party quickly became dominant in parts of the North. It represented the growing power and interest of the burgeoning industrial bourgeoisie as well as small farmers. The party sought the development of modern industry, supporting railroad land grants and advocating high tariffs on imports. While there were abolitionists among the Republicans, the party did not demand an immediate end to slavery. It viewed the extension of slave territory as an obstacle to economic growth.
The clash between the Southern slavocracy and Northern capital boiled over with the 1860 presidential election. On the eve of the elections, the Democratic Party split along sectional lines. The Northern Democrats were not opposed to slavery. Their position was that in each newly incorporated state, the legality of slavery should be decided by popular vote (of white males). But the Southern Democrats, supremely arrogant in their defense of slavery, forced the split. As a result, the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln won the presidency. The South soon declared war, rallying behind the banner of “states’ rights,” which to this day means racist reaction.
For the North, the Civil War was by necessity a war of liberation. As Du Bois put it: “The Negro became free because the North could not win the Civil War if he remained in slavery.” That did not mean that leading politicians, including Lincoln, saw it that way from the beginning. To them, the war was simply to save the Union. But others recognized reality, such as the radical abolitionists who devoted their lives to wiping out slavery. And the slavocracy understood that it was fighting for its life as a class. Across the Atlantic, so did Marx and Engels. Marx characterized the war as “nothing but a struggle between two social systems, the system of slavery and the system of free labour,” adding that it “can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other.” While the British bourgeoisie wholeheartedly supported the South, the founders of scientific socialism labored to win English working-class support for the North—even as most of these textile workers relied on Southern cotton for their livelihoods.
There is a very interesting exchange between Marx and Engels, both of whom were critical of the North’s conduct of the war in its early years. In a July 1862 letter to Marx, Engels bitterly complained of the “flabbiness” of the North: “They shrink from conscription, from resolute fiscal measures, from attacking slavery, from everything that is urgently necessary.” He added, “Unless the North instantly adopts a revolutionary stance, it will get the terrible thrashing it deserves—and that’s what seems to be happening.”
Marx’s response reasserts the social revolutionary nature of the war. He acknowledges that the North had so far been conducting the war along “constitutional” rather than “revolutionary lines” but nonetheless asserts: “All this is going to take another turn. The North will, at last, wage the war in earnest [and] have recourse to revolutionary methods,” meaning the abolition of slavery and enlistment of black troops. A single such regiment, Marx wrote, “would have a remarkable effect on Southern nerves.” In a subsequent letter, he chides Engels: “It strikes me that you allow yourself to be influenced by the military aspect of things a little too much.”
Lincoln came to understand the urgent need to make this war into one of liberation. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on 1 January 1863, and called for the raising of black troops. Some 200,000 black people joined the Union Army and Navy, fighting a war for freedom. They helped to turn the tide of the war. Against enormous opposition from Northern Democrats and others who wanted a compromise with the slavocracy—including during the 1864 elections, which he believed he would lose—Lincoln did not back down on the elimination of slavery. Frederick Douglass issued one of the most astute assessments of Lincoln shortly after his assassination, declaring that he was “a progressive man; he never took any step backwards. He did not begin by playing the role of Moses and end by playing that of Pharaoh; he began by playing Pharaoh and ended by playing Moses.”
The question of reconstruction began to come to the fore as early as 1863, when the Union had committed itself to abolition and won some major battles. The question posed was: on what basis will the Southern states be readmitted into the Union? Marx concluded his famous 1864 letter to Lincoln by declaring that it fell to Lincoln to “lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.” Lincoln’s Reconstruction plan was called the “10 percent plan.” It was quite lenient to the Southern states. When 10 percent of a state’s 1860 voting rolls claimed adherence to the Union, they would elect a state government that could then be readmitted.
Radical Republicans protested it bitterly and proposed their own plan. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner declared that by going into rebellion the Southern states had committed “state suicide,” meaning they would have to be “reconstructed” before readmission. Thaddeus Stevens was even more radical. He argued that the South was akin to a conquered foreign territory and therefore subject to the whims of Congress.
In 1864, in opposition to Lincoln, Radicals passed the Wade-Davis Bill, which required that the Southern states write constitutions abolishing slavery and that a majority of each state’s white males pledge support to the federal Constitution. Only then could elections be held for a constitutional convention, with suffrage restricted to those who took an “ironclad oath” that they never rebelled against the U.S. Critics complained that the provisions were virtually impossible to meet, making it likely there would be prolonged Congressional control over the Southern states. Lincoln never signed or vetoed the bill; he just let it die.
Having made enemies of the Radicals over Reconstruction, Lincoln, the consummate politician, then worked with them on the Thirteenth Amendment. Lincoln’s Reconstruction plan, however, never addressed black suffrage. The closest he came was in a speech four days before his assassination, when he argued that literate blacks and black Union soldiers should be given the franchise.
It should be noted that there was a major difference of approach, not only of policy, between Lincoln and the Radicals. The Radicals had a real plan for Reconstruction. For Lincoln, the main point was to provide a plan that would undermine the Confederacy from within—i.e., put down your arms, and we will be lenient. Whether he would have gone beyond that is a matter of speculation. Lincoln was shot on 14 April 1865. He died the next day, six days after Lee surrendered to Grant.
With Lincoln dead, the presidency moved to Vice President Andrew Johnson. From Tennessee, Johnson was the only Senator from a seceding state to stay in the Union government. Picked as Lincoln’s running mate during the 1864 elections as a political sop to Democratic Party Unionists, Johnson saw himself as a representative of the poor white farmers of the South and was known as an opponent of the Southern oligarchy.
Marx and Engels initially had hope for Johnson, as did the Radicals. In an address on behalf of the International Workingmen’s Association, the First International, Marx wrote: “Yours, Sir, has become the task to uproot by the law what has been felled by the sword, to preside over the arduous work of political reconstruction and social regeneration.” In a letter to Marx, Engels predicted: “Johnson will insist on confiscation of the great estates, which will make the pacification and reorganisation of the South rather more acute.” To put it mildly, things did not go that way.
Johnson hated the Southern oligarchy, but he hated black people far more, viewing free blacks as a threat to poor whites. He mostly reversed the few land confiscations that took place. Even the 10 percent plan was done away with in favor of a plan whereby any number of supposedly loyal whites could form the basis of a state government. Johnson provided blanket amnesties to most Confederates. Indeed, in 1865-66, many of the Representatives and Senators sent to Washington from the South were former Confederates, including, as Senator, Alexander Stephens, the former vice president of the Confederacy.
Johnson encouraged the Southern states (though they needed little encouragement) to implement Black Codes. The laws’ purpose was to subjugate blacks: they could not bear arms; their right to land ownership was severely restricted; they had a poll tax placed on them; they were forced into contracts with their former masters to keep working the land; and it was made illegal for a black man to be unemployed, meaning he could be arrested, fined, jailed and sent to work on the plantations. In essence, with an assist from Johnson, the former slavocracy maintained the despised system of gang labor on the plantations.
To be sure, black people fought back. During the war and in the period afterward, hundreds of thousands left the plantations with little more than the clothes on their backs, flooding into cities like New Orleans looking for work. In addition, there were thousands of armed black soldiers throughout the South. “Colored conventions” took place to protest the injustices of the Black Codes.
Southern white racists responded with ferocious and violent reaction. The Klan was founded in Tennessee in 1865 by former Confederate soldiers. In addition, countless other Confederate guerrillas and soldiers were instituting a reign of terror against blacks.
Two massacres caught the attention of the North. The first one took place in Memphis in early May 1866. It was sparked by an altercation between white cops and black Union veterans. White mobs rampaged through black neighborhoods for three days. In the end, nearly 50 black people were slaughtered.
Less than three months later, there was another massacre, in New Orleans. While a Radical-dominated constitutional convention was meeting inside the State House to discuss black suffrage, about 200 black people, many of them Union Army veterans, gathered outside to welcome the conventioneers. A race-terrorist group known as the Southern Cross, which included local police and Confederate veterans, had likewise gathered. After a signal shot was fired, the white mob launched its rampage. Some 600-700 shots were fired and black people were hunted through the streets of the city. Nearly 50 black people were murdered.
The supreme arrogance of the former slavocracy, the intransigence of Johnson, the institution of the Black Codes and the bloody massacres all worked to turn Northern public opinion toward the Radicals. For many moderate Republican politicians, representing various sectors of the bourgeoisie, what was posed was whether the Southern oligarchy would continue to rule as before. When Congress reconvened in December 1865, a parliamentary war of sorts started to unfold between the Republicans and President Johnson.
Johnson claimed that Reconstruction had been completed. The Republicans shot back by refusing to recognize Johnson’s governments or seat Representatives from the South. In the 1866 Congressional elections, taking place on the heels of the Memphis and New Orleans massacres, the Republicans won a decisive victory, gaining control of more than two-thirds of Congress. Radical Reconstruction was to begin.
Even before the elections, Republicans had passed—over Johnson’s veto—the Civil Rights Act of 1866. This legislation provided the basis for the introduction of the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to everyone born in the U.S., including black people. In the debate over the Amendment, the question of black suffrage became a lightning rod. Thaddeus Stevens, while voting for the Amendment, was highly critical of it, not least because it only implied black suffrage.
The Fourteenth Amendment is one of the most important and contentious in U.S. history. Decades after its adoption, this Amendment became the legal foundation that formally guaranteed the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights to the vast bulk of the population. In recent years, the Fourteenth Amendment has come under attack by anti-immigrant bigots because it gives citizenship to the children of immigrants, including those without documents. It’s an expression of the ties between the rights of blacks and immigrants.
Along with the Radicals in the U.S., Marx and Engels quickly became disillusioned with Johnson. Engels noted in a July 1865 letter to Marx that anti-black sentiment in the South was “coming out more and more violently.” “Without coloured suffrage,” he wrote, “nothing can be done.” One should not be under the illusion that the North was a haven of enlightenment. Black suffrage in the North was restricted in virtually every state. The difference was that black people constituted less than 2 percent of the Northern population. In the South, they were the majority in some states and very sizable minorities in others. In Southern elections, a voting black population would hold the balance in determining the ruling party. Thus, it was Republicans from the Deep South, probably the most conservative sector of the party, who initially supported and even pushed for black voting rights.
Amid debates over suffrage, the Congressional war with Johnson continued. At every turn, Johnson sought to thwart the efforts of the Republican-dominated Congress. For example, in early 1865 the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands—better known as the Freedmen’s Bureau—was established for a one-year term to aid newly freed blacks in the South (they also provided aid to displaced poor whites). When it came time to renew the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1866, Johnson vetoed it, and Congress overrode the veto. Likewise, Johnson mobilized against the Fourteenth Amendment and encouraged states not to ratify it.
In an April 1866 letter to Engels, as fighting between Congress and Johnson heated up, Marx wrote: “The phase of the Civil War over, only now have the United States really entered the revolutionary phase, and the European wiseacres who believe in the omnipotence of Mr. Johnson will soon be disappointed.” Things came to a head when Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts, four laws promulgated between March 1867 and March 1868 that completely overturned Presidential Reconstruction. Johnson vetoed these, and his vetoes were overturned.
These Acts marked the real beginning of Radical Reconstruction. The governments of the former Confederate states—except Tennessee, which had already ratified the Fourteenth Amendment—were dissolved. To be readmitted into the Union, there were several conditions states had to meet. New state constitutions had to be drafted, which then had to be approved by Congress. These constitutions had to enshrine universal male suffrage (i.e., give the franchise to black men) and disenfranchise whites who had been leading members of the Confederacy. The former Confederate states also had to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment.
The former Confederacy was divided into five military districts and placed under the authority of federal troops. Congress assigned the commanders to oversee each military district. Johnson continued his obstruction. When Congress appointed a commander who was sympathetic to the Radicals, Johnson removed him. When Congress set a condition for the Southern states, he tried to overturn it.
Things went so far that Johnson was impeached by Congressional Republicans. They claimed that he had overstepped his powers as president. Congress fell one vote short of removing him. This was most likely the result of backroom dealing: the 1868 elections were about to begin and Johnson promised to not further obstruct Congress if allowed to finish his term.
I want to speak for a minute about the question of federal troops in the South during Reconstruction. Congress apportioned only 2,000 soldiers per state, a total of about 22,000. Usually these soldiers, many of whom were black, were confined to their barracks or brought out to guard state capitol buildings under attack by white racist mobs. The contradictory reality is that, on the one hand, without these troops next to nothing in Reconstruction would have been accomplished. On the other hand, the number of troops was nowhere near enough to fully implement the letter and spirit of the Reconstruction Acts. In fact, the number of troops quickly began to dwindle with Johnson’s massive demobilization of the Army following the war—from one million soldiers to 38,000 by the end of 1866. Many of the troops originally sent to the South were quickly siphoned off to fight Native Americans in the West.
The 1868 presidential elections became, in effect, a referendum on Congressional Reconstruction. The Republicans ran war hero Ulysses S. Grant with Schuyler Colfax as his running mate. The Democrats ran former New York governor Horatio Seymour, with former Missouri Congressman Francis Blair Jr. as his running mate.
The Democrats’ motto was: “This is a White Man’s Country; Let White Men Rule.” As historian David Blight put it in his Race and Reunion (2001), the Democrats “conducted one of the most explicitly racist presidential campaigns in American history. Grant ran under the rather inane slogan “Let Us Have Peace,” while promising to not interfere with Congress’s Reconstruction policy.
Although Grant emerged victorious, in good part due to the Southern black vote, what marked the 1868 elections was massive racist violence in the South by the Klan and its ilk. To give you but a few examples: Several Republican leaders, black and white, were assassinated in Arkansas and South Carolina. In Camilla, Georgia, 400 armed whites, led by the local sheriff, opened fire on a black election rally and then scoured the countryside looking for those who escaped. At least 20 were killed or wounded.
White gangs roamed New Orleans, breaking up Republican meetings. In St. Landry, Louisiana, a mob invaded area plantations, killing some 200 black people. In Louisiana alone, nearly 1,100 people, the vast majority freedmen, were murdered between April and November 1868. Nonetheless, at the risk of livelihoods and lives, black people voted in droves, determined to exercise their newly acquired rights of citizenship.
Buoyed by Grant’s electoral victory, the Radicals moved on to the Fifteenth Amendment in early 1869. It granted universal male suffrage throughout the country regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Even this measure fell short of what many Radicals wanted. Women were still disenfranchised and while the Amendment prohibited barring the vote on the basis of race, it said nothing about other qualifications, like property ownership, literacy or the payment of a poll tax. These would all be used later to disenfranchise black people in the South.
Despite the Amendment’s ratification in early 1870, that year marked the beginning of the decline of Reconstruction. By 1870, the Freedmen’s Bureau was a shadow of its former self, though it would continue to exist in name until 1872. Thaddeus Stevens, probably the closest thing the U.S. had to a parliamentary Jacobin, had died in August 1868. More fundamentally, what the Fifteenth Amendment brought to a head was the debate among the Radicals specifically and the Republicans more generally over the question of political rights versus economic independence. If the land question was off the agenda and the main issue was to be framed entirely in terms of political rights, then for most Republicans the Fifteenth Amendment represented the culmination of these rights. Yet, without land to the freedmen, Reconstruction had little hope of success.
Workers Vanguard No. 1040
21 February 2014
Sunday, March 02, 2014
Black History Month
Defeat of Reconstruction and the Betrayal of Black Freedom
We print below, edited for publication, the conclusion of a presentation given by Spartacist League/U.S. Central Committee member Alan Wilde to internal meetings of the International Communist League in Mexico City, New York City and Chicago. Part One appeared in WV No. 1039 (7 February).
On the evening of 12 January 1865, an extraordinary meeting took place in Savannah, Georgia. At it were Lincoln’s War Secretary, Edwin Stanton, and Union general William Tecumseh Sherman, who was in the middle of his “Southern Tour.” Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” probably the first expression of “total war” in the world, cut a swath of devastation across the Georgia countryside, from Atlanta to Savannah. Sherman himself was a racist who cared little about the fate of black people. Nonetheless, by force of history, his army was one of liberation that dragged behind it thousands of former slaves escaping the plantations. It was partly to try to figure out what to do with this mass of humanity that Sherman and Stanton called this meeting.
The meeting was held with 20 black ministers and other black leaders from Savannah and surrounding counties, many of them former slaves who had just won their freedom at the hands of the Union Army. For the first time, black people were asked what their definition of slavery and freedom was. One black leader, Garrison Frazier, replied: “Slavery is, receiving by irresistible power the work of another man, and not by his consent.” Freedom meant “taking us from under the yoke of bondage, and placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor.” Frazier continued: “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land...we want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.”
Following this meeting, Sherman issued his famous Special Field Order No. 15, which set aside the Sea Islands and a portion of the South Carolina and Georgia coast extending 30 miles inland for black settlement. Sherman’s order confiscated these lands from Southern planters who had abandoned them in the face of his march. Each black family would receive 40 acres, and the Army would also provide them with one of its broken-down mules to nurse back to health and use as they saw fit. It was out of this proclamation that the phrase “40 acres and a mule” would echo through time. By June, 40,000 freedmen were settled on 400,000 acres of land.
There were other experiments in land confiscation and distribution. Many plantations were being run by former slaves, as their white masters had fled. But the Northern bourgeoisie was not interested in land reforms. The prevailing concern of the ruling class was the discipline and control of Southern labor, which now meant getting former slaves back to work on the plantations harvesting cotton.
Upon coming to power, Andrew Johnson reversed many of the land confiscations, including “Sherman’s land,” where Union troops now forced black residents to give the land back to its former owners. But the failure of land reform isn’t about Johnson per se. Even when they were briefly dominant, the Radical Republicans proved unable to deal with the question, though in the face of mass agitation for land by the freedmen, some tried.
In 1867, Charles Sumner unsuccessfully introduced resolutions in the Senate that would have, among other things, established integrated public schools in the South and provided the freedmen with homesteads. However, even Radicals like Henry Wilson, who would go on to become Ulysses S. Grant’s second vice president, opposed these steps. One Republican declared, “That is more than we do for white men,” to which Sumner replied: “White men have never been in slavery.”
Far more sweeping was a resolution introduced by Thaddeus Stevens in the House. Stevens proposed to confiscate the lands of about 70,000 “chief rebels” who owned some 394 million acres. As Stevens pointed out, confiscation would affect less than 5 percent of the South’s white families. Each black family would receive 40 acres of land, basic tools for cultivation and $50 to get started.
For Stevens, land confiscation was crucial to altering the South. His plan included providing land to landless whites, which he rightly saw as key to cementing a political alliance between blacks and poor whites. In his speech to the House, he said: “The whole fabric of southern society must be changed, and never can it be done if this opportunity is lost. How can republican institutions, free schools, free churches, free social intercourse exist in a mingled community of nabobs and serfs?” Against those who declared it “inhuman” to confiscate the land of 70,000 white landowners, Stevens responded by referring to earlier plans to colonize blacks outside the country: “Far easier and more beneficial to exile 70,000 proud, bloated, and defiant rebels than to expatriate 4,000,000 laborers, native to the soil and loyal to the government.”
Stevens’ bill and speech electrified blacks in the South, feeding an upsurge in agitation for land, with copies being read aloud at black mass meetings. However, by the beginning of 1868, with the passage of the last Reconstruction act, the issue was off Congress’s agenda. Mainstream Republicans, whatever their views on political rights for blacks, opposed land confiscation.
They were joined by the bourgeois press. The New York Times worried that confiscation “would not be confined to the South,” that the Radicals sought to destroy “the inviolability of property rights” through “a war on property...to succeed the war on Slavery.” The Nation (the same one that exists today) declared: “We totally deny the assumption that the distribution of other people’s land to the negroes is necessary to complete the work of emancipation.” The fact that the slaves had more than earned the land through centuries of unrequited labor meant little to the bourgeoisie.
In the French Revolution, the early bourgeoisie granted “land to the tiller” as part of breaking the centuries-old feudal system. In the U.S., the situation was very different. The industrial bourgeoisie was squeezed by land agitation in the South and by a growing working-class movement in the North. And the 1871 Paris Commune accelerated a process already under way: it helped to cohere the class-consciousness of the bourgeoisie. For the ruling class, the prewar ideology of “free labor,” premised on an identity of interest between labor and capital, quickly dissipated after the war. The bourgeoisie began to see that the fates of the freedmen in the South and the overwhelmingly white working class in the North were deeply intertwined.
The refusal to distribute land to the freedmen was devastating to them. During Reconstruction, the South was starved of capital, with most investment going to the vast lands of the West. As a result, with very few exceptions—such as the New Orleans docks—there was little opportunity for blacks, or whites for that matter, to become part of a modern proletariat. Lack of capital meant that agricultural labor was often paid in kind rather than in cash. Increasing numbers of blacks were driven back onto the plantations as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, where they were allowed to keep a portion of their harvest in exchange for working a plot of land. They were tied to the land through contracts and loans from the landowners and forced into permanent debt peonage. Despite the unprecedented political rights that blacks enjoyed during Reconstruction, economically they were becoming firmly confined to the bottom rungs of the ladder.
Reconstruction and Its Benefits
W.E.B. Du Bois described Reconstruction, writing: “The attempt to make black men American citizens was in a certain sense all a failure, but a splendid failure.” Some of the splendor was expressed in the mass involvement of black people in American politics. Union Leagues were formed, drawing black men and women into political debates and discussions. The former slaves were asserting their citizenship as black Americans. Through their blood and toil, black people built this country. Through their art, music and literature, they have placed their indelible stamp upon what the world regards as American culture. Yet these most American of Americans have seen generation upon generation of immigrants assimilate, become American, while they themselves remain as the “other” in the only country they know, a bourgeois republic built and maintained upon their subjugation.
During Reconstruction, black people fought to assert their American-ness. Throughout the South, it was blacks and their allies who would march, parade and celebrate the Fourth of July, but not out of gross and vulgar American patriotism. Rather, it was part of a struggle to uphold the ideals of freedom and liberty that came with the Civil War and the promise of equality that came with Reconstruction.
Today, Memorial Day celebrates bloody U.S. imperialism, but the first Memorial Day, known as Decoration Day, was initiated in 1865 by emancipated blacks in honor of the Union dead in Charleston, South Carolina (see “Memorial Day: Ghosts of Confederacy in Brooklyn,” WV No. 982, 10 June 2011). As Reconstruction began to wane, the holiday was appropriated by former Confederate leaders to honor their dead and by the federal government to honor the dead of both sides—all the while excluding blacks from the holiday they founded.
Whatever shortcomings one can point to, Reconstruction challenged established race relations, in the North as well as the South. One can see the rise and fall of Reconstruction in the story of Charles Caldwell, a former slave who was elected to the Mississippi State Senate. He was widely hated by local whites for being a “turbulent Negro” and was shot at by the son of a white judge in 1868. Caldwell fired back and killed the man. He was brought to trial, where he argued self-defense before an all-white jury, which actually acquitted him. It was the first time ever that a black man was acquitted for killing a white man in Mississippi. But that was at the height of Reconstruction. Within a few years, black people became the victims of Reconstruction’s defeat. On Christmas Day 1875, as Mississippi fell back under Democratic Party control, Caldwell was shot dead by a white mob.
Contrary to claims of racist opponents of Reconstruction, Southern Republican governments were not dominated by black people but rather by those derisively called “scalawags”—Southern white Republicans accused of “betraying their race”—and “carpetbaggers”—Northern whites who moved South. Nonetheless, blacks were represented at virtually every level of government. Fourteen were voted into the House and two into the Senate. One, P.B.S. Pinchback, briefly served as governor of Louisiana. Nearly 700 sat in various state legislatures, and hundreds of others served on various local posts, including as judges.
Albion Tourgée, an Ohio Radical who moved to North Carolina, described the benefits of the reforms carried out by Reconstruction state governments. Against accusations that these regimes represented nothing but corruption and mismanagement, he pointed out:
“They instituted a public school system in a realm where public schools had been unknown. They opened the ballot box and jury box to thousands of white men who had been debarred from them by a lack of earthly possessions. They introduced home rule into the South. They abolished the whipping post, the branding iron, the stocks and other barbarous forms of punishment which had up to that time prevailed. They reduced capital felonies from about twenty to two or three. In an age of extravagance they were extravagant in the sums appropriated for public works.”
The most enduring of these works were schools. Thousands of public schools were built to the enormous benefit of blacks and poor whites, although the schools largely remained segregated by race. Some 1,500 schools were built in Texas alone by 1872, and by 1875 half of all children in Mississippi, Florida and South Carolina were attending schools. The drive of the freedmen for education for themselves and their children was insatiable, as it was viewed as a path out of conditions of servitude. They were supported by thousands of Northern teachers, black and white, who flocked to the South to aid the freedmen and were often the target of violence by racists.
Race Prejudice and Labor in the North
There is often a perception that the South is the seat of American barbarism, while enlightenment is found in the North. In reality, the South—because it is where slavery was dominant and where the overwhelming majority of black people lived after emancipation—represented a concentrated expression of the deep racist prejudice that permeated the whole country. Many of the concepts associated with the South originated in the North, found full fruition in the South and were exported back to the rest of the country.
Segregation was no less deeply entrenched in the North—and in some ways, more so. In New York City, white gangs slaughtered some 100 black people during the July 1863 anti-draft riots. New York City was also the birthplace of the Jim Crow minstrel shows that gave their name to the system of legal segregation in the South in the decades following the defeat of Reconstruction. An 1863 NYC Democratic Party pamphlet invented a new word—“miscegenation”—to derisively refer to interracial marriage and sex.
When the Democrats wanted to run an openly racist presidential campaign in 1868, they picked the former governor of New York as their candidate. Even when Lincoln died and his coffin was being carried through NYC, black residents had to fight like hell to be allowed to march behind it. In the end, over 200 black men marched behind his coffin, protected from white mobs by a contingent of Union troops.
One comrade recommended a book by David Quigley, Second Founding: New York City, Reconstruction, and the Making of American Democracy (2004), which is very much worth reading. It gives a sense of how the bourgeoisie, with the aid of some labor leaders, manipulated racial prejudices to destroy any potential for interracial proletarian unity. According to the book, NYC’s Democratic Party “emerged as the headquarters of the opposition during Republican Reconstruction.”
In a certain way, the North underwent its own “Reconstruction,” beginning with the Civil War itself. The Civil War was the world’s first truly modern war, involving hundreds of thousands of men. The importance of rapidly moving these troops and supplying them with uniforms and arms served to rapidly accelerate industrialization in the North. Between 1865 and 1873, 35,000 miles of railroad track were laid, a figure that exceeded the entire rail network of 1860. Railways would knit the country together and become a focal point of labor struggle.
There was no real labor movement in the U.S. before the Civil War. However, it came on the scene afterwards. Strikes and other labor protests became rampant. By 1868, the federal government conceded the eight-hour day to federal workers. Marx captured the scene in Capital:
“In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralysed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first fruit of the Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation, that ran with the seven-leagued boots of the locomotive from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California.”
It was a highly combative labor movement, and that combativity found its culmination in the Great Rail Strike of 1877. The crushing of the strike coincided with the final undoing of Reconstruction. Some of the federal troops removed from the South were set against the workers, an early example of how labor and black rights are intertwined (see “Defeat of Reconstruction and the Great Rail Strike of 1877: The Shaping of Racist American Capitalism,” WV No. 701, 20 November 1998).
The labor movement was deeply fractured along ethnic lines and deeply disfigured by racial prejudice, which often undid brief expressions of working-class unity. Engels captured these divisions in a December 1893 letter to Friedrich Sorge: “Immigration...splits the workers into two groups, native-born and foreign,” while foreign-born workers are divided between Irish and Germans, as well as “a number of smaller groups, each speaking only its own language.… And, in addition, the negroes.” Engels concluded: “To form a party of one’s own out of all these calls for exceptionally strong incentives. Every now and again a powerful élan may suddenly make itself felt, but all the bourgeoisie has to do is to stick it out passively, whereupon the dissimilar working-class elements will disintegrate again.” The bourgeoisie promoted the most vicious anti-black racism among Irish workers, who were themselves the victims of virulent anti-Catholic bigotry.
An example of what can, at best, be described as blindness to black oppression among labor leaders is William Sylvis, head of the National Labor Union, which was founded in 1866. While Sylvis advocated organizing black workers, he opposed Reconstruction, denouncing the Freedmen’s Bureau as a “huge swindle.” Part of what motivated him was the very dynamic of bourgeois politics at the time. As Communist Party historian James Allen explained in Reconstruction: The Battle for Democracy 1865-1876: “The attitude of the politically awakened labor movement to the questions of Reconstruction was necessarily conditioned by its growing opposition to the Republican Party as the political arm of the industrial and financial aristocracy.”
Many white workers, especially Catholics, supported the Democratic Party, which postured as their defender. In contrast, black people were staunchly Republican. This contradiction played into the bourgeoisie’s attempts to foment hostilities between organized labor and the freedmen. Essentially what you had was a labor combativity that shook the capitalist rulers but a political immaturity that ensured that the proletariat was in no position to actually challenge the bourgeoisie for power.
Retreat and Reaction
Faced with land agitation by the freedmen in the South and labor struggles in the North, the bourgeoisie began retreating from Reconstruction, and calls for “reconciliation” with the former Confederacy were growing louder. By 1870 a campaign of terror against black people was in full swing in the South. In 1870-71, Congress passed several Enforcement Acts, including the Ku Klux Klan Act, that authorized the President to suspend habeas corpus and deploy the military against the Klan. In 1871, President Grant sent the Army to South Carolina to effectively crush the Klan.
But such measures mask the fact that, by and large, racist violence went unanswered by the North. In a letter to a mutual friend in May 1870, Tourgée wrote about the murder of John W. Stephens, a State Senator in Caswell, North Carolina. Stephens was murdered by the Klan in a courtroom, stabbed five or six times and then hanged from a hook for all to see. Tourgée recounted numerous murders, beatings, rapes and atrocities against Southern Republicans, black and white. He saluted the bravery of Stephens in refusing to flee the South and his dedication to the thousands of “colored Republican voters” who “had stood by him and elected him, at the risk of persecution and starvation.” With bitterness, Tourgée cried out:
“I am ashamed of the nation that will let its citizens be slain by scores, and scourged by thousands, and offer no remedy or protection.... I am ashamed of a party which, with the reins of power in its hands, has not nerve or decision enough to arm its own adherents, or to protect them from assassinations at the hands of their opponents.... Unless these evils are speedily remedied, I tell you, General, the Republican Party has signed its death warrant. It is a party of cowards or idiots—I don’t care which alternative is chosen.”
— Undaunted Radical: The Selected Writings and Speeches of Albion W. Tourgée (2010)
In the South, the KKK was the military arm of the Democratic Party. Violence and intimidation brought one state after another back under Democratic control. By 1870, all the Southern states had been readmitted into the Union, and by 1872 virtually all laws disenfranchising former Confederates were repealed. Quickly, the states fell under Democratic control: Tennessee and Virginia in 1869; North Carolina in 1870; Georgia in 1871; Texas in 1873; Alabama and Arkansas in 1874; Mississippi in 1875; South Carolina in 1876; Florida and Louisiana in 1877. In every one of these states, “redemption,” as the reactionaries called it, meant racist terror. One of the worst massacres was in Colfax, Louisiana, on Easter Sunday in 1873, coinciding with a disputed gubernatorial election. By some estimates, up to 300 black Republicans were slaughtered, most after they had surrendered. Three whites also died. To this day, a monument stands in Colfax dedicated “To the Memory of the Heroes...Who Fell in the Colfax Riot Fighting for White Supremacy.”
This massacre and its aftermath became the blueprint for what would be called the “shotgun policy,” or the Mississippi Plan, which effectively destroyed the Republican Party in the South. Operating through the “Red Shirts,” who, unlike the secretive Klan, worked openly, the Democratic Party carried out a war of terror. White Republicans were intimidated into voting Democrat or not at all, and blacks were not to vote period. The statewide Republican victory of 30,000 votes in 1874 was reversed a year later by a Democratic victory of the same margin. Hundreds died in anti-black violence.
About the only place where blacks were able to fight back, and did, was South Carolina, particularly during the 1876 election campaign. Armed black Republicans, organized in Union Leagues, attacked Democratic gatherings, and actually dealt a few blows. What particularly drew the freedmen’s ire was that some black leaders expressed support for the Democratic Party, whether through bribery or intimidation. After an October 1876 Democratic meeting in Cainhoy, South Carolina, was attacked by armed blacks, one eyewitness reported: “The cry was that any white man had a right to be a democrat, ‘but no damned black man had’.” Denied the vote, black women were acutely conscious of what a Democratic victory would mean and fiercely opposed any compromise with the Democratic Party. One black woman denounced her husband as a “damned democratic son of a bitch” who “was voting to put her and her children back into slavery” (quoted in Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution ).
Some historians have argued that Reconstruction was killed by race terror in the South. In fact, it was a matter of political will: when the North wanted, as in South Carolina in 1871, it crushed the Klan. Most of the time, desperate pleas for help went unanswered. At a black Fourth of July rally in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1875, a white mob killed about half a dozen black people in cold blood (a small massacre by the standards of the time). A black eyewitness on the scene astutely laid the blame for the killing at the feet of the “now generous and forgetful northern yankee.” “Boston…and Ohio,” he wrote, “hold the coats of Georgia and Mississippi, while they slay the common victim of northern prejudice and southern hate.” Reconstruction died because the bourgeoisie killed it.
A turning point in the defeat of Reconstruction was the 1872 presidential election. A group of Republicans had split from Grant and formed the Liberal Republican Party. They complained of widespread corruption under Grant’s administration—corruption that was real enough but rife throughout the American political structure at the time. They denounced Grant’s suppression of the Klan in South Carolina as “bayonet rule” and called for the “best men” to rule, which meant crushing labor in the North and black rights in the South. Their attitude toward Reconstruction was captured by the Nation, which in March 1872 declared, “Reconstruction seems to be morally a more disastrous process than rebellion.”
The Liberal Republican candidate for president was former abolitionist Horace Greeley. From the right, the Democratic Party endorsed Greeley. From the left, the Liberals were joined by Radical Charles Sumner, who very wrongly argued that “reconciliation” of the North and South “is essential to...the safeguard of Equal Rights.”
The Liberal Republicans were roundly defeated, but they were, one could say, merely a little “ahead of their time.” The message of “reconciliation” that they preached soon infected the whole country and became the rallying cry of growing sections of the bourgeoisie and their media mouthpieces. In 1874, the Republicans suffered their first major defeat, losing control of Congress for the first time since the beginning of the Civil War. Frederick Douglass, a staunch Republican, sensed what was coming. In a Fourth of July speech in 1875 near Washington, D.C., the same day as the Vicksburg massacre in Mississippi, he asked: “If war among the whites brought peace and liberty to the blacks, what will peace among the whites bring?”
The answer came in the 1876 presidential elections, which pitted Ohio Republican Rutherford B. Hayes against New York Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. It was a highly contested election, with the results unclear. As backroom negotiations took place, there was widespread worry that the sort of violence that had become the norm in the South would find its way North. In early 1877, a compromise was reached. In exchange for Hayes getting the presidency, the last couple hundred federal troops in the South—assigned to South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana—would be returned to their barracks. They duly were. Reconstruction officially came to an end, and the potential for black equality in capitalist America was forever gone.
The Propaganda of History
In April 1877, the Nation magazine celebrated the end of Reconstruction. It predicted: “The negro will disappear from the field of national politics. Henceforth the nation, as a nation, will have nothing more to do with him.” Not quite. While the Compromise of 1877 was the culmination of a process of treachery, it did represent a decisive statement on the part of the bourgeoisie that it would no longer intervene on behalf of black people. But the end of Reconstruction did not mark the end of black people’s tenacious and courageous struggle for their rights. They continued to vote in large numbers, and they continued to fight for schools and education.
There was not some straight line between the fall of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow. It took one to two decades before the Southern states instituted legal segregation, rewrote the Southern constitutions and disenfranchised blacks. The decades after Reconstruction saw the rise of lynching, with 2,500 people slaughtered between 1885 and 1900 alone. But these years also witnessed the rise of the Populist movement, which briefly held the promise of common action between poor black and white farmers—a promise that foundered against the edifice of white supremacy.
The decline and overthrow of Reconstruction found reflection in the Supreme Court. In the 1876 Cruikshank decision, the Court freed the perpetrators of the Colfax Massacre. The judges declared that the Bill of Rights did not apply to the states in response to the prosecutors’ argument that the killers violated the civil rights of the victims. In 1883, the Court ruled that the 1875 Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional. That Act, passed in honor of Charles Sumner a year after his death, was a watered-down version of a bill he had proposed to promote integration. Then in 1896, the Court affirmed segregation as the law of the land in the Plessy decision. (The remarkable Albion Tourgée unsuccessfully argued the case before the court.) The upholding of Jim Crow coincided with the coming out on the world scene, in the 1898 Spanish-American War, of the American capitalist-imperialist class, which was forged in the years after the Civil War. Jim Crow at home fit neatly with U.S. capitalism’s ambitions abroad.
With “reconciliation” between North and South came a new ugly ideology, the myth of the “Lost Cause.” The Civil War, so it went, was not about slavery but rather was a brotherly spat in which the North fought for the Union and the South fought to defend their homes. Thus, both sides could claim “honor.” The slave was completely written out of history. Reconstruction was depicted as the worst period in American history, supposedly borne of a vindictive North that forced military rule on the South and imposed “Negro domination.”
Were it only so! Yet this grotesque lie is perpetuated not only by outright racists but also by liberals like Tony Kushner, the screenwriter for the film Lincoln. In a 2012 NPR interview, Kushner denounced the North’s “inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way.” This supposedly led to “resentment...and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection[!] societies. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering.”
The reality was far better captured by Kenneth Stampp in The Era of Reconstruction (1965): “It can be said that rarely in history have the participants in an unsuccessful rebellion endured penalties as mild as those Congress imposed upon the people of the South, and particularly upon their leaders. After four years of bitter struggle costing hundreds of thousands of lives, the generosity of the federal government’s terms was quite remarkable.” Every damned leader of the Confederacy died not at the hands of revolutionary justice but of old age. This outcome had nothing to do with generosity, leniency or humanity—virtues that one does not normally associate with the U.S. ruling class—but was rather an expression of the timidity of a bourgeoisie reluctantly drawn into Reconstruction.
The Northern bourgeoisie needed the “Lost Cause” mythology as much as the South to justify “reconciliation.” William Dunning, founder of the “Dunning School” that painted Reconstruction as a period of unabashed savagery, was born in New Jersey and based at NYC’s Columbia University. In the early 20th century, a vile film, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, was released. It celebrated the Klan as the upholders of “civilization” against black and “carpetbagger misrule” in the South. It was shown in the White House and played a major role in the resurgence of the Klan in the early 1920s.
America’s most popular film at home and abroad remains Gone With the Wind, which, wrapped in a banal love story, retells and exports to the world the racist lie of a Southern “Lost Cause.” To this day, there are far more monuments dedicated to the Confederacy than to the Union, including a massive mountain carving in Georgia that until the 1950s also featured the Klan.
In the face of the racist lies, a remarkable book came out in 1935, Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America. Du Bois, a towering figure who can best be characterized as a radical democrat, sought to use Marxist methodology, sociology and categories to challenge the racists on Reconstruction. The book was not always precise—for example, it labeled the Southern Republican governments as representing the “dictatorship of labor”—but it was profoundly daring in its reinterpretation of Reconstruction.
Du Bois challenged the Dunning racists, declaring: “The treatment of the period of Reconstruction reflects small credit upon American historians as scientists.” One of the book’s most remarkable chapters is titled “The General Strike,” in which Du Bois compares the mass abandonment of the plantations by the slaves during the war to a general strike. The very title of the book—Black Reconstruction—was a declaration of intent to write black people back into American history. And it was a lone voice among bourgeois academics and historians. In its dismissive review, the Nation declared, “The Negro masses did not play a conscious and decisive role in their own emancipation.”
With the outbreak of the civil rights movement, historians began to look back at this period, and it was to this book that they first turned for the truth. Much has changed since Reconstruction. Most importantly, black people, beginning with the Great Migration to the North in the early 20th century, have since become an integral and crucial part of the multiracial American proletariat. And as such, they will play a vital and leading role not only in their own emancipation but also in the emancipation of labor and all the oppressed.
At the same time, Reconstruction’s defeat continues to define virtually every aspect of political, social and economic life in this country. The subjugation of black people as a race-color caste is a reality that American capitalism cannot fundamentally alter, much less make disappear. This defining feature of U.S. history is one that any serious revolutionary in the U.S. has to grapple with. As Du Bois described it, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery. The whole weight of America was thrown to color caste.” To understand this period is to understand the material basis for our calls to finish the civil war and for black liberation through socialist revolution.