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First and Second Reconstructions

The First and Second Reconstructions held out the great

promise of rectifying racial injustices in America. The First

Reconstruction, emerging out of the chaos of the Civil War had as its

goals equality for Blacks in voting, politics, and use of public

facilities. The Second Reconstruction emerging out of the booming

economy of the 1950's, had as its goals, integration, the end of Jim

Crow and the more amorphous goal of making America a biracial

democracy where, "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former

slave holders will be able to sit down together at the table of

brotherhood." Even though both movements, were borne of high hopes

they failed in bringing about their goals. Born in hope, they died in

despair, as both movements saw many of their gains washed away. I

propose to examine why they failed in realizing their goals. My thesis

is that failure to incorporate economic justice for Blacks in both

movements led to the failure of the First and Second Reconstruction.

The First Reconstruction came after the Civil War and lasted

till 1877. The political, social, and economic conditions after the

Civil War defined the goals of the First Reconstruction. At this time

the Congress was divided politically on issues that grew out of the

Civil War: Black equality, rebuilding the South, readmitting Southern

states to Union, and deciding who would control government.1 Socially,

the South was in chaos. Newly emancipated slaves wandered the South

after having left their former masters, and the White population was

spiritually devastated, uneasy about what lay ahead. Economically, the

South was also devastated: plantations lay ruined, railroads torn up,

the system of slave labor in shambles, and cities burnt down. The

economic condition of ex-slaves after the Civil War was just as

uncertain; many had left former masters and roamed the


Amid the post Civil War chaos, various political groups were

scrambling to further their agendas. First, Southern Democrats, a

party comprised of leaders of the confederacy and other wealthy

Southern whites, sought to end what they perceived as Northern

domination of the South. They also sought to institute Black Codes, by

limiting the rights of Blacks to move, vote, travel, and change jobs,3

which like slavery, would provide an adequate and cheap labor supply

for plantations. Second, Moderate Republicans wanted to pursue a

policy of reconciliation between North and South, but at the same time

ensure slavery was abolished.4 Third, Radical Republicans, comprised

of Northern politicians, were strongly opposed to slavery,

unsympathetic to the South, wanted to protect newly free slaves, and

keep there majority in Congress.5 The fourth political element, at the

end of the Civil War was President Andrew Johnson whose major goal was

unifying the nation. The fifth element were various fringe groups such

as, abolitionists and Quakers. Strongly motivated by principle and a

belief in equality, they believed that Blacks needed equality in

American society, although they differed on what the nature of that

should be.6

The Northern Radical Republicans, with a majority in Congress,

emerged as the political group that set the goals for Reconstruction

which was to prevent slavery from rising again in the South. At first,

the Radical Republicans thought this could be accomplished by

outlawing slavery with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. But

Southern Democrats in their quest to restore their rule in the South

brought back slavery in all but name, by passing Black Codes as early

as 1865. Both Moderate Republicans and Radical Republicans in Congress

reacted. Joining together in 1866, they passed a bill to extend the

life and responsibilities of the Freedmen's Bureau to protect newly

freed slaves against the various Black Codes. President Johnson vetoed

the bill, but Radical and Moderate Republicans eventually were able to

pass it.7

The Black Codes and President Johnson's veto of all

Reconstruction legislation that was unfavorable to the South caused

Moderate and Radical Republicans to change their goals from just

ending slavery to seeking political equality and voting rights

for Blacks.8 The new goals, were based on humanitarian and political

considerations. Northerners had grown increasingly sympathetic to the

plight of the Blacks in the South following numerous well publicized

incidents in which innocent Blacks were harassed, beaten, and killed.9

The extension of suffrage to Black males was a political move by the

Republicans in Congress who believed that Blacks would form the

backbone of the Republican Party in the South, preventing Southern

Democrats from winning elections in Southern states, and uphold the

Republican majority in Congress after the Southern States rejoined the

Union. As one Congressman from the North bluntly put it, "It prevents

the States from going into the hands of the rebels, and giving them

the President and the Congress for the next forty years."10

Until the 1890's, this policy of achieving equality through

granting political rights to Blacks worked moderately well. During

Reconstruction, newly freed slaves voted in large numbers in the

South. Of the 1,330,000 people registered to vote under Reconstruction

Acts 703,000 were Black and only 627,000 were White.11 Even after

1877, when federal troops were withdrawn12, Jim Crow laws did not

fully emerge in the South and Blacks continued to vote in high numbers

and hold various state and federal offices. Between 1877 and 1900, a

total of ten Blacks were elected to serve in the US Congress.13 This

occurred because Southern Democrats forged a unlikely coalition with

Black voters against White laborers14. Under this paternalistic order

Southern Democrats agreed to protect Blacks political rights in the

South in return for Black votes15.

But voting and election figures hide the true nature of Black

political power during and after Reconstruction. Few Blacks held

elective offices in relation to their percentage of the South's

population.16 And those in office usually did not wield the power,

which during Reconstruction continued to reside with Moderate and

Radical Republicans in Congress, whites who ran Southern state

governments, and federal troops. Emancipated slaves had little to do

with either fashioning Reconstruction policy or its implementation.

Blacks political rights were dependent upon alliances made with groups

with conflicting interests White Northern Republicans and White elites

in the South.17 Though they pursued political equality for Blacks,

their goals were shaped more by self-interest than for concern for

Black equality.

By 1905 Blacks lost their right to vote. In Louisiana alone

the number of Black voters fell from 130,334 in 1896 to 1,342

in 1904.18 The number of elected Black public officials dropped to

zero. The disenfranchisement of Blacks was accomplished through good

character tests, poll taxes, White primaries, literacy tests,

grandfather clauses, and intimidation. By 1905, whatever success

politically and socially the Reconstruction had enjoyed had been wiped

out.19 Following on the heels of disenfranchisement came

implementation of comprehensive Jim Crow laws segregating steamboats,

toilets, ticket windows and myriad of other previously non-segregated

public places. 20

Two historians, C. Van Woodward and William Julius Wilson,

both pin point specific events such as, recessions, class conflicts,

imperialist expansion to explain the rise of Jim Crow. Wilson's21 and

Woodward's22 analysis is lacking because the United States has

undergone many recessions and many times minority groups such as Jews,

Irish, and Eastern Europeans and have been blamed for taking away the

jobs of the lower-class; and yet these groups have not had their votes

stripped away from them and did not have an elaborate set of laws

constructed to keep them segregated in society as Blacks have. The

only community of people in the Untied States who have been victims of

systematic, long-term, violent, White Supremacy have been Native

Americans. And Native Americans, like Afro-Americans, have been

predominately powerless economically and politically. This points to

the conclusion that the systemic demise of the First Reconstruction

stems from the failure of Reconstruction leaders to include economic

justice for Blacks as a goal; thus dooming the Reconstruction movement

from the outset. The failure of pursuing a policy of economic

redistribution forced Blacks into fragile political alliances that

quickly disintegrated (as can be seen in 1877 and 1896); Blacks were

forced to rely on the Radical Republicans and Federal troops to

give them their rights and later their former slave masters, the

Southern Democrats, to safeguard their rights.23 The disintegration of

these agreements were caused directly by the events that Woodward and

Wilson point to, but these political agreements were inherently

fragile and would have inevitably unraveled because of their very

nature. These political alliances had conflicting interests. The poor

sharecropper and the White elites of the South were inherently

unequal. The former slaves were looked on not as equals, but as

inferior.24 Whatever well meaning reforms were instituted were done so

paternalistically and for Southern Democrats own interests. And when

an alliance with Blacks no longer served the interests of the whites

they were easily abandoned. When the Blacks agreement with the

Southern Democrats unraveled Blacks were left economically naked

except for the loin cloth of political rights. But this loin cloth was

easily stripped from them, because lacking economic power, they were

unable to make other political allies, their economic position allowed

them to be easily intimidated by White land owners, they had no way to

lobby the government, no way to leave the South, few employment

opportunities, and for many Blacks no education.25 The leaders of the

Reconstruction failed to underezd that without economic justice

Blacks would be forced into a dependency on the White power structure

to protect their rights and when these rights no longer served

the interests of this power structure they were easily stripped away.

Reconstruction Acts and Constitutional Amendments offered little

protection to stop this stripping away of Black political rights.

The Reconstruction leaders failed to underezd the

relationship between political rights and economic power, if they had

they might not have rejected measures that could have provided former

slaves with the economic power to safeguard their political rights.

Two possibilities presented themselves at the outset of the First

Reconstruction. A Quaker and Radical Republican Congressman from

Pennsylvania, Thaddeus Stevens, proposed that the North seize the land

holdings of the South's richest land owners as a war indemnity and

redistribute the land giving each newly freed Negro adult male a mule

and forty acres.26 Thaddeus Stevens a bitter foe of the South,27

explained that a free society had to be based on land redistribution:

Southern Society has more the features of aristocracy then a

democracy..... It is impossible that any practical equality of

rights can exist where a few thousand men monopolize the who

landed property. How can Republican institutions, free schools,

free churches, free social intercourse exist in a mingled

community of nabobs and serfs, of owners of twenty-thousand-acre

manors, with lordly palaces, and the occupants of narrow huts

inhabited by low White trash?

Stevens plan in the Republican Press though drew unfavorable

responses. The plan was called brash and unfair. Only one newspaper

endorsed it and that was the French paper La Temps which said, "There

cannot be real emancipation for men who do no possess at least a small

portion of soil."28 When the bill was introduced in Congress it was

resoundingly defeated by a majority of Republicans. Stevens was alone

in underezding the tremendous institutional changes that would have

to take place to guarantee the emancipation of a people. If the former

slave did not have his own land he would be turned into a serf in

his own nation a stranger to the freedoms guaranteed to him and a

slave all but in name.

The other alternative the leaders of Reconstruction had was

expanding the Freedmen's Bureau from a temporary to a permanent

institution that educated all former slaves and ensured that former

slaves had a viable economic base that did not exploit them. Instead,

the Freedmen's Bureau lasted merely five years, and only five million

dollars were appropriated to it. Its mission to educate and protect

the Freedmen was meet in only a small way in this short amount of time

and when the Freedmen's Bureau shutdown it left the education of

former slaves to local governments which allocated limited if any

funds.29 Although proposed by a few Republicans the Freedmen's Bureau

also refused to set a minimum wage in the South to ensure that former

slaves received a fair wage from their former slave masters. Instead,

the Freedmen's Bureau was instrumental in spearheading the formation

of sharecropping by encouraging both former slaves and plantation

owners to enter into sharecropping agreements.30 By the time the

Bureau ceased operations in 1870, the sharecropping system was the

dominant arrangement in the South. This arrangement continued the

poverty and oppression of Blacks in the South. As one Southern

governor said about sharecropping, "The Negro skins the land and the

landlord skins the Negro."31 The Freedmen's Bureau missed a great

opportunity; had its mission been broadened, its funding increased,

and its power been extended, it could have educated the Black

population and guaranteed some type of land reform in the South.

Because neither Thaddeus Stevens plan for land redistribution or an

expansion of the Freedmen's Bureau took place, Blacks were left after

slavery much as they were before, landless and uneducated. In the

absence of an economic base for Blacks, three forces moved in during

the 1890's wiping out the political successes of Reconstruction: the

white sheets of White supremacy, the blue suits of politicians all too

eager to unify whites with racism, and the black robes of the

judiciary in cases like Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896 stripped away

Blacks' social and political rights.

The Civil Rights movement came nearly ninety years after the

First Reconstruction. The goals of the Second Reconstruction involved

at first tearing down the legal Jim Crow of the South, but by the

March on Washington in 1964 the goals had changed to guaranteeing all

Americans equalit

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