(Editor’s Note: The conversations we’ve had on the blog this week about monuments, the recent mass demonstrations, and race have caused some readers to ask, “How does this help us better understand the Civil War?” In fact, the mission of ECW is to look at not just the war, but the war, its causes, and its consequences. Modern race issues are certainly a consequence of the war, particularly because of the failure of Reconstruction. To help us better understand that connection, we asked Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era Blog, to share a few thoughts.)
In November 1865 the all-white legislature of Mississippi passed the first of the post-Civil War Black Codes. One after another, the former Confederate states passed Black Codes to regulate the lives and bodies of Black people.
One of the most common myths I have heard repeated over and over is that the Black codes were an understandable reaction to the hard Reconstruction policies of the Radicals Republicans. In fact, in the months after the war ended, all-white electorates selected all-white legislatures (including many legislators who had taken off their Confederate uniforms only months earlier) to set a course for the states of the South. You might think that after all the destruction of the war years that they saw to repairing the wreckage, rebuilding railroads, providing for wounded veterans, caring for orphans. You would be wrong. Instead these legislatures took up the question of deciding who was white and who was black, a vital inquiry in a society built on racial distinction, and crafting laws that restricted this “inferior” subject population.
Policing in the post-war South often focused on the control of Black labor and movement. While whites often predicted the coming extinction of “the Negro race” and wished that Blacks would depart from Dixie’s Land, they passed laws that kept African Americans from traveling far from the plantations where they had worked as slaves. Blacks wanted to travel to find family members that had been torn away through slave sales, as well as to seek better labor conditions and higher pay. Whites wanted to keep the formerly enslaved “in their place” because white wealth was so dependent on black labor. While whites recognized that they could no longer buy and sell Black people and that forced family separation was now illegal, they did claim the right to require African Americans to work for them as they had under slavery at rates to be determined by their employers.
Punishments for violations of the new laws were set according to race. An infraction for which a white man would be fined, might be punished by whipping if the defendant was Black. Sheriffs and police viewed racial control as paramount. When that supremacy was defied, it could be met with relentless violence.
For example, when white, mostly Irish, policemen in Memphis, Tennessee, harassed soon-to-be-discharged United States Colored Troops they set of an explosion in the city that would see more than three dozen Blacks killed. Rachel Dilts, a white woman from Illinois, witnessed the opening moments of the Memphis Race Riot on Monday, April 30, 1866. She testified before the Joint Congressional Committee investigating the riots that she saw several black men, wearing soldiers’ clothing, stopped by four policemen. “Some words were passed between them,” she told the Congressmen, and she recalled that “the policemen ran after one of the negroes, and I suppose struck him, for the negro fell and the policeman on top of him.” The Blacks escaped and began to run off down the street, but “one of the policemen ran after this negro that fell down and struck him on the head with his pistol…another negro ran and struck the policeman with a stick.” This resistance set off police violence that left at least 40 Blacks dead.
As Black men gained the right to vote in 1868 under new Reconstruction constitutions in many states, local law enforcement was used to break up electoral meetings in Black communities. African Americans jailed by the authorities during the night might be lynched by daybreak. Yet the yearning for freedom was so strong that many Blacks defended their hard won rights unto death.
By the 1870s the old Confederates who had led battalions on the battlefield, now led paramilitary forces like the Red Shirts and the Ku Klux Klan to control the battlespace around the polling places. Men like John Gordon and Wade Hampton, familiar to any student of the Civil War, carried the fight to cleanse the voter registers of non-whites. African Americans fought a heroic rear-guard action to maintain at least a semblance of a voice in public affairs until what few Reconstruction rights that remained were finally swept away. As the last vestiges of Black power seemed to disappear forever in the 1890s, their conquerors erected statues in town squares and on the boulevards and monumental avenues of the South’s resurgent cities. In many of these locations, African Americans made up a significant portion of the population, but an intentionally negligible sliver of the electorate. The statues were not a memory of the romanticized Lost Cause, but triumphal trophies marking the locking down of Jim Crow over an entire people.
Today as the control of nearly all-white police forces is being challenged around the United States, the monumental landscape built after Jim Crow’s seemingly irreversible victory is crumbling. Young Americans look at statues that glorify “Our Lost Cause” and “Our Honored Dead” and turn away, knowing that were never “ours” to begin with.
Pat Young is an attorney specializing in refugee and human rights-related law. He is special professor of immigration law at Hofstra University School of Law. He writes The Immigrants’ Civil War series and The Reconstruction Era Blog.