American Culture

Reconstruction Redux: the nine-to-one ratio

I do not really know how to begin this post, so I will begin it with a story my grandmother told me about Douglas, Georgia around 1905.

She was sitting on her front porch, rocking, when a white man who occasionally worked for her family passed by. When he saw her he hid something behind his back. Playfully, she ran out into the street and tried to peer around him. Finally, he stopped her and said, “Oh, you don’t want to see this Miss Leila. It’s a piece of nigra meat. We had to lynch and burn one, and then we decided to cut him up.”

Between 1882 and 1968, there were 3,446 known lynchings of blacks in the U.S. Most were for attempted rape or attempted murder, attempted being a relatively flexible concept, but numerous things could get you lynched, including “independence of mind.”

Lynching was one part of of a systematic backlash against Reconstruction, the attempt by the victorious Northern states to institute laws giving blacks the right to vote and the opportunity for economic advancement.

Over the course of 89 years, the South and its sympathizers systematically rolled back the efforts of Northerners to help former slaves gain political and economic equality. Reconstruction lasted for 14 short years, from 1863 to 1877. The efforts by whites to undo the gains of Reconstruction, and indeed to punish blacks and their supporters for even trying, lasted 90 years from 1877 to the early sixties.

The second attempt to help Americans of color lasted 11 years, starting with the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and ending with the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and it seems that just like the first one, we now face another nine decades of Southern bigots trying to reinstitute systematic oppression.

The efforts to undo the gains of Reconstruction took many forms. They took the form of physical intimidation, like the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings and the occasional systematic destruction of entire African-American communities like Rosewood and Tulsa. Confederate recidivists were placed in power at both local and state levels. Onerous state laws were passed limiting enfranchisement, such as voter laws that required literacy tests, but only for black people. Every former confederate stae passed laws mandating segregation and instituted programs ensuring that blacks had access to only second or third class education and healthcare. Southern racists formed common bond with their Northern counterparts and named the Democratic Party the “official party of white men.”

But the key was that to enable these Jim Crow laws to be enacted (and other laws, such as ones forbidding murder to not be enforced) the federal government had to first be neutered. This was done by packing the Senate with virolent racists, who blocked every effort to introduce new laws to remedy the situation. Between 1882 and 1968, 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced. Three passed the House. None passed the Senate. Finally, with Woodrow Wilson, the South finally put in place a Southern racist president, who appointed ultra-right wing southerners to his Cabinet and mandated segregation of all federal facilities.

It seems to me there’s a pattern here. True, it’s a little more subtle these days, but it’s the same basic pattern. There’s a decade of progress, followed by nine dedicated to not only wiping out those gains but gaining ground in the other direction. And the general playbook – use the Congress to block progress and blame it on someone else – is also pretty much standard. Yes, that applies to Obama, who is trying his best to stop the Republicans from instituting austerity programs that will turn the U.S. into Greece, and is getting blamed for the exact opposite. But it’s always been the case. Ask Chicagoans. When Harold Washington, a black, was elected mayor, a coalition of white aldermen formed whose express intent was to vote against every measure he introduced. Sound familiar?)

Not my most coherent post perhaps, but I wonder is this the way our country works: One step forward, and nine stumbles back. Is the price we will pay for finally giving a black man a shot at the presidency to ensure that it will be nine generations before another one gets a chance? Is the nine-to-one ratio happenstance or destiny?

5 replies »

  1. I don’t know about the happenstance or destiny of the ratio, but I dispute the subtlety:

    If there’s a bright side in it, it’s that even at the extremes there’s some measure of decency to be found. Given the silence of the conservative media and that the “joke” was well-received by a roomful of laughing hyenas, I’m not feeling too assured that the glimmer of decency will be enough to slow the advance of another nine retrogressive generations.

  2. Some things that I believe to be of importance:

    1. Reconstruction was, itself, a reaction to southern legislatures that made laws essentially returning the freed slaves to bondage. The myth of Reconstruction was that it was a horrible experience. The reality is that it was quite mild, and perhaps by far the mildest such “reform” movement ever demanded by a victorious nation from a defeated one.

    2. Most people think of lynching as being a synonym to “hanging.” Hanging was sometimes a part of lynching, but not always. Real lynching often included roasting, cutting off body parts (and sometimes making the victim eat some of those parts), vivisection, and pretty much any other torture man has the ingenuity to devise.

    3. I don’t know if lynchings were a reaction to Reconstruction, but I doubt it. I think the real issue was fear of freed slaves. Knowing that the freedmen had every reason to hate them and wish them harm, white men and women decided to hate back and use their numbers and legal power to do harm, first. I suspect that the underlying cause had little to do with Reconstruction, and everything to do with that fear.

    4. I have a hypothesis that the current movement against “big government” is, essentially, a movement against equal rights for all races. I never heard about government being evil when I was a kid unless it related to the civil rights movement. In fact, all the resentment I ever heard against the gummint, growing up southern, was aimed at civil rights in one way or another. I believe that’s still the case. It’s a rebellion by the privileged who want to retain their privilege for themselves and their children.

  3. Trying to tie in Reconstruction and the history of Lynching to today’s political debates is tired and disingenuous. That’s right, we all are against Obama just because he is black! If a white liberal were trying to do the EXACT SAME THING, we would have no problem with it! It’s just that he is black! Good God, if this is the best of liberal thought, we libertarians and conservatives have absolutely nothing to fear!

    Oh, and Woodrow Wilson, progressive and beloved by the liberal leftists all over “appointed ultra-right wing” people to his cabinet?? LOL Yes, Wilson was racist! He also had the Klan homage film “Birth Of A Nation” shown at the White House! But he was a left wing progressive through and through. Progressives were frequently racist. There are numerous racist progressives in the early 1900s.

  4. The New America Foundation’s Michael Lind echoed this the other day in an interview:

    “The neo-Jeffersonians trim back accomplishments of the previous Hamiltonian generation—national banking, emancipation, New Deal social programs—but usually fail to repeal them. As a result, the U.S. progresses at a pace of two steps forward, one step back.”