Laws and amendments by themselves were not enough to guarantee freedom to the former slaves. So, in 1867, Congress passed the Military Reconstruction Act temporarily dividing the South into military districts to restore order, and as prelude to creating new governments there. It became a time called Congressional Reconstruction, Military Reconstruction or Radical Reconstruction. Many Northerners went to the South during this period—to teach, to help with aid programs, to help the state governments get going again, and sometimes to make money for themselves. Those Yankees were known as "carpetbaggers" , because the traveling bags of the time were made of carpet material. Most white Southerners hated the carpetbaggers. And some of the Northerners did take advantage of the South. But most went to help. White Southerners didn't want help from their former enemies.
Once again President Johnson vetoed the act. And, once again, enough votes were gathered in Congress to pass it over his veto. The act also said that to become part of the Union again, each southern state must write a new state constitution that was true to the U.S. Constitution. The act also said that all males over twenty-one could vote, except for former convicted criminals and those who had been leaders of the Confederacy. That meant that many Confederate officers could not vote, but black men could. And the Northern soldiers made sure that black men were able to vote. It was amazing. Men who had been slaves a few years earlier were lining up at the polls to vote . Many were illiterate (about one-fifth of the South's white population was illiterate, too; being illiterate doesn't mean being stupid). John Parrish was a white plantation owner. He wrote: "You never saw a people more excited on the subject of politics as the Negroes of the South. They are perfectly wild."
Many blacks were now elected to political office . Mississippians Blanche Bruce and Hiram Revels became U.S. senators. Revels took the old Senate seat of former Confederate president Jefferson Davis. The day he was sworn in, the Senate galleries were packed, and everyone stood as he walked down the aisle. Some observers burst into cheers. All across the South nearly 700 African American men were elected to local, state, and national public office during Congressional Reconstruction.
It was difficult for Southern whites to accept what was happening. The Republican Party was ruling the entire South based on carpetbaggers, blacks, and scalawags—which is what Southern whites who defected to the Republican Party were being called. But worst of all was the fact that blacks were in power. Black people in Congress ! Black people in the state legislatures! Some whites really believed the racistmyths. They believed blacks couldn't think as well as whites!
The Fourteenth Amendment, written by Thaddeus Stevens, was ratified in 1868. This amendment stated that anyone born in the United States, or naturalized was a citizen entitled to “equal protection of the law.” No one could now question the status of the former slaves; they were citizens of the United States, entitled to the same rights as the people who had once owned them.
Thaddeus Stevens had also helped write the Fifteenth Amendment, which was passed in 1869. It gave black men all across the country the right to vote . In the South social reforms are now spreading quickly. Integrated legislatures are creating free public schools. Soon black boys and black girls are enrolled in 4,000 new schools in the South. At least nine black colleges are opened . In the near future Congress will pass a civil rights bill prohibiting discrimination in hotels, theaters, and amusement parks. It is a civil rights revolution. A freedom movement. But it will not last.
Economic conditions in the South were dreadful. Cotton prices were low, the weather is poor, and so are the harvests. The white farmers were exhausted and angry: their sons were dead—killed in the war—and their savings were gone. They had no money to hire workers or buy equipment and seeds, and most of the black farmers had no land. (Thaddeus Stevens had proposed taking land from disloyal southern landholders and giving it to poor whites and the former slaves, but his proposal was considered too radical.)
Whites, most of whom were poor themselves, resented paying taxes to pay for the schools and other improvements enacted by the Republican dominated legislatures. Growing white anger helped undermine Reconstruction and in some cases anger led to violence. Before the war there were no lynchings of blacks. Slaves were valuable possessions. Now hate groups, like the masked Ku Klux Klan, begin waging war on former slaves. Lynchings become increasingly common . Ben Johnson, a southern black, becomes a witness to one of their crimes. He writes: "It was on a cold night when the Ku Kluxers comed and drug the negroes Ed and Cindy outa bed. They carried 'em down in the woods and whup them, then they throws 'em in the pond, their bodies breaking the ice. Cindy ain't been seen since ."
In 1871, the black citizens of Frankfort, Kentucky, send a petition to Congress. It reads: "We believe you are not familiar with the Ku Klux Klan's riding nightly over the country and in the county towns, spreading terror wherever they go by robbing, whipping, ravishing, and killing our people without provocation. We have been law-abiding citizens, pay our tax, and, in many parts of the state, our people have been driven from the polls—refused the right to vote."
Most of the South's big landowners are Democrats. Those Democrats are determined to bring back as much of the old South as possible, using whatever it takes: black codes, murderous Klansmen, or unfair and unconstitutional poll taxes and literacy laws that stop poor blacks from voting. The Democrats who oppose Reconstruction call themselves Redeemers. In the 1870s they are busy "redeeming" one state after another, driving Republicans from power. Emmanuel Fortune is a former slave living in Florida who is among those driven out by the Klan. He writes, "Their object is to kill out the leading men of the Republican party—men who have taken a prominent stand."
In Washington Andrew Johnson is the wrong man for the job. And his Republican successor, the former Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant , isn't right either. Being a general made him popular, but it didn't prepare him for the presidency. He is too trusting and many of those men he appoints are untrustworthy. They steal millions and millions of dollars in public lands and resources. The President and the people are their victims. The Grant presidency is a time of appalling corruption. A newspaper editor writes, "It is a political position and he knows nothing of politics ."
By the time Grant enters the final year of his presidency, the North's citizens are tired of hearing about the need for a just society in the South. They have problems enough worrying about fair government in Washington. The corruption was bad enough, but then in 1873 the economy collapsed into a depression. Hundreds of thousands lost their jobs or had their wages or hours cut. Then, in 1876 there was a controversial presidential election. The votes for Samuel Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes are so closely divided it all comes down to some disputed returns in Florida and two other states. There are reports that blacks have been kept away from the polls in Florida, and that ballots there were confusingly printed. A special Electoral Commission is created to decide who should be the next president. Finally, when Republican candidate Hayes promises to pull federal troops out of the South if he is elected, he gets the job in what many see as a political deal. Hayes keeps his promise. Soldiers leave the South; and no one is left there to enforce civil rights for blacks. Reconstruction is over. Hayes has been willing to sacrifice blacks' constitutional rights to gain the presidency .
After 1876 the old guard in the South—the Redeemers—begin to take power again. They pass laws that make voters pay a poll tax: that means most blacks can no longer vote. They make it impossible for blacks to get a decent education or buy land. They will not allow blacks to have fair trials. Soon many Southern blacks are not much better off than they had been when they were slaves. Some are worse off. James Garfield is a congressman and former clergyman who will soon become president. He asks: "What is freedom? Is it the bare privilege of not being chained? If this is all, then freedom is a bitter mockery, a cruel delusion."
As for the former slaves, what next? Most of them were now little better off than they were before Reconstruction. They were no longer slaves, but so called Jim Crow laws were enacted making segregation and discrimination legal. Laws were put in place, like poll taxes and literacy tests that kept blacks from voting.
But, what kept most African Americans from voting and exercising their constitutional rights was that their remained laborers dependent on white landowners for their living. Many signed contracts working for wages on land. Others rented land. Most African Americans, and whites, for that matter, became sharecroppers. Under this arrangement, sharecroppers received housing, seeds, farm equipment, and food in return for working the planter’s land and growing his crop, usually cotton. The planter considered all of these items loans for which he charged interest. The sharecropper was allowed to keep a “share” of the crop he grew which he could sell. What happened nine times out of ten is that at the end of each growing season the sharecropper remained in debt to the landowner because his crop never covered all of his debts and the interest. Sharecroppers remained on the land, in debt, at the mercy of the planter. Not wanting to upset the planter, African Americans accepted discrimination and did not vote. When they died their debts were inherited by their children. This outcome is just what Thaddeus Stevens had feared would happen unless widespread land distribution happened.
1. Identify THREE important changes that Military Reconstruction brought to the South. 2. How did most southern whites feel about the changes? Why did they feel this way? 3. Explain why you think it is fair or unfair to call Reconstruction “an unfinished revolution”? 4. Why was the Fourteenth Amendment important? 5. Explain five reasons why Reconstruction – and the big changes that came with it – ended in the South by the late 1870s. 6. How did sharecropping put African Americans in a position of dependency on wealthier southern whites? 7. How did sharecropping contribute to the loss of rights for African Americans in the South?