The Dawn of Modern American Race Relations

Sketch shows an officer of the Freedman's Bureau interposed between a group of violent whites threatening recently freed slaves.

This drawing from 1868 remains powerful.  It captures the virulent hatred of southern whites toward blacks (their former “property”) just after the South was defeated in the Civil War.  Because the South had given its all in defense of slaveholding, Southern defeat, coupled with the federal government’s freeing of the slaves, triggered a rage and resentment that still boils in some segments of the white population.

During the Civil War, the free part of the nation defeated the rebel states.  Beyond that, though, the free part of the nation rejected and discredited the ideas that the South’s slave-holding society had embraced.  The Northern states, which  controlled the federal government, warred against these ideas, defeating and ostracizing them, while protecting liberated slaves and taking numerous steps to outlaw slavery and rectify its wrongs.  The world the slaveholders made, which justified black enslavement by asserting whites’ natural superiority, was lost.

A value system at odds with the principle of natural equality: this is what the rebels lost in the 1860s, and what their descendants and admirers nostalgically pine for to the extent that they identify with the Lost Cause.

Of course, some Southerners were capable of shrugging their shoulders and moving on.  For most white Southerners, though, the loss was mortifying.  The consequences of losing were deeply humiliating and dire.  People who owned slaves had believed in their slaves’ native inferiority.  This supposed inferiority was the intellectual defense relied on to make slavery conscionable.

Furthermore, the belief that whites were naturally superior boosted the egos of all white southerners, most of whom were not wealthy and did not own slaves.  If all whites were superior, all were part of the master class.  The Civil War shattered this preposterous notion.  The federal government intervened militarily, breaking up the South’s “peculiar institution,” and declaring that blacks were equal to whites.

For more than a decade after the Civil War, the federal government engaged in an extraordinary effort to protect liberated slaves and ensure their freedom and equality.  The central figure in the drawing above  represents the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal agency that ran refugee camps for slaves during the war.  The Bureau existed to protect newly freed slaves, to promote their well-being by providing shelter, food, and education.

For the times, Freedmen’s Bureau was an extraordinary welfare effort, but Southerners regarded it as an unwarranted federal intrusion into their affairs.  The bureau’s work went forward amid whites’ open resentment and vituperation.  The freedmen were freed, but now inhabited a fearsome milieu where the threat of violence, victimization, and re-enslavement was pervasive and real.  A segment of the white population became intent on denying black equality, because to accept black equality was to equate whites’ worth with that of slaves.

Change the clothes and the architecture, and the drawing could pass for an expression of the race hatred, fear, and resentment still roiling the US today.  The tragedy of slavery in the States far surpassed the terrible trauma it inflicted on the enslaved population.  Nor did the tragedy end when the Confederates surrendered.  It was not over when every slave was free nor when slavery was formally abolished.  Even when black Americans were granted equal rights on paper, it still did not end.  In the 1960s, when civil rights activists ended racial segregation and battled Jim Crow, when the federal government passed the Voting Rights Act and instated other protections, mighty progress was made.  And yet the tragedy of racism and racial prejudice endures.

Image: from this source.

1870: Black Voting Rights Secured–Right?

On this day in 1870, the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified.  Its text is brief.

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The passage of the Amendment was a staggeringly large step toward race equality in America.  Yet even before three-quarters of the states ratified it, racists began to deter blacks from exercising their new political power: the power of the ballot.  The campaign against them, consisting of intimidation, violence, and legal obstacles, was particularly brazen in the former slave states.  Shockingly, it would be another 100 years before the promise of the 15th Amendment became something like a reality.  With the new assault on voting rights we see today, the fragility of this Constitutional guarantee is obvious.

Image: from this source.

A Storybook Dream of Reconstruction

In the years immediately after the Civil War, the victors imagined that the US was on the verge of becoming a racially just society. For four long years, Americans had warred against one another over the issue of slavery and whether the states had a right to secede.  The Confederate states had staked everything on these ideas.  Their determination to cling to them became a matter of pride and at last shame and bitterness, because in the end, they could not carry the argument even with the aid of cannons and guns.  When the Union won in 1865, shouldn’t the argument have been over, too? Continue reading