Season 3: U.S. History

US History Ep. 7: The Postwar South or, “Reconstruction. Reconstruction!”

We left last episode on a cliffhanger. I know you’ve all been desperately waiting for two weeks wondering “Who will win the Civil War???” Well then, let’s get right to it!

Today’s episode is all about the post-Civil War South or, “Reconstruction. Reconstruction!” (That’s a deep-cut Grease 2 reference right there. And if you already knew that, then you and I are now best friends.) We’re talking about how the Civil War ended and the super awkward decade afterwards where the whole nation was like, “Well… I guess we’re stuck with each other?”

This is Anti-Social Studies; I’m Emily Glankler; settle in and let’s go back in time.

Act 1: The End of the Civil War

So you remember from last episode that the South was doing pretty well until 1863. That year, Lincoln proclaimed Emancipation, Grant took Vicksburg, and Lee retreated from Gettysburg. What a year. And now, the South was fully on the defensive and the North had reinvented itself into the country of morality, freedom, and opportunity. This transformation from a nation looking to maintain the status quo to one seeking to give the U.S. a “new birth of freedom,” is epitomized in Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, also known as the Gettysburg Address.

On November 19, 1863 (side note: one day after my birthday, just saying), Lincoln dedicated a cemetery for Union soldiers killed at Gettysburg. In just 272 words (for reference that’s like, less than one page double-spaced), Lincoln set out his new motivation for the North in the ongoing Civil War.

As he put it, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

In the meantime, Union forces across the west were sweeping up. Eventually, General William Tecumseh Sherman brought his army into the Deep South. One year after Gettysburg, the battle, and ultimate surrender, of Atlanta was a huge psychological blow to the South, especially considering Atlanta was the industrial and railroad hub of the South. (Side note: Atlanta’s original name was Terminus because it was where all the trains ended up. Any Walking Dead fans out there? Is that still on? Oh God, is Carl still alive?) 

Anyway in the North, the capture of Atlanta helped Lincoln get re-elected over former General George McClellan. McClellan had run on a platform to make peace with the Confederacy but the defeat and destruction of Atlanta (Atlanta’s military facilities were burned down by Confederate troops, by the way), convinced voters that they should stick with Lincoln and he won in a landslide.

Sherman’s “March to the Sea”

If we weren’t sure how much the Union strategy had changed from a targeted attempt to bring back the South into a total effort to force the South into submission, we just need to look at Sherman’s March to the Sea. After taking Atlanta, General Sherman led 60,000 soldiers on a 285-mile march from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia. His purpose? To scare the crap out of southerners in the hopes that they would abandon the cause. As Sherman put it, “We are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people. [We need to] make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.” I bet Sherman was really fun at a cocktail party. Now, contrary to popular belief, Sherman’s troops did not destroy any of the towns in their path but they did just about everything else. They stole food and livestock and burned the property of civilians who tried to fight back. 

Southerners fled in advance of Sherman troops, often destroying their own land so the Union army couldn’t use it. This is one of the first examples of a new concept called “total war.” The nature of warfare was changing from something that is fought only by soldiers on faraway battlefields into something that reaches every corner of a nation at war. The idea is that civilians are supporting the war from the Home Front, and so the Home Front (including factories, farms, and railroads) is fair game as far as enemy troops are concerned.

Although we now are very familiar with this tactic, thanks to the ultimate “total war” – World War Two – at the time, southerners were horrified by Sherman’s methods. And still are. Seriously, my father-in-law grew up in Atlanta and he still talks about Sherman’s March as if he were there. Sherman’s tactics were brutal but they worked. Morale in the South was low and the destruction of Southern production capability made it even harder for them to keep fighting the powerful North.

Sherman’s troops arrived in Savannah on December 21, 1864, three weeks after leaving Atlanta. Sherman formally presented Savannah, along with 25,000 bales of cotton, to President Lincoln as an early Christmas gift. Well, I guess that answers the question, “What do you get a guy who already has it all?” 

Lee Surrenders

For the next few months, Sherman’s troops marched up toward Virginia while General Grant brought his troops down from the North and the West. Lee had surrendered the capital of Richmond and was retreating west to try to meet up with General Johnston’s forces but the North cut him off. After a last-ditch attack, Lee was forced to admit that it was over. He sent a rider to request a suspension of fighting to allow them to negotiate the surrender. The ride delivered the message to a General named George Custer, along with a warning to stay away from Native Americans. I’m just kidding. But Custer really should have stayed away from Native Americans. You’ll see. Custer responded that the Union would “listen to no terms but that of unconditional surrender.” 

This sparked the first of many discussions about what to with Confederates after the war was over. At Appomattox, Grant and Lee made a simple Gentleman’s Agreement. There would be no mass imprisonments or executions, the defeated enemies wouldn’t be paraded through the streets. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia would surrender their weapons, go home, and agree “not to take up arms against the Government of the United States.” He even granted Lee’s request that men could keep their horses so that they could work their farms. It’s nice that the horses get a happy ending. Good for y’all. 

Grant sent out the order to all Union troops: “The war is over; the rebels are our countrymen again; and the best sign of rejoicing after the victory will be to abstain from all demonstrations in the field.” Within weeks, all of the Confederate armies spread across the south and the west surrendered. And on May 10, 1865 any remaining resistance collapsed when Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured in Georgia. 

Lee seemed to agree with Grant’s decree that both sides should be “countrymen again.” In fact, when asked about a proposed Gettysburg memorial he said, “I think it wiser,…not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.” What I’m saying is that Robert E. Lee openly said that there should be Civil War monuments up around the country because it was more important for us to come together than hold on to the past. And, at the time, most people agreed. In fact, we didn’t see many monuments going up, especially to the Confederacy for a long time. It wouldn’t be until the black Civil Rights movement starts gaining steam that we start to see statues and street signs commemorating the Confederate South. Just saying. 

The Legacy of the Civil War

Before we move on, a few interesting notes about the Civil War. Many military historians call the Civil War the first “modern war” because of its use of many modern weapons. But… the Crimean War was actually the first “modern war.” They were using Minie rifles, telegraphs, and steam ships, like, a decade before it was cool. But it is true that a lot of military technology was introduced on a large scale during the Civil War.

In 1861, most soldiers were still using muskets but by the end, they had rifles with modern bullets that traveled faster, were more accurate, and did more damage than round lead balls. These new bullets were called Minié balls, named after their French inventor. Man, our military owes a lot to the French.

Both navies introduced ironclad steamships that replaced wooden sailing ships. And the Civil War also saw the first successful use of the submarine! The Confederate submarine – named Hunley – was powered by 8 men who turned a propellor with a hand crank. It only served one mission when it successfully sank the USS Housatonic. But… then the submarine sank like minutes later. 

Troops also strung up telegraph wire wherever they went, allowing communication to be almost instant between commanders. And the new art form of photography helped bring images of war back home. Although Mathew Brady normally gets the credit for the now-famous Civil War photographs, they were actually mostly taken by Alexander Gardner. Gardner also took the last-known photograph of Lincoln, just five days before his assassination. But he wasn’t recognized until way later. Brady was the head of the operation drumming up publicity, but he wasn’t the one actually out in the field taking pictures, although he gladly took the credit. Typical. 

So what does the Civil War mean for American history? Well, it resolved two fundamental issues we had been dealing with for decades. It was now clear that the U.S. was an indivisible nation bound together by the Constitution. And it finally settled that whole “all men are created equal” paradox. 

Over 700,000 Americans died, meaning that more Americans died in the Civil War than in the Revolution, World War I, World War II, and Vietnam… combined. 

And we weren’t done. Because now we had to figure out where to go from here. And, unfortunately we had to do it with Andrew Johnson. Freakin’ Johnson.

The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln was assassinated just five days – five days – after the Civil War ended. That kills me. Lee surrendered to Grant on Sunday and Lincoln was shot on Friday. He didn’t even get a full week. Oh yeah, and it was Good Friday. Ugh. 

His assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was a C-list actor who sympathized with the Confederacy but stayed in the North to pursue his acting career. Originally, the plan was for him and a few associates to kidnap Lincoln and bring him to the Confederate capital of Richmond. On the day of the planned kidnapping, Lincoln didn’t show up where they were waiting and just two weeks later Richmond was taken by Union forces. 

The original plan was to assassinate Lincoln, Vice President Johnson and Secretary of State John Seward all at the same time. Booth hoped that this might be enough to throw the government into disarray and provide the Confederacy an opportunity to keep fighting. Remember – the Civil War wasn’t officially over when Lee surrendered. There were still others fighting. He found out that the president would be going to see a play at the Ford Theater, slipped into his booth, and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. He jumped from the box onto the stage and shouted the Virginia state motto, “Sic semper tyrannis.” “Thus ever to tyrants.” Oh my god of course this guy was an actor. He’s so self indulgent.

Obviously, everyone in the theater recognized John Wilkes Booth. Because he was an actor. In the theater. It would be like Brad Pitt doing something crazy at a movie theater and then everyone going, “Wait… wasn’t that Brad Pitt?” Although that’s giving Booth too much credit. Substitute Brad Pitt for Charlie Sheen. Yeah, that’s more like it.

Anyway, over 10,000 federal troops, detectives, and police participated in the manhunt for Lincoln’s assassin. Along with an accomplice, he fled to Virginia where he was found holed up in a barn. Union troops set the barn on fire and his accomplice surrendered, but Booth stayed inside. Claiming he had raised his gun to shoot, a sergeant shot Booth in the neck. Booth was carried out of the barn and he died hours later, apparently staring at his hands and saying, “Useless. Useless.”

Four of Booth’s co-conspirators, including the men who failed to assassinate Johnson and Seward, were convicted and executed by hanging. This included the first woman ever put to death by the federal government. That’s not quite what Susan B. Anthony meant when she told everyone to smash the patriarchy. Mary Surratt owned a boardinghouse in D.C. that became a safe house for Confederates. Her son invited pro-Southern friends, including Booth, over to plan the conspiracy. Although she claimed innocence, people testified that she had told friends to provide weapons for the conspirators and was aware of the plan. 

Lincoln was only 56 when he died. For reference, he was two years younger than Barack Obama is today. And we’ll never know what else he could have accomplished. The surgeons who completed the autopsy stared at the bullet they removed from his skull and later wrote, “the cause of such mighty changes in the world’s history as we may perhaps never realize.”

Act 2: Reconstruction

We often don’t think about just how insane the years after the Civil War must have been. Half the country just tried to leave and the other half forced them to stay after a deadly, four-year conflict. So the South is still part of the U.S… but… now what? Do we let them just come back and forget it all happened? Well, kind of. If Andrew Johnson had anything to say about it. 

Not really. But both Lincoln’s, and then Johnson’s, plans for how to rebuild after the war – known as Reconstruction – were pretty lenient on the Confederacy. Lincoln wanted any state that had rebelled to re-enter the Union as long as 10% of the voting population swore an oath of allegiance to the US. 10%? So he was OK with 90% of the population not promising to be loyal to the US? Similarly, all southerners would be granted a full pardon, except for high-ranking Confederate officers. And he promised to let Southerners keep their property, although now without their slaves. 

A few of the Southern states, including Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas, had Reconstructed governments before the war was even over. But the debate over what to do with the South really came to a head after Andrew Johnson stepped in to Lincoln’s probably-very-large shoes. You see, Congress was made up of mostly Republicans, the party of Lincoln. But Johnson had been chosen as Lincoln’s VP because was a Democrat from Tennessee, chosen to appease the Border States and keep them in the Union. And now he’s the guy in charge of dealing with the South. Uh oh.

Johnson attempted to continue with Lincoln’s plan, going against Congress to do it. He began pardoning anyone who would swear an oath of allegiance, requiring special presidential pardons for Confederate leaders, all while Congress was not in session. By the time they returned, Johnson was already celebrating the end of Reconstruction, with most Southern states officially back in the U.S. Sure, slavery was abolished thank to the new 13th Amendment, but there weren’t many other protections put in place for blacks in the South and so, already, white state governments were putting in place “black codes” to effectively keep African Americans subjugated. And Congress was like, “Oh hell no.”

Radical Reconstruction

The most socially progressive wing of the party, nicknamed the Radical Republicans, took control of Congress in the midterm elections of 1866. They had enough sway to override Johnson’s veto and they instituted their own, much more intense, Reconstruction plan. Think: Hunger Games level. Well, not quite. But almost.

The former Confederacy was divided into five military districts, administered by Union generals. They also implemented new rules restricting the President’s ability to control his own cabinet. Congress was especially concerned about Johnson getting rid of some of Lincoln’s more radical cabinet members, like Edward Stanton. As Secretary of War, he had a considerable amount of control over the new military phase of Reconstruction and – what’d’ya know? Johnson fired him! Congress was like, “You can’t do that based on the law we passed about five minutes ago!” So they impeached him. The Senate failed to remove him from office by a single veto but he went down in history as the first American president to be impeached. Since then, only one other president – Bill Clinton – has been impeached by the House – although it might now be two, depending on when you’re listening to his podcast.

Anyway, with Congress in charge of Reconstruction, protections for black southerners were prioritized. The new 14th Amendment – providing “equal protection under the law” for all citizens – had to be ratified by any state wishing to re-enter the U.S, in addition to the promise to protect black men’s right to vote. They also tasked the US military with registering new voters to ensure that blacks could participate in state elections. A few years later, Congress went further and passed another Constitutional Amendment – the 15th Amendment – guaranteeing the right to vote regardless of race or national origin, much to the chagrin of women everywhere who were like, “You couldn’t add ONE MORE COMMA and give women the right to vote, too??” Oh well, you can’t win ‘em all, I guess. 

White Mobs in the South

Needless to say, white southerners weren’t super jazzed about all this change. Race riots erupted across the South as white men took to the streets to display their “frustration” with being forced to acknowledge the humanity of black people. In Memphis, A rumor went around town that black Union soldiers had fired upon white police officers and so white people formed mobs attacking black men, women, and children around town. The Union soldiers were put in jail, leaving the black community (and sympathetic whites, who tried to protect African Americans) defenseless. 75 people were injured, 100 people robbed, 5 women rapes, and 91 homes, 4 churches, and 8 schools burned and destroyed. For two days, white mobs, including police, firemen, and business owners, roamed the streets attacking freedmen’s camps and black neighborhoods. Oh yeah, and the white police officer that was supposedly shot at by black troops? Yeah he actually just shot himself in the leg on accident. So there’s that.

In the same year, 1866, in New Orleans it was even worse. African Americans, including 200 black war veterans, were participating in a new state convention to undo the “black codes” that had been passed by all-white voters a few years earlier. As they were marching, they were met by armed white men – many ex-Confederate soldiers – who confronted the crowd. Shots were fired and, in the end, 48 people were dead – 44 African Americans and 3 white Radical Republicans. The so-called “New Orleans Massacre” was the clearest evidence that black southerners would need the protection of the government for a long time, possibly generations. 

Now, it is true that a lot of progress was made in the 10 years of Radical Reconstruction. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were ratified – freeing slaves, establishing African Americans as citizens with “equal protection under the law,” and giving all men the right to vote.

“First Colored Senator and Representatives in the 41st and 42nd Congress of the United States.” (Currier and Ives [CC0])
(Left to right) Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi, Representatives Benjamin Turner of Alabama, Robert DeLarge of South Carolina, Josiah Walls of Florida, Jefferson Long of Georgia, Joseph Rainey and Robert B. Elliot of South Carolina

Black Men Enter Politics

Protected by the US military, black men began to vote and even run for office. In the decade of Reconstruction, over 2,000 African Americans held government jobs, 700 black men were elected to public office, including 14 US Representatives and 2 Senators. Hiram Revels, a free black, was the first African American elected to the US Senate. He actually took one of the Mississippi seats vacated by Confederate President Jefferson Davis. That’s just beautiful. 

A few years later, Mississippi also elected the second black Senator, a former slave named Blanche Bruce. During his time in office, he pushed for payment and protections for black war veterans, and for better treatment and recognition of Native Americans.

Black men stood side-by-side with white southerners at state conventions to ratify their new constitutions and re-enter the U.S. Backed by “carpetbaggers,” northerners who moved down South to influence the new states, and “scalawags,” or white southerners who supported the federal government, the Republican Party controlled most state politics in the South. 

In addition to politics, a federal organization known as the Freedmen’s Bureau played an important role in supporting newly freed African Americans. The Bureau provided food, housing and medical aid to the millions of freed slaves across the South. In addition, they set up schools to educate blacks of all ages, in addition to poor whites. The first commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau was Oliver Howard, a black West Point grad, and the president and namesake of Howard University, one of the most prestigious all-black colleges in the U.S.

However, arguably one of the most important support systems that was established during the Reconstruction era – at least the one that outlasted most of the others, was the black church. Religion played an important role in enslaved communities for centuries, but during the Reconstruction era, fully independent African American churches were established in which black leaders had full control for the first time. These became central to the black community, and would also be an important tool for the education and mobilization of African Americans in their ongoing push for equal rights. 

But, as I’m sure we can guess, the black experience in the South wasn’t as radically altered as Radical Republicans hoped. Because newly freed African Americans were still overwhelmingly poor, illiterate, unskilled, and looked down upon by those with local influence. Although Congress had wanted to redistribute some of the land in the South to former slaves as a form of reparations, that was deemed too controversial by moderates. So property – and wealth – stayed in the hands of white southerners, and many blacks were forced to take up jobs as laborers on the very plantations where they had been previously enslaved. If they did have land, it was typically rented out from former slave owners. Black sharecroppers became entrenched in a cycle of debt that closely resembled the way things had been before this whole Civil War thing started. 

It would take generations of support from the federal government, and years of enforcement of Reconstruction policies, to ensure that black Americans had a relatively fair shake in the South. So African Americans toiled away, newly freed and hopeful, knowing that the US was willing to keep Reconstruction going for as long as it needed to to make up for the centuries of brutality inflicted upon its black people.

Act 3: The End of Reconstruction

Well, dang it. Reconstruction only lasted ten years. Ten years was all it took to rehabilitate the relationship between North and South and integrate people of color seamlessly into American society. Except that… none of that happened. Because ten years isn’t enough time! It would take generations of concerted effort on everyone’s part to break down the societal and institutional racism that had been built up for centuries. But by 1876 most Americans were like, “Eh. We’re tired. Why are we still talking about slavery? Wasn’t that – like – forever ago?” Ironically, people are still saying that today. Just ask the creators of the New York Times “1619 Project.” But I digress.

So Reconstruction was expensive. And southerners were sick of having the military running things in their backyard. It didn’t help that we were in an economic depression and Ulysses S. Grant was not quite as good as a president than he was as a general. Grant’s administration was plagued with corruption and most Americans just wanted to move on. I say “most Americans.” Most white Americans wanted to move on – African Americans wanted the government to do more to protect their hard-won rights, especially after the Supreme Court had been slowly limiting the scope of Congress’s power over radical Reconstruction. But most peoples’ attention turned to the presidential election of 1876.

The highly-contested race between Samuel Tilden (the Democrat) and Republican Rutherford Hayes came down to disputed election returns from three states: Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida. Oh my God, Florida, you’ve been screwing up elections for 150 years? Get it together! Those three states were also the only ones left with full, Reconstruction-era Republican governments in charge. 

Democrat Tilden was just one electoral vote away from winning but the vote was so close that Congress created a commission to determine the outcome. A secret agreement was struck: southern Democrats would support Republican Hayes for president, if Congress agreed to withdraw all federal troops from the South. So, thanks to the Compromise of 1877, Democrats regained control of the South, Samuel Tilden was robbed of the presidency, and Reconstruction was over. You know, I’m starting to think Americans aren’t great at this whole “Compromise” thing…


So now, federal oversight in the South was back to pre-war standards, leaving African Americans newly freed but defenseless. Southern states quickly began finding loopholes in the new 14th and 15th Amendments and the South entered the Jim Crow Era.

With federal troops gone, elections went back into the hands of white southerners. So, the 15th Amendment said that, “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.” Buuut… the right to vote could be denied for other reasons. And states and local governments typically determine election procedures, so they used bureaucracy to effectively disenfranchise black men.

They began to put in place a variety of prerequisites for voting. For example, you had to own property. Or you had to pay a poll tax. Or you had to prove a certain level of education by taking ridiculously problematic literacy tests. Seriously, I took two of the Jim Crow-era literacy tests and I failed both. And keep in mind that all of these procedures were monitored by white southerners. So let’s say that a black man did own property somehow, he could afford to pay the poll tax, and he passed the literacy test, there was still the possibility that he could be denied the right to vote by some arcane or made-up-on-the-spot rule. Or his vote could be thrown away as soon as he cast it. Or, maybe he knows that the man in charge of local elections is also a member of the KKK and so he’d just rather not put himself in harms way by attempting to vote.

All of these tactics were used to make it incredibly difficult or impossible for black men to vote but it was the kind of thing that on paper didn’t seem so egregious that the federal government would re-involve itself in the South. So a northerner might read about the poll tax in the news and say, “Well that seems fair. It costs money for local governments to run elections, so just pay it.” But they don’t realize that the poll tax might be a significant portion of their monthly pay, or that many African Americans were already indebted thanks to sharecropping. Not to mention that they might not be willing to give up hard-earned money on principle, since they have a pretty good suspicion that their vote won’t be counted anyway. 

The most egregious of the Jim Crow voting rules was the Grandfather Clause. In many states, voters could be exempted from all of these requirements if they, or a parent or grandparent, had been able to vote before 1867. Because a lot of these Jim Crow restrictions also hurt poor white voters and they didn’t want that. So they just said, “OK. If you’re grandfather could vote, then you can vote, too, without having to pay a tax or own property or whatever.” Obviously, most African Americans’ grandparents were enslaved, so they couldn’t vote. And that meant that their own children, and grandchildren, and so on wouldn’t be able to vote for the same reason. 


The Jim Crow Era wasn’t just about voting and political exclusion. It was also about societal exclusion. I’m talking about segregation. Across the South, separate facilities popped up for white and black citizens. Keep in mind this happened pretty easily considering that black facilities hadn’t really existed before the Civil War. So all antebellum institutions were already “Whites Only.” So, logistically, it was pretty easy to just say, “OK. I guess we have to build a black school now,” instead of considering… I don’t know… just letting black kids go to the school that already existed? Just an idea. This segregation was upheld by the Supreme Court in a uniquely terrible decision called Plessy v. Ferguson. 

The case centered on Homer Plessy, a man from New Orleans who was ⅞ white and ⅛ black. He was arrested for sitting in a whites-only train car and he sued all the way up to the Supreme Court. In their decision, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that creating “separate but equal” facilities divided by race was a totally OK thing to do, Constitution-wise. They justified this decision by saying that there is nothing in the state law that requires that one facility be better or worse than the other. Direct quote: “If there is a badge of inferiority… [it is] solely because the colored race choose to put that construction upon it.” Basically, it’s not our fault your schools are worse. If you want black schools to be as good as white schools, work harder and make them better yourself. Great, thanks. 

So, this is all basically what people mean when they talk today about “institutionalized racism.” The walls of the prison: no access to decent education or job opportunities, housing discrimination, disenfranchisement, etc. All of those walls are still up. And, sure, black people aren’t chained to the walls. And, sure, some black people do make it out. But the vast majority are still inside either unable or unwilling to step out and challenge the status quo. And that brings us to the last element of the post-Civil War South: violence, “mob justice,” and the KKK.

“Mob Justice”

You see, even if African Americans did technically have opportunities or they could pass the literacy test and pay the poll tax, there was still the fear of retribution and consequences outside the law. Many white people took the enforcement of Jim Crow into their own hands: if black people didn’t act the way they believed they “should” act, they were intimidated, punished, or killed. Lynchings became the preferred method of extralegal execution by mobs, often made up of plainclothes law enforcement and “respected” community members.

I recently found a fascinating primary source that I want to share with you. It’s the writings of a Chinese journalist named Liang Qichao. He traveled to the United States in 1903 and wrote about what the saw. Keep in mind, this is just a few decades after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, banning Chinese people from immigrating permanently to the U.S. I say this just to highlight the irony that we saw Chinese people as “inferior” and “uncivilized” as we were treating our own people pretty barbarically. Anyway, you can find his writings on my website – he talks about all sorts of things from J.P. Morgan and life in New York City to social issues like poverty and corruption. But I want to read you his description of lynching – a true outside observer attempting to explain this process to the world:

i s
 century. During 


The Ku Klux Klan

Now, the group most associated with violence in the Jim Crow Era is the KKK. Now, the KKK actually gained the most traction during the Reconstruction-era, as they operated in secret to oppose federal involvement in the South and to intimidate blacks out of exercising their newly protected rights. The group was founded in 1865, the year the Civil War ended, by Confederate veterans as a social club in Pulaski, Tennessee. Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest was chosen as the first leader, or “grand wizard.” The whole organization is full of ridiculous mystical names. It’s like a D&D group full of sociopaths.

They weren’t the only white supremacist organization but they were the most prominent. By 1870, the KKK had branches in nearly every southern state but, even at its height, the Klan did not have a very well-organized structure or clear leadership. In many ways, they were like a precursor to modern terrorist organizations that operate independently, but are inspired and motivated by an overarching common ideology.

During the Reconstruction era, the Klan focused on intimidating Republican voters, especially during the presidential election of 1868. In Kansas,  over 2,000 murders were committed in connection with the election. In Georgia, the number of threats and beatings was even higher. And in Louisiana, 1,000 blacks were killed as the election neared. In those three states, Democrats won decisive victories at the polls. Later on, Democratic leadership would paint the KKK as a group of mostly poor whites, but in reality, the membership crossed class lines, from farmers and laborers to lawyers, doctors, and ministers. 

Ironically, the actions of the KKK initially backfired as many outside the South realized that there needed to be more protections for newly emancipated freedmen. The 15th Amendment, giving black men the right to vote, was passed partially as a rebuke of Klan violence. But, long term, the Klan got their goal of white supremacy when Democrats took back control of the state in so-called “Redeemer governments” after Reconstruction ended. From that point on, the KKK lost traction, but only because its members were mostly able to just operate legitimately, as elected officials, businessmen, and police officers back in charge of law enforcement now that federal troops were withdrawn from the South.

Quick side note before we go: who was “Jim Crow?” He was actually a racist theater character created by white actor Thomas Rice, inspired by a folk trickster also named Jim Crow who had been popular with black slaves. But this Jim Crow was played by a white man in blackface, and he was basically a caricature of racist white ideas about African Americans and their culture. He was dressed in rags and was a witty but dumb fieldhand. By the 1830s, the term “Jim Crow” was used generally as an offensive term toward black people. So when people began describing the various laws and impediments put up around the South, they were nicknamed the Jim Crow Laws. And that’s why white people shouldn’t wear blackface. 

I didn’t think I needed to clarify that, but apparently I do. 

So, the Civil War ended; there was a brief period of rapid social and political advancement for black men; and then everyone got tired, went home, and the South kept on trucking. 

To be continued.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *