[NOTE: As we saw in the previous post in this series, a key element in the eventual acceptance of the defeated South back into the Union on a (more or less) equal basis with the rest of the nation was the development by skilled southern propagandists of a set of ideas historians refer to as the “New South Creed.” This intellectual construct basically proffered the willingness of the South to be made over in the image of the victorious North in exchange for the rest of the country’s acceptance of the need for southern whites to control their region’s race relations. The acceptance by both parties of these terms smoothed the way for the “Compromise of 1877,” which marked the symbolic end of Reconstruction and the withdrawal of federal troops from the South. Yet, acceptance of the Compromise had other, long-term consequences that would prove significant for the history of the entire country. (For a list of suggested reading, see the end of Part 2.)]
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Several factors contributed to the acceptance by the North and West of the South’s insistence that its white male citizens be allowed to control the racial destiny of the region. One was the general northern disgust at the supposed “excesses” of Radical Reconstruction, especially the activities of purportedly “inferior” former slaves. Another grew out of the “New South Creed,” the desire for reconciliation between the sections. The final impetus paving the way to the “Jim Crow” era in the South was the revival of racial prejudice in the North, not only because of the excesses allegedly committed by the freed people and their Radical Republican Carpetbagger and southern white Scalawag allies, but also because of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century shift in the sources of American immigration from reputedly “superior” northern European people to allegedly “inferior” southern and eastern Europeans.
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Although the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution had been written to protect emancipated slaves after the Civil War, they had to be enforced by the federal government and sustained by the United States Supreme Court to be effective. However, by 1877, with the withdrawal of the last federal troops from the South, the national government essentially washed its hands of the issue; and, in a series of rulings between 1873 and 1896, the Supreme Court indicated that it also was unwilling to lead a crusade for African American rights.
For example, in the Civil Rights Cases (1883), the justices invalidated parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, arguing that the 13th Amendment, ending slavery, could not be stretched to cover “social discrimination,” and that the 14th Amendment could be used only against deprivation of civil rights by states, not discrimination by private individuals. Most famously, the Court’s decision in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) gave the stamp of approval to the “New South Creed’s” central doctrine of “separate but equal.” Plessy thereby validated the various “Jim Crow” (“legal segregation”) laws enacted throughout the South beginning in the 1890s.
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Essential to the strategy of southern whites controlling the region’s racial destiny was the manipulation of the Black vote. During Reconstruction, freedmen cast their ballots regularly for Republican candidates. Former Confederates, some of whom had been disfranchised during Radical Reconstruction, saw this Black voting pattern as evidence that African Americans were either being “coerced” or “manipulated” by Carpetbaggers and Scalawags. This view ignored a couple of obvious facts: Republicans were followers of the party of Abraham Lincoln, the “Great Emancipator”; and southern Democrats represented the party that had supported slavery and been in the forefront of the movement for secession. So, why should freed people support Southern Democrats?
As part of their campaign to weaken Radical Republican regimes during Reconstruction, the former Confederate states adopted extra-legal measures to reduce the number of Black voters. For instance, they hid ballot boxes, or, as under South Carolina’s “eight-box law,” made sure that there were as many ballot boxes at each polling place as there were offices at stake. Voters, unassisted, were required to deposit a separate ballot in each box. If they could not read, or were poorly educated, they were almost certain to invalidate at least some ballots by depositing them in incorrect boxes. Southern states also changed locations of polling places overnight without informing Black voters. Other tactics included applying economic pressure on Black tenant farmers and sharecroppers and, if that failed, resorting to intimidation by violence-prone groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
As white Democratic “Redeemers” regained control of state governments, they used state legislatures to take other steps. A favorite was gerrymandering, the redrawing of electoral districts to dilute African American voting strength. In South Carolina, to take one case, legislators approved a map that concentrated 25,000 of the state’s 30,000 Black majority in a single congressional district. Redeemers also launched investigations into Radical governments, hoping to discredit leading Carpetbaggers, Scalawags, and Freedmen, thus showing how mistaken the idea of giving the vote to former slaves had been.
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Extra-legal methods of disfranchising Black voters were carried over into the era of the “Redemption” by southern Democrats of states from Radical Republican rule. Nevertheless, there still was a lingering fear among white southerners that, if southern states moved to disfranchise African American voters, the federal government might step in. Forces were at work, though, that would make possible, beginning in 1890, the adoption of direct, “constitutional” means of disfranchisement.
As Redeemers fell from power in their turn, they were replaced by demagogic, racist politicians elected by angry, lower-class Southern whites. These new leaders reflected the desires of those who had elected them to pass “Jim Crow” (segregation) laws and take away the right of freedmen to vote. This movement would be accelerated after 1896 because many southern Populists blamed their defeat in the presidential election of that year on manipulation of the African American vote by wealthy, conservative whites in the South’s “Black Belt.”
As the United States began to expand abroad and acquire colonies in the late nineteenth century, the federal government had to decide whether the native populations of, say, Hawaii and Puerto Rico ought to have the same civil and political rights as white residents. Government officials found southern white arguments about limiting the rights of allegedly “inferior” peoples (in this case, colonial subjects) especially appealing. Moreover, upper class white northerners were appalled by the influx into American cities, beginning in the 1890s, of supposedly inferior “New Immigrants” from southern and eastern Europe. Fearing for the “purity” of the “Anglo-Saxon race,” white northerners could at last share the “racial” fears of southern whites.
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So, in the last decade of the nineteenth century, the time seemed ripe for southern states to do legally, through constitutional means, what they had previously done only extra-legally. Mississippi was the first state to do so (1890), followed by South Carolina in 1895. The movement to disfranchise African American voters picked up steam after the collapse of Populism in the aftermath of the 1896 presidential election: Louisiana (1896), North Carolina (1900), Alabama (1901), Virginia (1901-1902), Georgia (1908), and Oklahoma (1910) all removed their African American citizens from the voter rolls by constitutional amendments. During this same period, Tennessee, Florida, Texas, and Arkansas accomplished the same goal through poll taxes or other methods. And, in Williams v. Mississippi (1898), two years after Plessy, the Supreme Court found the “Mississippi Plan” of 1890 constitutional.
End of Part 1
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: