February is Black History Month. I’m definitely not an expert on Black History (Or anything else except maybe teaching improv and sometimes I’m not sure about that.), but it seems quiet this year, and even in years when Black History Month isn’t quiet, one important period always seems overlooked.
After the Civil War there was Reconstruction, which people may not know much about but at least they’ve heard of it. Later there was Jim Crow, which people have definitely heard of. But in between there were 20-30 years (depending on the state). This was one of the most dynamic, horrifying, and influential periods of history in the South and it’s basically forgotten. Major groups like the Redeemers, Redshirts, and Fusionists, which played vital roles in American history and African-American History, are completely unknown.
The Civil War ended in 1865 with Union troops occupying the states of the former Confederacy. The following decade was called ‘Reconstruction’, during which the ‘Civil War Amendments (XIII-XV)’ were passed, which should be called ‘Reconstruction Amendments.” These officially ended slavery, defined U.S. citizenship, legally required states to abide by the Bill of Rights (which previously applied only to the federal government), and legally required states to allow universal male voting. At least that’s what they tried to do. The federal government also created various programs and bureaus to help ‘freedmen’, which is what former slaves were called; pass and enact civil rights legislation; and try to police the South. At the policing they often failed spectacularly (Read about the Opelousas, Colfax, and Hamburg Massacres), but they did have some successes (For example the original Ku Klux Klan was crushed by federal troops and lawyers in the years 1871-1874.)1 In the state ‘history’ courses I grew up with in South Carolina the Reconstruction-era governments were painted as lawless, corrupt, incompetent–and often they were–but they were certainly no more lawless, corrupt, and incompetent than other 19th century governments, they did accomplished things, and they were a hell of a lot better than horrific Democratic-party governments that followed them.2
Compromise of 1877
Reconstruction ended in the South as part of a nasty political deal. A deadlocked presidential election was thrown into the House of Representatives, and Southern Democrats agreed to switch sides, abandon the (non-Southern) Democratic candidate, and support Republican Rutherford B Hayes, provided the Republicans would withdraw federal troops from the South. Which the Republicans did. This also more or less buried the abolitionist wing of the Republican party. (The Republican party had been founded largely in an alliance between abolitionists and industrialists and at this point the industrialists took over.)
Redeemers, Redshirts, and Fusionists
With the federal soldiers gone and the federal government looking the other way, the South was left to itself. In every Southern state factions of white Democrats calling themselves ‘Redeemers‘ launched violent campaigns to retake power. They campaigned on what they called ‘White Supremacy.’ I can’t emphasize enough that what was later called ‘Jim Crow’ and ‘segregation’ was called originally ‘White Supremacy.’ The term is sometimes used today to describe hidden systems of white privilege or racist inequality but the Redeemers were openly, avowedly, proudly, and publicly ‘White Supremacist’.
Their opposition in the deep South were black Republicans and in the rest of the south bi-racial alliances called ‘fusionist parties.’ An example of the later is the Readjuster Party of Virginia which was formed in the late 1870s, won legislative majorities twice, elected governors, senators, and local officials. An example of the former are the two powerful and fascinating politicians pictured above, Robert B Elliott and Robert Smalls of South Carolina.
Segregation in the South was never an informal series of social customs arising naturally out of human prejudices and fear, which gradually became a political program through free and fair elections. Nor did Reconstruction end and Jim Crow appear the next day. The Redeemers fought fifteen to twenty years, depending on the state, to impose a stifling, cruel, and corrupt system of control. They did this through organized voter suppression, terror, and murder. The violence was carried out by paramilitary groups, most importantly the Redshirts (pictured above) and White Leagues. (Not the KKK.) These were local clubs of white men who were armed and ready to do what the Redeemers said should be done. This often meant assassinations, pogroms, lynchings, and coups. Every state was different, and in every state black citizens and often white citizens fought back at the ballot box, in court, and with guns. Elections swung back and forth, but finally in the 1890s the Redeemers began simply to write new constitutions whenever they won an election (which always involved violent voter suppression) that would strip their opponents of the ability to vote in the next election. By 1910 they had had managed to create one-party states throughout the South.3 Their system began in 1890s to be euphemistically referred to as “Jim Crow” and decades later as “segregation”. I think this came mostly from Northern newspapers, but I don’t know if they were too timid to tell their readers the truth of the South, or too worried that the mention of “White Supremacy” might give their own white readers ideas. I wrote about how White Supremacy/Jim Crow/Segregation was imposed in North Carolina here. Again, each state had its own history.
I don’t think a majority of white people anywhere put their lives on the line to stop the Redeemers and defend the lives and rights of their black fellow citizens. But at the same time by the 1880s no legitimate majority ever supported the Redeemers. Segregation was a violent revolution. It’s somewhat like the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. Contrary to the lazy commentary of a lot of people, Hitler and the Nazis never won a majority, and even the elections in which they won pluralities were marked by massive violence and voter suppression. (That’s what the ‘storm troopers’ were originally for.) But once in power, only a small percentage of Germans actively opposed the Nazi state. Likewise, once White Supremacy was instituted, few whites lifted a finger to oppose it. There is an important political lesson here: It was much easier to prevent an evil than to get rid of it once it’s established.
There are other parallels between post-Reconstruction politics in the South and European politics after WWI. I’ve heard Americans say “we” have never lost a war and that our country has never had strong fascist movements. We’re not like those people! But like Germany and Italy, the Civil War militarized Southern society top to bottom and defeat left the economy in ruins and the leaders discredited. Add in the trauma of an extremely high casualty rates among white males4 and it’s very much like Italy and Germany after WWI. Also like European fascism White Supremacy encompased all sorts of racist pseudo-science, media fearmongering, and reactionary political theory.5 Lots of pamphlets, speeches, editorials, and so on. And like other extremist governments, once the Redeemers got their state constitutions established, they ruled as one-party states. Their system and ideology were never centralized like the regimes of Stalin or Hitler, but in their own way the White Supremacist governments were as stark and oppressive, bureaucratic and authoritarian.
It was a long night of one-party rule only challenged, and eventually defeated, a half-century later by brilliant black church and civil rights leaders in the South and their allies.6
- In 1905, thirty years after the original Klan was crushed, a white supremacist and North Carolina native named Thomas Dixon, Jr, whose father had been in one of the original clan groups, published a novel called The Clansman, which fictionalized the KKK as glorious heroes. In 1915 this book inspired an incredibly racist hit movie called Birth of a Nation, which in turn inspired an Alabama preacher named William Joseph Simmons to found a new Klan. This new KKK was mostly based on the movie, but drew some inspiration from memorabilia of the original clan. The new KKK thrived in the 1920s, especially in the Midwest, until court cases and bad publicity led it to fall apart in the 1930s. A third group of Klans, never centrally organized, were created in the South in the 1950s and 60s in response to the Civil Rights Movement.
- W.E.B. Du Bois Black Reconstruction, published in 1935, is worth a read.
- I don’t know the history of Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee that well. Did they go full Jim Crow as every other state did?
- Estimates of 1 in 10 to 1 in 12 of the white male population died, plus half that many wounded. That’s higher than France, Italy, or Germany in WWI.
- It is true that none of the Southern Redeemers ever promoted a ‘cult of personality’ or centralized administrative government that we tend to think of when we think of the fascism, because those were traits of the successful fascist movements in Italy, Germany, and Spain. So the Redeemers weren’t like Nazis in the popular imagination. But fascist parties in other countries haven’t had the one-nation-one-leader aspect or the focus on centralized control. The Hungarian Arrow Cross, British Black Shirts, and Romanian Iron Guard before WWII for example or the Greek Golden Dawn, Ukranian Azov Brigades, Russian Wagner Brigades today. In the U.S. most of the Alt-Right groups are fascist but lack charismatic leaders unless you want to count Trump, but he doesn’t run those groups.
- The most important non-Southern and/or black ‘allies’ would include the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the NAACP, and the Highlander Folk School.