AFRICANGLOBE – The movie begins in January 1865, exactly 2 years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring slaves of the Confederate States “thenceforward and forever free. ”
As Lincoln himself told Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles issuing the Proclamation was a “military necessity. We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.” Indeed, Lincoln wanted to issue the Proclamation in July 1862 but Secretary of State William Seward cautioned that the series of military defeats suffered by the Union army that year would lead many to view such a move simply as an act of desperation. The victory at Antietam in September gave Lincoln the opportunity he needed.
The Emancipation Proclamation helped the Union immeasurably. It converted a war to preserve the union into a war of liberation, a change that gained widespread support in key European nations. And by rescinding a 1792 ban on Blacks serving in the armed forces, the Proclamation solved the increasingly pressing personnel needs of the Union Army in the face of a declining number of White volunteers. During the war nearly 200,000 Blacks, most of them ex-slaves joined the Union Army, giving the North additional manpower needed to win the war. As historian James M. McPherson writes, “The proclamation officially turned the Union army into an army of liberation…And by authorizing the enlistment of freed slaves into the army, the final proclamation went a long step toward creating that army of liberation.”
Abolitionists viewed arming ex-slaves as a major step toward toward giving them equality. Frederick Douglass urged Blacks to join the army for this reason. “Once let the Black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”
The movie focuses on one month—January 1865—and the Congressional vote on the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, it could have been subtitled, “How a bill becomes a law.” The film ends with a cheesy scene with triumphant celebrations by Whites and Blacks after the Amendment that ended slavery throughout the nation passed by the razor thin margin of two votes. But for Blacks, earning the rights of citizenship was to prove a much more protracted affair.
Gaining the Rights of Citizenship
On April 9, 1865 the South surrendered. On April 15th Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. On April 20, Lincoln’s Vice President, Democrat Andrew Johnson, formerly Governor of Tennessee, formally declared the war over.
The 11 Confederate states would reenter the Union. But left undecided was the legal status of ex-slaves. When slavery was abolished the Constitutional compromise that counted slaves as 3/5 of a person for purposes of Congressional representation no longer applied. After the 1870 Census the South’s representation would be based on a full counting of 4 million ex-slaves. One Illinois Republican expressed a common fear that the “reward of treason will be an increased representation”.
Between 1864 and 1866, ten of the eleven Confederate states inaugurated governments that did not provide suffrage and equal civil rights to freedmen. This was acceptable to Andrew Johnson but not to Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens, masterfully played in the movie by Tommy Lee Jones, who insisted that Reconstruction must “revolutionize Southern institutions, habits, and manners… The foundations of their institutions… must be broken up and relaid, or all our blood and treasure have been spent in vain.”
In March 1865 Congress created the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide food, clothing and fuel to ex-slaves and advice on negotiating labor contracts between freedmen and their former captors. The Bureau, not the local courts, handled the legal affairs of freedmen. It could lease confiscated land for a period of three years and sell portions of up to 40 acres per buyer.
When Johnson assumed the Presidency he ordered any confiscated or abandoned lands administered by the Freedman’s Bureau returned to pardoned owners rather than redistributed to freedmen.
The Bureau was to expire one year after the termination of the War. In January 1866, Congress renewed the Act. Johnson vetoed the bill. An attempt to override the veto failed, marking the beginning of a struggle between Congress and the President over which branch of government had the ultimate authority to oversee Reconstruction—a struggle that ultimately led to the impeachment of Andrew Johnson by the House in 1868. He avoided removal from office by only one vote in the Senate.
In 1865 the Senate and House denied the seating of any Senator or Representative from the Confederate States until Congress decided when Reconstruction was finished.
In March 1866 Congress enacted the first Civil Rights bill, intended to give ex-slaves full legal equality. It stated, “All persons born in the United States … are hereby declared to be citizens of the United States; and such citizens of every race and color, without regard to any previous condition of slavery … shall have the same right in every State … to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, and give evidence, to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property, and to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property, as is enjoyed by White citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, and penalties and to none other, any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom to the Contrary notwithstanding.”
Johnson vetoed the bill. This time Congress overrode his veto. (Congress also passed a more moderate Freedmen’s Bureau Bill and overrode the subsequent Presidential veto of that.)
In response to the Civil Rights Act, every southern legislature passed “black codes,” which limited the rights and civil liberties of freed slaves. Many stripped Blacks of their right to vote, serve on juries, testify against Whites and own firearms. Some declared that ex-slaves who failed to sign yearly labor contracts could be arrested and hired out to White landowners.
Congress then passed the Fourteenth Amendment, extending citizenship to everyone born in the United States and prohibiting anyone from being deprived of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” or denied “the equal protection of the laws.” The Amendment also allowed federal courts to enforce these rights. The Southern states, with the exception of Tennessee and several border states, refused to ratify the Amendment.
A sweeping Republican victory in the 1866 Congressional elections gave Republicans a two-thirds majority, ushering in a ten-year period of aggressive efforts to defend the rights of ex-slaves. The 1867 Reconstruction Act required as a condition of readmittance to the Union for Southern states to ratify the 14th Amendment. The Act also placed the former Confederacy under military rule.
The army conducted new elections in which freed slaves could vote. Whites who had held leading positions under the Confederacy were not permitted to run for office. Republicans took control of all Southern state governorships and state legislatures, except Virginia.
The impact on Southern politics and culture was revolutionary. At the beginning of 1867, no African-American in the South held political office. Within three or four years about 15 percent of all elected officials in the South were Black. It may be instructive to note that this was still far below Blacks’ proportion of the population, which was over 50 percent in Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina, and over 40 percent in four other Confederate states.
Biracial governments wrote new state constitutions, established public schools and charitable institutions and raised the extremely low taxes put in place largely because of the influence of plantation owners. Literacy rates rose dramatically.
In early 1870 Congress passed the 15th Amendment, which finally gave Blacks, and other minorities, the right to vote.
Losing the Rights of Citizenship
By 1870 the legal structure was in place to provide ex-slaves full citizenship. The next decades put to the test Martin Luther King Jr’s observation about the human condition expressed a century later. “(W)hile it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me…”
The South proved King wrong. A new civil war erupted, this time not between North and South but internal to the South. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), the Red Shirts, the White League, the White Liners, and other paramilitary organizations operated openly and with clear political goals: the overthrow of Republican rule and the suppression of Black voting. They became known as the “military arm of the Democratic Party.”
In 1870 a wave of resulting assassinations in the South moved Congress to pass a law criminalizing conspiracies to deny Black suffrage and empowering the President to use military troops to suppress organizations that deprived the rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Some 20,000 U.S. troops were deployed to enforce the law.
Largely as a result of this widespread violence and intimidation. Democrats had regained control of state legislatures in every southern state by 1877. At the federal level the Depression of 1873, the first major economic collapse in U.S. history and the Republicans’ embrace of a fiscal policy that further contracted the economy led to the Democrat’s controlling the House of Representatives in 1876 for the first time since 1856.
The tight 1876 Presidential election was thrown into the House of Representatives where Democrats agreed to support Rutherford Hayes, the Republican candidate, in return for his promise to completely withdraw federal troops from the South.
The federal courts proved unwilling to enforce the Constitution. In 1873 the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment protected U.S. citizens from rights infringements only by the federal government, not states. In 1876, it ruled that only states, not the federal government, could prosecute individuals under the Ku Klux Klan Act. In 1883, it ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment applied only to discrimination from the government, not from individuals.
Having regained political control and no longer challenged by federal troops or federal courts the South began to systematically strip Blacks of the vote, beginning with the Georgia poll tax in 1877. Later they began adding residency requirements, and literacy tests. States conveniently exempted any man whose father or grandfather had voted prior to January 1, 1867 from such requirements.
The impact on Black suffrage was devastating. In 1896 in Louisiana, for example, where the population was evenly divided between races, 130,334 Black voters were on the registration rolls, about the same number as Whites. By 1900 the number of Black registered voters had been reduced to 5,320 and by 1910 to only 730.
What came to be known as Jim Crow laws formalized the return of Blacks to subordinate status, leading historian W.E.B. Du Bois to famously observe, “(T)he slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”
This disenfranchisement of Blacks attracted the attention of Congress. From 1896-1900, the House of Representatives set aside election results in over 30 cases where it concluded, “Black voters had been excluded due to fraud, violence, or intimidation.” But eventually these investigations died out as Democrats, repeatedly re-elected in one-party states, gained seniority in Congress, resulting in the control of important committees in both houses. Their Congressional power allowed them not only to end investigations into voter suppression but also to defeat anti-lynching legislation and other laws introduced to protect the rights of Blacks.