When America’s Civil War ended in 1865, because it had been a rebellion against the government and the Constitution, federal troops were stationed throughout the territory of what had been the Confederate States of America. This was designed to secure the re-uniting of the U.S.A., providing the franchise and opportunity to hold office for those who had remained loyal. It also disenfranchised and barred those who from office those who had instigated and/or participated in the rebellion. That was what Reconstruction was about. The important side effect was that Black men were able to vote and hold office.
Unfortunately, within months of the end of the war, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and replaced by Andrew Johnson, a southerner and Confederate sympathizer. Almost simultaneously, former Confederates organized the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in Pulaski, Tennessee. The KKK quickly spread throughout the South and began leading terrorist attacks on Black people and their supporters. Johnson’s attitude and conciliatory actions further emboldened the ex-Confederates and their supporters. Consequently, many individual Blacks were attacked and often killed. Likewise, there were numerous race riots in places like Meridian in 1871, Vicksburg in 1874, and Clinton in 1875.
The individual attacks and full-scale riots increased throughout the 1860s and 1870s. Their main purpose was to keep Black men out of office, to curtail Black voting, and to drive Black people off their land. In so doing, they were derailing and destroying Reconstruction.
These attacks started almost as soon as the war was over. At most then, Reconstruction was operative only a few years in many places, not the full 12 years, 1865 – 1877, that history often declares. Black men were generally voting and holding office only from 1868 until the mid-1870s.
In 1877, the last of the federal troops were withdrawn from the state. In most areas, it was their presence that enabled Black men and their supporters to be able to gain and remain in office. The withdrawal of the troops was the result of a political deal. The Republican supporters of Rutherford B. Hayes agreed that if the disputed electors from the 1876 election would be awarded to Hayes rather than Samuel Tilden, Hayes would withdraw the last federal troops from the South and allow the white populations in the Old South to resolve the “Negro question” on their own terms.
In this climate, through fraud, intimidation, violence, and murder, white officials replaced nearly all of the Black officials and their supporters who had been elected. With white ex-Confederates dominating the political scene, by 1890, they, as the newly emerged Democratic Party, planned and held a Constitutional Convention to re-write the state Constitution. In that convention, these ex-Confederates, put in place new voter requirements that were designed to reduce the number of Black voters.
By requiring voters, including recently freed Black men, to be able to read, write, and interpret given sections of the state Constitution, pay a poll tax and produce the receipt of such at the poll, and to have no police record, the percentage of Black voters dropped by 90%. This, in turn, resulted in not only Black officers and their supporters being eliminated from office, but it also resulted in more Jim Crow legislation being passed. It resulted in white officials, for the next 60 years, winning office by proudly campaigning to oppress Blacks, that is, to “keep them in their place.”
The ending of Reconstruction was, thus, a two-step process.
(1) Violence, fraud, intimidation, and trickery were used to keep Black men from the polls and to get them out of office.
(2) Laws and the Constitution were changed in order to make that suppression permanent and easy to maintain.
It is easy to see the parallels between what happened then and what is being done today, which is why we study history. In several states, which are Republican-dominated, there are plans to authorize poll-watchers who can intimidate Black voters (in Texas), replace local election officials (in Georgia), and overturn election results if they are unfavorable to Republicans (in Arizona, Texas, and Georgia). Many other Republican-dominated states are also making other election-law changes that will make it easier to eliminate Black voters as was done after Mississippi and other southern states changed their Constitutions in the 1890s.
When those 1890s changes were made, Black residents not only saw this themselves. They let their descendants know what happened and what resulted therefrom. For an example, the writer’s mother let him know that Black people did not vote in Rosedale, except a few teachers, because of how the laws were written. No matter how the civics textbook made democracy sound, it meant that his dream of one day becoming a U.S. Senator from Mississippi was out of the window, despite the fact that the state was majority Black at that time.
Most of what is related herein regarding the ending of Reconstruction was not taught in the civics, U.S. history, nor Mississippi history textbooks. Yet, it was well-known by even the unschooled. The knowledge was passed on through family conversations, church discussions, idle talk on the job, or just gossip between friends and neighbors. They knew then and must never forget it today.
It is because of this knowledge of history that Black people today can understand and are much more realistic when it comes to the current voter suppression efforts of the Republican Party. They understand the tactics that are being used against them and the urgency of the situation better than their Democratic supporters. Or, at least that seems to be the case.
It is a real tragedy that those who are supporting the suppression of the Black vote learned the lessons of history much more effectively than did those who supposedly are trying to protect and expand democracy to fully include Black, Brown, Red, Yellow, and other people. The only thing more tragic or frightening than the Republican suppression is the possibility that in the final analysis, racial politics prove to be more important to even more white people than true democracy, but that, too, has its historical antecedent.