By: Carlito Rovira
A revolution drowned in blood
The period of U.S. history known as Reconstruction, following the Civil War, lasted from 1865 to 1877. During this period, former slaves in the South made some of the most far-reaching gains that African Americans have seen in U.S. history. Those gains, ultimately drenched in blood, were not to be seen again until the civil rights struggle nearly 100 years later.
The Civil War, which began in 1861 and lasted until 1865, was a profound social revolution. It brought an end to chatte slavery, which until that time had been the foundation for the rise of U.S. capitalism.
Although the victory of the North resulted in the end of slavery, that was not the stated aim of either President Abraham Lincoln or the industrial bourgeoisie that was the dominant social class in the North when the war commenced. The war began only as a result of the decision by most of the “slave states” to secede from the Union in 1861.
Lincoln refused to end slavery, assuring all slave owners who cooperated with the federal government that they would maintain “their property.” His eventual decision to issue the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which decreed the end of legal slavery, was fundamentally a military decision.
Without the enlistment of thousands of escaping slaves into the Northern army, the defeat of the Confederate army seemed remote. These newly enlisted Black soldiers, with their incredible resolve, determination and self-sacrifice, turned the tide. It was a case of law following reality: Slaves were deserting or refusing to work on the plantations in growing numbers, and they were demanding the right to join the battle.
The military exigencies of the day overcame the white supremacist policy of the Northern army and the federal government, which had refused to abolish slavery until that time.
The Emancipation Proclamation had the effect of drawing into the struggle the Black masses—and it proved decisive. African Americans comprised a social class rooted in the slave system itself, and ultimately determined the outcome of the Civil War. After the proclamation, some 180,000 freed slaves enlisted in the Union Army and became fearless fighters against the army of their former masters.
When Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered in 1865, the question of how to reintegrate the Southern states into the Union was sharply posed. This was the basis for the period of Reconstruction. It represented a continuation of the conflicts of the Civil War, but under new circumstances determining the direction of the life-and-death struggle between the overthrown and the overthrowing classes.
Like every revolution, the military conflict of the Civil War was followed by a period in which the remnants of the previous order were suppressed, both by political means and by force. The French Revolution, the 1917 Russian Revolution, the 1959 Cuban Revolution and others all relied upon extraordinary measures to survive and fight off the attempts of the former ruling classes to regain political power.
How to suppress these forces had been the subject of debate in the Northern political circles throughout the war. On the one hand were moderates like Lincoln who wanted to incorporate as many elements as possible of the old slave-owning class into a new pro-Union government. On the other hand, Radical Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner favored harsh repression and exclusion of Confederate society from political power.
The Radical Republicans were the political driving force of Reconstruction. They were in an objective sense the revolutionary, unwavering and determined wing of the divided capitalist class. Their political base was in Congress, where they held a majority that grew in the years immediately following the end of the war.
They understood that the freed slaves were the most solid base of support for the Union. African Americans rejoiced at the military defeat of the Confederacy. Across the South, ex-slaves organized meetings and political organizations to take advantage of their new freedom.
Social gains of Reconstruction
In March 1865, just weeks before Lee’s surrender, the federal government created the Freedmen’s Bureau. Under the military protection of Union troops, Black and white, the Bureau organized a vast education project for former slaves—a project which laid the foundation for public education nationwide. It was even authorized to carry out a land redistribution program, although such radical measures were never widely implemented.
The decrees following emancipation challenged racist notions and recognized former slaves as human beings. The formerly enslaved and property-less Black masses looked forward to a new beginning free from racist violence and with compensation for everything they had endured.
But differences emerged almost immediately over how to reconcile the interests of the freed slaves with the needs of the victorious Northern capitalist class. The tenuous political alliance of the anti-slavery forces during the Civil War soon broke apart.
The Radical Republicans understood the strategically important role of African Americans in smashing the former slave-owning class. The moderates, however, sought to rely on a partnership with the old ruling class as opposed to the revolutionary momentum of the Black masses.
Johnson’s ‘Black Codes’
President Andrew Johnson, who had assumed the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination, had postured as a Radical during the war. But he quickly emerged as the leading force of political reaction within the national Republican Party.
After the defeat of the Confederacy, Johnson installed new governments in the Southern states made up wholly or primarily of pardoned ex-Confederates. In late 1865, several of these Johnson-installed state legislatures passed laws known as “Black Codes.” These laws set up the terms for the newly freed Black population to participate in Reconstruction. They were in many ways precursors to the Jim Crow laws, creating a separate and unequal system for African Americans.
The Black Codes varied from state to state, but they had common features. They provided for labor contracts for Black laborers—often with terms not much different than slavery. They prohibited Blacks from migrating from one state to another unless they possessed papers specifying that he or she was bonded by contract to labor for an employer. They limited African Americans’ participation in politics with educational or property restrictions. Former slaves were generally described by the laws as “servants,” while the description used for employers was “master.”
Economically, the main thrust of the Black Codes was to reinstitute the plantation system. For example, Blacks were restricted from choosing where they worked and the type of work they did. In many parts of the South, they were forbidden to work in towns and cities. In some areas, skilled Black workers were required to receive a license or certificate in order to get employment in occupations other than in agriculture or domestic work.
In the eyes of many, both former slaves and Northerners, the power of the former slavocracy was being restored. Johnson’s “Presidential Reconstruction” was seen as selling out the gains of the Civil War. Further inflaming Radical sentiment, in 1866 Johnson vetoed an extension of the Freedmen’s Bureau and a Civil Rights bill that would extend citizenship to African Americans.
Radical Reconstruction and Black political power
New elections to the House of Representatives took place in 1866. With the southern states not yet readmitted to the union, Radical Republicans made big gains, winning enough seats to override Johnson’s vetoes.
The 10-year period beginning in 1867 is what is known as “Radical Reconstruction” and was a period of the most far-reaching social change seen in United States history. A Civil Rights Act was passed over Johnson’s veto in March 1866. The Congress passed the Reconstruction Act, which put the whole former Confederacy under military control and forced the creation of new state governments in accord with voting rights for African Americans.
African Americans organized into Union Leagues to exert their new political power. Over 600—a majority former slaves—were elected to state office during this period. A wide variety of social programs were introduced: widening public education, funding for health care for the poor in South Carolina, free legal aid for the poor in Alabama.
But each step forward for the newly emancipated African Americans was met by violent resistance by the former rulers. White Southern politicians colluded to undermine Reconstruction. As early as May 1866, Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest rallied a group of ex-Confederate soldiers in Pulaski, Tenn., to form the infamous Ku Klux Klan. The Klan spread quickly throughout the Southern states.
The KKK’s primary objective was to crush the new mobilization of African Americans. Knowing that the African American people had the will and numerical advantage to create the South in their own interests, the KKK targeted the families of outspoken Black leaders in twilight-hour raids of their homes. The terrorist organization also attacked progressive Northern whites who were serving the purposes of Reconstruction.
Throughout Reconstruction, political debates in Congress or in state legislatures were accompanied by violent massacres committed by organized white racist groups. Such massacres took place in New Orleans in 1866, Memphis, Tenn. in 1866, Pulaski, Tenn. in 1868, Opelousas, La. in 1868, Camilla, Ga. in 1868, Meridian, Miss. in 1870, Eutaw, Ala. in 1870, Laurens, S.C. in 1870, New York City in 1870 and again in 1871 and in Colfax and Coushatta, La. in 1873. The list of these atrocities continues for the duration of Reconstruction, setting the precedent for the lynchings and apartheid terror for African Americans into the 20th century.
African Americans defended themselves and the gains of emancipation through mass campaigns and with arms in hand. Regiments of Black soldiers patrolled streets throughout the South. But the weight of the racist whites’ organizations proved to be too powerful for the African American community to overcome—especially as support for Reconstruction waned in the North.
Racists sought to disarm the Black masses. Throughout the Southern states and neighboring regions, gun control laws were introduced—but selectively applied only to African Americans, who relied on their guns to defend themselves.
At the same time, economic depression in the 1870s along with corporate corruption scandals led to the emergence of a growing anti-Reconstruction coalition in the federal government. Federal troops were removed in one state after another, each time resulting in the reversal of political and economic gains for African Americans.
In 1877, Republican president-elect Rutherford B. Hayes—having lost the popular vote in the 1876 elections and with the election outcome uncertain in the electoral college — agreed to what became known as the Compromise of 1876, or in the Black community as the “Great Betrayal of 1876.” Hayes and the Republicans agreed to remove all remaining federal troops from the South in exchange for the Republicans retaining the White House.
A reign of KKK terror and lynching enveloped the South as the Northern troops were removed. The dictatorship of the Reconstruction period—with the old slave owners repressed and the ex-slaves living in a semi-democracy—was replaced by the reintroduction of the old dictatorship of the slavocracy.
The former slave owners could no longer possess human beings as their property, but they reemerged as junior partners of the Northern industrial bourgeoisie. In the southern part of the United States, this dictatorship of the Southern and Northern capitalists continued the legacy of unmatched cruelty and oppression of an entire people. The period known as Reconstruction was officially over.
The first real experience of Black political power—coming after centuries of attempted slave insurrections and resistance—was ultimately defeated.
Capitalist consolidation vs. Black liberation
The Civil War that was led by the Northern industrial bourgeoisie, uprooting the slave-owning class in the South, opened the door for the exploited Black masses to organize and make real social gains. During the period of Radical Reconstruction, the interests of this oppressed class dovetailed with the Northern capitalists’ short-term interests in crushing their former rivals. This was despite the fact that the African American masses’ class interests were hostile to both Northern capital and Southern chattel slavery.
The most important task for the U.S. capitalist class was increased centralization and consolidation. It was in the midst of the genocidal campaign against the Native peoples in the west. Life-and-death battles with the newly emerging industrial working class were taking place in railroads, mines and factories across the country. The capitalists were within 20 years of joining the worldwide race for colonial plunder.
The industrial capitalists made peace with the defeated slavocracy at the cost of many concessions—the easiest for them being the aspirations of the exploited African American working classes. Although subjected to renewed and constant terrorism from the forces of white supremacy, who had all the institutional threads to political power in the form of control over local and state police forces, the freedom movement of the African American community could not be extinguished. Generation after generation found new methods of struggle.
Between the mid-1950s and the 1970s, this freedom struggle culminated in the emergence of the broadest and most militant social movement in the history of the United States. It was this movement that would eventually force the U.S. government to formally outlaw the apartheid system that replaced the Reconstruction era following its overthrow in 1877. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act restored the legal rights that had been violently suppressed 90 years earlier.
The democratic aspirations of African Americans were betrayed by the capitalist class precisely because the interests of the bourgeoisie as an exploiting class could not be reconciled with the social interests of the exploited. The relatively young U.S. white working class of the 1860s and 1870s was too infected with racism to serve as a consistent ally in winning those aspirations, even though their objective interests overlapped and despite heroic instances of solidarity.
The completion of the tasks of Reconstruction and the later civil rights and Black liberation movements remains on the agenda today, nearly 150 years later. Building a united class struggle against the imperialist ruling class remains the best hope of fulfilling that agenda.
Long Live the African American people’s struggle for emancipation!