The First and Second Reconstructions held out the great promise of rectifying racial injustices in America. The First Reconstruction, emerging out of the chaos of the Civil War had as its goals equality for Blacks in voting, politics, and use of public facilities. The Second Reconstruction emerging out of the booming economy of the 1950's, had as its goals, integration, the end of Jim Crow and the more amorphous goal of making America a biracial democracy where, "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave holders will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood." Even though both movements, were borne of high hopes they failed in bringing about their goals. Born in hope, they died in despair, as both movements saw many of their gains washed away. I propose to examine why they failed in realizing their goals. My thesis is that failure to incorporate economic justice for Blacks in both movements led to the failure of the First and Second Reconstruction.
The First Reconstruction came after the Civil War and lasted till 1877. The political, social, and economic conditions after the Civil War defined the goals of the First Reconstruction. At this time the Congress was divided politically on issues that grew out of the Civil War: Black equality, rebuilding the South, readmitting Southern states to Union, and deciding who would control government.
Socially, the South was in chaos. Newly emancipated slaves wandered the South after having left their former masters, and the White population was spiritually devastated, uneasy about what lay ahead. Economically, the South was also devastated: plantations lay ruined, railroads torn up, the system of slave labor in shambles, and cities burnt down. The economic condition of ex-slaves after the Civil War was just as uncertain; many had left former masters and roamed the highways.
Amid the post Civil War chaos, various political groups were scrambling to further their agendas. First, Southern Democrats, a party comprised of leaders of the confederacy and other wealthy Southern whites, sought to end what they perceived as Northern domination of the South. They also sought to institute Black Codes, by limiting the rights of Blacks to move, vote, travel, and change jobs,3 which like slavery, would provide an adequate and cheap labor supply for plantations. Second, Moderate Republicans wanted to pursue a policy of reconciliation between North and South, but at the same time ensure slavery was abolished.
Third, Radical Republicans, comprised of Northern politicians, were strongly opposed to slavery, unsympathetic to the South, wanted to protect newly free slaves, and keep there majority in Congress.
The fourth political element, at the end of the Civil War was President Andrew Johnson whose major goal was unifying the nation. The fifth element were various fringe groups such as, abolitionists and Quakers. Strongly motivated by principle and a belief in equality, they believed that Blacks needed equality in American society, although they differed on what the nature of that should be.
The Northern Radical Republicans, with a majority in Congress, emerged as the political group that set the goals for Reconstruction which was to prevent slavery from rising again in the South. At first, the Radical Republicans thought this could be accomplished by outlawing slavery with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. But Southern Democrats in their quest to restore their rule in the South brought back slavery in all but name, by passing Black Codes as early as 1865. Both Moderate Republicans and Radical Republicans in Congress reacted. Joining together in 1866, they passed a bill to extend the life and responsibilities of the Freedmen's Bureau to protect newly freed slaves against the various Black Codes. President Johnson vetoed the bill, but Radical and Moderate Republicans eventually were able to pass it.
The Black Codes and President Johnson's veto of all Reconstruction legislation that was unfavorable to the South caused Moderate and Radical Republicans to change their goals from just ending slavery to seeking political equality and voting rights for Blacks.
The new goals, were based on humanitarian and political considerations. Northerners had grown increasingly sympathetic to the plight of the Blacks in the South following numerous well publicized incidents in which innocent Blacks were harassed, beaten, and killed.
The extension of suffrage to Black males was a political move by the Republicans in Congress who believed that Blacks would form the backbone of the Republican Party in the South, preventing Southern Democrats from winning elections in Southern states, and uphold the Republican majority in Congress after the Southern States rejoined the Union. As one Congressman from the North bluntly put it, "It prevents the States from going into the hands of the rebels, and giving them the President and the Congress for the next forty years."10
Until the 1890's, this policy of achieving equality through granting political rights to Blacks worked moderately well. During Reconstruction, newly freed slaves voted in large numbers in the South. Of the 1,330,000 people registered to vote under Reconstruction Acts 703,000 were Black and only 627,000 were White.
Even after 1877, when federal troops were withdrawn12, Jim Crow laws did not fully emerge in the South and Blacks continued to vote in high numbers and hold various state and federal offices. Between 1877 and 1900, a total of ten Blacks were elected to serve in the US Congress.
This occurred because Southern Democrats forged a unlikely coalition with Black voters against White laborers14. Under this paternalistic order Southern Democrats agreed to protect Blacks political rights in the South in return for Black votes15.
But voting and election figures hide the true nature of Black political power during and after Reconstruction. Few Blacks held elective offices in relation to their percentage of the South's population.16 And those in office usually did not wield the power, which during Reconstruction continued to reside with Moderate and Radical Republicans in Congress, whites who ran Southern state governments, and federal troops. Emancipated slaves had little to do with either fashioning Reconstruction policy or its implementation. Blacks political rights were dependent upon alliances made with groups with conflicting interests White Northern Republicans and White elites in the South.17 Though they pursued political equality for Blacks, their goals were shaped more by self-interest than for concern for Black equality.
By 1905 Blacks lost their right to vote. In Louisiana alone the number of Black voters fell from 130,334 in 1896 to 1,342 in 1904.18 The number of elected Black public officials dropped to zero. The disenfranchisement of Blacks was accomplished through good character tests, poll taxes, White primaries, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and intimidation. By 1905, whatever success politically and socially the Reconstruction had enjoyed had been wiped out.19 Following on the heels of disenfranchisement came implementation of comprehensive Jim Crow laws segregating steamboats, toilets, ticket windows and myriad of other previously non-segregated public places. 20
Two historians, C. Van Woodward and William Julius Wilson, both pin point specific events such as, recessions, class conflicts, imperialist expansion to explain the rise of Jim Crow. Wilson's21 and Woodward's22 analysis is lacking because the United States has undergone many recessions and many times minority groups such as Jews, Irish, and Eastern Europeans and have been blamed for taking away the jobs of the lower-class; and yet these groups have not had their votes stripped away from them and did not have an elaborate set of laws constructed to keep them segregated in society as Blacks have. The only community of people in the Untied States who have been victims of systematic, long-term, violent, White Supremacy have been Native Americans. And Native Americans, like Afro-Americans, have been predominately powerless economically and politically. This points to the conclusion that the systemic demise of the First Reconstruction stems from the failure of Reconstruction leaders to include economic justice for Blacks as a goal; thus dooming the Reconstruction movement from the outset. The failure of pursuing a policy of economic redistribution forced Blacks into fragile political alliances that quickly disintegrated (as can be seen in 1877 and 1896); Blacks were forced to rely on the Radical Republicans and Federal troops to give them their rights and later their former slave masters, the Southern Democrats, to safeguard their rights.23 The disintegration of these agreements were caused directly by the events that Woodward and Wilson point to, but these political agreements were inherently fragile and would have inevitably unraveled because of their very nature. These political alliances had conflicting interests. The poor sharecropper and the White elites of the South were inherently unequal.
The former slaves were looked on not as equals, but as inferior.24 Whatever well meaning reforms were instituted were done so paternalistically and for Southern Democrats own interests. And when an alliance with Blacks no longer served the interests of the whites they were easily abandoned. When the Blacks agreement with the Southern Democrats unraveled Blacks were left economically naked except for the loin cloth of political rights. But this loin cloth was easily stripped from them, because lacking economic power, they were unable to make other political allies, their economic position allowed them to be easily intimidated by White land owners, they had no way to lobby the government, no way to leave the South, few employment opportunities, and for many Blacks no education.25 The leaders of the Reconstruction failed to understand that without economic justice Blacks would be forced into a dependency on the White power structure to protect their rights and when these rights no longer served the interests of this power structure they were easily stripped away. Reconstruction Acts and Constitutional Amendments offered little protection to stop this stripping away of Black political rights.
The Reconstruction leaders failed to understand the relationship between political rights and economic power, if they had they might not have rejected measures that could have provided former slaves with the economic power to safeguard their political rights. Two possibilities presented themselves at the outset of the First Reconstruction. A Quaker and Radical Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania, Thaddeus Stevens, proposed that the North seize the land holdings of the South's richest land owners as a war indemnity and redistribute the land giving each newly freed Negro adult male a mule and forty acres.26 Thaddeus Stevens a bitter foe of the South,27 explained that a free society had to be based on land redistribution:
Southern Society has more the features of aristocracy then a democracy..... It is impossible that any practical equality of rights can exist where a few thousand men monopolize the who landed property. How can Republican institutions, free schools, free churches, free social intercourse exist in a mingled community of nabobs and serfs, of owners of twenty-thousand-acre manors, with lordly palaces, and the occupants of narrow huts inhabited by low White trash?
Stevens plan in the Republican Press though drew unfavorable responses. The plan was called brash and unfair. Only one newspaper endorsed it and that was the French paper La Temps which said, "There cannot be real emancipation for men who do no possess at least a small portion of soil."28 When the bill was introduced in Congress it was resoundingly defeated by a majority of Republicans. Stevens was alone in understanding the tremendous institutional changes that would have to take place to guarantee the emancipation of a people. If the former slave did not have his own land he would be turned into a serf in his own nation a stranger to the freedoms guaranteed to him and a slave all but in name.
The other alternative the leaders of Reconstruction had was expanding the Freedmen's Bureau from a temporary to a permanent institution that educated all former slaves and ensured that former slaves had a viable economic base that did not exploit them. Instead, the Freedmen's Bureau lasted merely five years, and only five million dollars were appropriated to it. Its mission to educate and protect the Freedmen was meet in only a small way in this short amount of time and when the Freedmen's Bureau shutdown it left the education of former slaves to local governments which allocated limited if any funds.29 Although proposed by a few Republicans the Freedmen's Bureau also refused to set a minimum wage in the South to ensure that former slaves received a fair wage from their former slave masters. Instead, the Freedmen's Bureau was instrumental in spearheading the formation of sharecropping by encouraging both former slaves and plantation owners to enter into sharecropping agreements.30 By the time the Bureau ceased operations in 1870, the sharecropping system was the dominant arrangement in the South. This arrangement continued the poverty and oppression of Blacks in the South. As one Southern governor said about sharecropping, "The Negro skins the land and the landlord skins the Negro."31 The Freedmen's Bureau missed a great opportunity; had its mission been broadened, its funding increased, and its power been extended, it could have educated the Black population and guaranteed some type of land reform in the South. Because neither Thaddeus Stevens plan for land redistribution or an expansion of the Freedmen's Bureau took place, Blacks were left after slavery much as they were before, landless and uneducated. In the absence of an economic base for Blacks, three forces moved in during the 1890's wiping out the political successes of Reconstruction: the white sheets of White supremacy, the blue suits of politicians all too eager to unify whites with racism, and the black robes of the judiciary in cases like Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896 stripped away Blacks' social and political rights.
The Civil Rights movement came nearly ninety years after the First Reconstruction. The goals of the Second Reconstruction involved at first tearing down the legal Jim Crow of the South, but by the March on Washington in 1964 the goals had changed to guaranteeing all Americans equality of opportunity, integration both social and political, and the more amorphous goal of a biracial democracy.32 But the goals did not include the need to transform the economic condition of Blacks. Instead they emphasized the need to transform the political and social condition of Blacks.33
At the beginning, the Civil Rights Movement sought solutions to racial injustice through laws and used the Federal courtsto secure them. The Supreme Court set the stage in 1954 with Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka Kansas: the Brown decision focused the attention of dominant Black institutions such as CORE (Congress On Racial Equality) and the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) on fighting the illegality of segregation in Congress and courts. Subsequent organizations that came to play larger roles in the Civil Rights Movement such as, SNCC (Students Non-violent Coordinating Committee) and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Council) fell into this same pattern-- combating mainly legal segregation. Although they pioneered different tactics-- sit-ins, boycotts, and marches, the goal was to focus attention on getting rid of Jim Crow.34
The Civil Rights movement, successfully pressured Congress and the President to enact the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The Civil Rights Movement also brought about a fundamental shift in public opinion; de jure racial discrimination became a moral wrong for many Americans. The Civil Rights Movement by 1965 had broken the back of legal Jim Crow in the South. However, in the North, Blacks living under de facto segregation by economic and racist conditions. Segregated schools and housing were unaffected by the progress of the Civil Rights Movement.35 By the middle of 1965, the Civil Rights Movement had stalled; never recovering its momentum.36
C. Van Woodward views the failure of the Civil Rights Movement to realize its goals and its disintegration in the same myopic way he views the failure of the First Reconstruction. He points to three different events, from 1965 to 1968, to explain the disintegration of the Civil Rights Movement: riots in urban areas which created a White backlash37, the rise of racial separatism and extremism within the Civil Rights Movement and Black community, 38 and the Vietnam War which diverted White liberals' attention. Woodward's analysis fails to provide a broad perspective of why these events destroyed such a strong movement. There had been riots in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, yet these riots neither spread nor crippled the movement.39 Black separatism had been a vocal movement before 1965 in the form of the Nation of Islam.40 And mass opposition to the Vietnam War among White liberals did not pickup momentum until the late 1960's after the Civil Rights Movement had stalled.
On the other hand, William Julius Wilson provides a more coherent explanation of the demise of the Civil Rights Movement. Wilson says the movement failed because it did not effectively address the economic plight of inner city Blacks living in the North. This failure was caused by the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement which had little connection with Blacks in the ghetto. The leaders of the movement were from the Southern middle-class Blacks; who were either college students, teachers, preachers, or lawyers.41 Like the leaders of the First Reconstruction, the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement lacked understanding of the economic needs of the Black lower-class. Instead of addressing the economic plight of Northern Black ghettoes, the Civil Rights Movement continued to push for broad political and civil rights. Inhabitants of Northern Ghettoes, were trapped not by Jim Crow, but by poverty and de facto segregation. Nonviolent protests, marches, pickets, and rallies did nothing to change poor housing, lack of employment, and inferior schools.
However, the Civil Rights Movement's battles to end Jim Crow in the South and obtain passage of Civil Rights acts in the 1960's raised awareness of lower-class Blacks in the ghetto to racism and increased their impatience with police brutality and economic injustice. This heightened awareness of racism in their community and desperation over their plight, turned poor urban Blacks into matches and ghettoes into kindling. The Riots from 1965 to 1968 became a way to raise economic issues the Civil Rights Movement had ignored. The Riots were caused, not just by desperation, they had been desperate for years, not just by a heightened awareness of racism, they had been aware of it before 1965, but because they found no answers to their plight. Neither White politicians nor civil rights leaders had solutions for their economic needs.42
Wilson's analysis thus far provides as answer for the riots and subsequent White backlash. However, Wilson's explanation of the emergence and appeal of Black Power is lacking. Wilson says Black Power's emergence was caused by riots in the summers from 1965 to 1968. But these riots occurred after Black Power had emerged inside the Civil Rights Movement. In the spring of 1965 the leadership of SNCC and CORE had expelled its White members, rejected integration as a goal, and elected black separatists as presidents.43 Instead, I see the emergence of the Black Power Movement as related to the failure of the Civil Rights Movement to address lower-class frustration with economic injustice, and de facto racism in the North. Black Power, as a movement, had many facets and leaders. Black Power leaders were from the lower-class while the Civil Rights Movements leaders were from the middle-class. Stokely Carmichael, a poor immigrant from Trinidad; Eldridge Cleaver, the son of a Texas carpenter, and went to jail for rape44; Huey Newton, before becoming a political leader, was a hustler. Other leaders such as Angela Davis gravitated to the movement because of its mix of Marxist and nationalist economic politics.45 The rise of these leaders was a result of the Civil Rights Movement's failure before 1965, to articulate a program of racial justice for poor Blacks in the North; in this absence violent, vocal and angry leaders emerged to fill this void. Leaders such as H. Rap Brown called for "killing the honkies," James Brown called for Black pride with his song "Say It Loud- I'm Black and I'm Proud."
Black Power provided poor Blacks with psychological and economic solutions to their problems. Psychologically it brought about a shift in Black consciousness a shift that made being Black beautiful, no longer as W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1905 were Blacks a "Seventh Son." But equally important the Black Power Movement tried to provide economic answers to urban Blacks with answers such as: racial separatism, moving back to Africa, taking over the government, and taking "what was theirs" from whites. Although these solutions ultimately proved unworkable for solving economic problems, they tried, while the Civil Rights movement did not attempt solutions.
The failure of the Civil Rights Movement in articulating and pursuing a plan of economic justice for lower-class Blacks doomed the movement's goal of integration, furthering de facto segregation in housing and schools. The end of Jim Crow did not end the income difference between Whites and Blacks. In 1954, Blacks earned approximately 53% of what whites earned, and in 1980 they earned 57% what an average White earns. At this rate racial equality in average income would come in 250 years.46 This racial inequality in income left unaddressed by the Civil Rights Movement, forces poor Blacks to remain in deteriorating slums in cities, while whites flee to the suburbs. The de facto segregation that has emerged has shifted the good jobs to suburbs and relegated lower-class Blacks in cities to diminishing job prospects. This has caused rising rates of unemployment, economic desperation, and jobs predominantly in the low-wage sector. This poverty cycle among lower-class Blacks remains after vestiges of legal Jim Crow have disappeared.47 White flight to suburbs and the poverty trap of the inner city for Blacks has been so great that in 1980 the number of segregated schools surpassed the number of segregated schools before 1954.48
Both the First and Second Reconstructions left Blacks with no economic base, dependent on others for their social and political power. And as in the First Reconstruction, when those political alliances did not serve the needs of the whites in power, Blacks were abandoned and their political and social goals wiped out. In the 1990's most political leaders have long given up on the plight of the Black urban poor. Mandatory busing is fast being eliminated in major cities, and Black leaders cry out for help to a President and Congress more interested in balancing the budget, cutting welfare costs, and spending on the military then dealing with the complicated cycle of urban poverty.
Though, the two Reconstructions held out great promise and hope to Blacks in America, both failed to achieve their broad goals and in subsequent decades much of their accomplishments washed away. Yet, both brought significant permanent changes. The First Reconstruction ended slavery and the second ended legal segregation. But just as the First Reconstruction disintegrated by the 1890's because of the failure of the federal government to create a viable economic base for freed slaves, the Second Reconstruction did not result in a fully integrated society because it too failed to fundamentally change the economic condition of poor Blacks.
The Black experience in America is a contradiction for there is no one black experience just as there is no one white experience. In the same way, the failure of the First and Second Reconstructions was caused not by one event but by many. The failings of these Reconstructions are not as simple as racism, politics, or individual events; to single out one to explain such complicated periods gives an incomplete picture of both history and the nature of racism. The leaders of both the First and Second Reconstructions fell into this trap and sought to solve racial inequality through political means. Their failure to see the economic dimensions of racism was key to the demise of the First and Second Reconstructions. While far from the movements only failing it is a factor that has been ignored by historians such as C. Vann Woodward and William Julius Wilson. America still has a long way to go to reach a place where "little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little White boys and White girls as sisters and brothers." We are still a divided society- economically if not legally. We are divided between the inner city ghettoes of South Central LA and the mansions of Beverly Hills; between Harlem's abandoned buildings and the plush apartments of Park Avenue. Racial injustice will never be solved with mere politics and laws, anger and separatism. If we fail to bridge this divide the question of the Twenty-First century like the Twentieth will be that of the color line.
- Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution (New York: Harper and Row, 1988) p.228.
- Ibid. pp.124-125.
- Eli Ginzberg and Alfred S. Eichner, Troublesome Presence: Democracy and Black Americans (London: Transaction Publishers, 1993) p. 148.
- Ibid. p. 152.
- Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution (New York: Harper and Row, 1988) pp.229-231.
- Daniel J. Mcinerney, The Fortunate Heirs of Freedom: Abolition and the Republican Party (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994) p.151.
- Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution (New York: Harper and Row, 1988) pp.228-251.
- The transformation of the goals of Reconstruction was caused by Johnson's veto of nearly every Reconstruction bill. This forced Moderates to join the Radical Republicans in an alliance against President Johnson. Eli Ginzberg and Alfred S. Eichner, Troublesome Presence: Democracy and Black Americans (London: Transaction Publishers, 1993) p.153.
- Ibid. p.159.
- Ibid. p. 161.
- A total of twenty-two Blacks served in the House of Representatives during Reconstruction. C. Eric Lincoln, The Negro Pilgrimage in America (New York: Bantam, 1967) p.65.
- In the Presidential election of 1876, the Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, captured a majority of the popular vote and lead in the electoral college results. But the electoral votes of three Southern States still under Republican rule were in doubt, as Ginzberg writes, "In all three states the Republicans controlled the returning boards which had to certify the election results, and in all three states they certified their own parties ticket. As the history books reveal, the crisis was finally overcome when the Southern Democrats agreed to support the Republican Candidate Rutherford B. Hayes, as a part of a larger compromise (The Compromise of 1877). Hayes promised in return to withdraw Federal troops from the South." Eli Ginzberg and Alfred S. Eichner, Troublesome Presence: Democracy and Black Americans (London: Transaction Publishers, 1993) pp. 182-183.
- C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974) p. 54.
- Southern Democrats were comprised of Southern elites and formed a coalition with Blacks to prevent poor Whites from passing economic initiatives such as free silver, the break up of monopolies, and labor laws. Gerald Gaither, Blacks and the Populist Revolt: Ballots and Bigotry In the New South (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1972) p.299.
- The Coalition between poor Whites was based on a paternalistic order as C. Vann Woodward explains, "Blacks continued to vote in large numbers and hold minor offices and a few seats in Congress, but this could be turned to account by the Southern White Democrats who had trouble with White lower-class rebellion." C. Vann Woodward, Origins of a New South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951) p.254.
- Howard N. Robinowitz, Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982) p.396.
- Ibid. p.398.
- C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974) p. 85.
- William Julius Wilson, The Declining Significance of Race (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980) p.63.
- Until 1900, the only type of Jim Crow law (a law which legally segregates races) prevalent in the South was one applying to passengers aboard trains in the first class section. C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974) p. 67.
For Endnotes 21-48, see the original copy of this paper http://dberger.student.harvard.edu/papers/t2.htm