White Violence and Black Response: From Reconstruction to Montgomery

By Herbert Shapiro | Go to book overview

ONE
The Imposition of White Rule

IN THE IMMEDIATE aftermath of the Civil War thousands of Union troops were stationed in the South, and some of these troops were black. White supremacists were outraged at the sight of blacks with guns and therefore some measure of power, and they were quickly successful in having black soldiers withdrawn from the South. During Johnsonian Reconstruction the former slaves were legally free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, but the South's white rulers made evident their intention to reduce the freedmen to a position of powerless semislavery. Already by 1866 ex- Confederates in Pulaski, Tennessee, had formed a secret organization, the Ku Klux Klan, whose purpose it was to terrorize blacks into submission to white rule. Although the United States Freedmen's Bureau existed as some protection of black interests, the freedmen were intimidated, whipped, and beaten to compel them to agree to onerous labor contracts with landlords. The moderating influence of the Freedmen's Bureau was undermined by Andrew Johnson's commitment to white supremacy and the consequent failure to employ federal executive power effectively to protect those in the South who had supported the Union.

A summary of the violence that marked the South immediately following the Civil War is to be found in a report that Republican leader Carl Schurz provided President Johnson. "Some planters held back their former slaves on their plantations by brute force," Schurz wrote. "Armed bands of white men patrolled the country roads to drive back the Negroes wandering about. Dead bodies of murdered Negroes were found on and near the highways and by-paths. Gruesome reports came from the hospitals--reports of colored men and women whose ears had been cut off, whose skulls had been broken by blows, whose bodies had been slashed by knives or lacerated by scourges."1Schurz wrote not as an extremist but rather as a responsible, antislavery observer of conditions that alarmed him.

Even during this initial phase of Reconstruction, however, blacks did

-5-

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