Jim Crow

“The Bourbon (the State drink of Kentucky) Democrats took control of the House in 1874 and were confident of electing Samuel J. Tilden president in 1876. President Grant was not running for re-election and seemed to be losing interest in the South. States fell to the Redeemers, with only four in Republican hands in 1873, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina; Arkansas then fell after the violent Brooks–Baxter War in 1874 ripped apart the Republican Party there.

Democrats and many northern Republicans agreed [correctly] that Confederate nationalism and slavery were dead – the war goals were achieved – and further federal military interference was an undemocratic violation of historic republican values. The victory of Rutherford B. Hayes in the hotly contested Ohio gubernatorial election of 1875 indicated his “let it alone” policy toward the South would become Republican policy, as happened when he won the 1876 Republican nomination for president.

The white Democrat “Redeemers” regained political control State by State, sometimes using fraud and violence to control State elections – practices still in vogue today. They alleged widespread corruption by the Carpetbaggers, excessive State spending and ruinous taxes. This opposition violently counterattacked and regained power in each “redeemed” Southern state by 1877 – tactics soon perfected by the nascent trade-union movement. A deep national economic depression following the Panic of 1873, led to major 1874 and 1876 Democratic gains in the North and collapse of many railroad schemes in the South.

Meanwhile, public support for Reconstruction policies faded in the North, as voters decided the Civil War was over and slavery was dead. The Democrats, who strongly opposed Reconstruction, regained control of the House of Representatives in 1874; the presidential electoral vote in 1876 was very close and confused, forcing Congress to make the final decision. The deployment of the U.S. Army was central to the survival of Republican state governments; that collapsed when the Army was removed in 1877 as part of a Congressional bargain to [have the U.S. House of Representatives, as provided for by the Constitution,] select Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as President.

The end of Reconstruction was a staggered process with the period of Republican control ending at different times in different States. With the Compromise of 1877 mentioned above, Army intervention in the South ceased and Republican control collapsed in the last three State governments in the South. This was followed by a period that white Southerners labeled Redemption, in which white-dominated State legislatures enacted Jim Crow Laws and after 1890, disenfranchised most blacks and many poor whites through a combination of State constitutional amendments and electoral laws. The white Democrat Southerners’ [bitter] memory of Reconstruction played a major role in imposing the system of white supremacy and second-class citizenship for blacks, known as the Age of Jim Crow.

In the 1860s and 1870s the terms “liberal”, “radical” and “conservative” had distinctive meanings. “Conservative” was the name of a faction, often led by the planter class. Leaders who had been Whigs were committed to economic modernization, built around railroads, factories, banks and cities. Most of the “Radical” Republicans in the North were men who believed in free enterprise and industrialization; most were also modernizers. The “Liberal” Republicans of 1872 shared the same outlook except they were especially opposed to the corruption they saw around [but not including] President Grant, and believed that the goals of the Civil War had been achieved so that the federal military intervention could now end.

Passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments is the Constitutional legacy of Reconstruction. These Reconstruction Amendments established the rights that led to Supreme Court rulings in the mid-20th Century that struck down school segregation. A “Second Reconstruction”, sparked by the Civil Rights Movement, led to civil rights laws in 1964 and 1965 that ended segregation and opened the polls to African-Americans.

Reconstruction was a significant chapter in the history of civil rights in the United States, but most historians consider it a failure because the South became a poverty-stricken backwater attached to agriculture while white Democrats re-established dominance through violence, intimidation and discrimination, forcing freedmen into second class status with limited rights and utterly excluding them from politics.

However, historian Mark Summers argues that:

“…if we see Reconstruction’s purpose as making sure that the main goals of the war would be filled, of a Union held together forever, of a North and South able to work together, of slavery extirpated, and sectional rivalries confined, of a permanent banishment of the fear of vaunting appeals to State sovereignty, backed by armed force, then Reconstruction looks like what in that respect it was, a lasting and unappreciated success.”

For the newly minted African-American community however, the anticipated changes that emancipation and Reconstruction would bring, tragically never materialized in the South.

The opponents of Reconstruction formed State political parties, affiliated with the national big-government Democrat Party and often named the “Conservative Party” [not to be confused with the current conservative political ideology which is closely associated with the modern small-government Republican Party]. They supported or tolerated violent paramilitary groups, such as the “White League” in Louisiana and the “Red Shirts” in Mississippi and the Carolinas that assassinated and intimidated both black and white Republican leaders.

“Their election-time tactics included violent intimidation of African-American and Republican voters prior to elections while avoiding conflict with the U.S. Army or their auxiliary, the State militias, and then withdrawing completely on Election Day. The victims of this violence were overwhelmingly African-American, as in the Colfax Massacre of 1873.

In the wake of the contested 1872 election for governor of Louisiana and local offices, a group of white Democrats, armed with rifles and a small cannon, overpowered Republican freedmen and State militia (also African-American) trying to control the Grant Parish courthouse in Colfax; white Republican officeholders were not attacked.

Most of the freedmen were killed after they surrendered; nearly 50 were killed later that night after being held as prisoners for several hours. Estimates of the number of dead have varied, ranging from 62 to 153; three whites died but the number of black victims was difficult to determine because bodies had been thrown into the river or removed for burial. There were rumors of mass graves at the site.

Celebrated historian Eric Foner described the massacre as the worst instance of racial violence during Reconstruction. Foner wrote, “…every election [in Louisiana] between 1868 and 1876 was marked by rampant violence and pervasive fraud.” Although the Fusionist-dominated state “returning board,” which ruled on vote validity, initially declared John McEnery and his Democratic slate the winners, the board eventually split, with a faction declaring Republican William P. Kellogg the victor. A Republican federal judge in New Orleans ruled that the Republican-majority legislature be seated.

Federal prosecution and conviction of a few perpetrators at Colfax under the Enforcement Acts was appealed to the Supreme Court. In a key case, the Court amazingly ruled in United States v. Cruikshank (1876) that protections of the 14th Amendment did not apply to the actions of individuals, but only to the actions of State governments. [Add Cruikshank to Dred Scott, Plessey (to be discussed shortly) and Roe to the sad list of aberrant Supreme Court rulings about what constitutes citizenship rights].

After this ruling, the federal government could no longer use the Enforcement Act of 1870 to prosecute actions by paramilitary groups such as the White League, which had chapters forming across Louisiana beginning in 1874. Intimidation and black voter suppression by such paramilitary groups were instrumental to the Democrat Party regaining political control in the southern State legislature by the late 1870s – which would last for over 100 years.

In 1874, in the Battle of Liberty Place, the White League entered New Orleans with 5,000 members and defeated the police and State militia, to occupy federal offices for three days in an attempt to overturn the disputed government of William Kellogg, but retreated before federal troops reached the city. None were prosecuted. “Conservative” reaction continued in both the north and south; the “white liners” movement to elect candidates dedicated to white supremacy reached as far as Ohio in 1875.

Historian George C. Rable called such groups the “military arm of the Democratic Party.” By the mid-1870s, the Conservatives and Democrats had aligned with the national Democrat Party, which enthusiastically supported their cause even as the national Republican Party was losing interest in Southern affairs. Historian Walter Lynwood Fleming describes mounting anger of Southern whites:

“The Negro troops, even at their best, were everywhere considered offensive by the native whites … The Negro soldier, impudent by reason of his new freedom, his new uniform, and his new gun, was more than Southern temper could tranquilly bear, and race conflicts were frequent.”

Most [white] members of both the planter/business class and common farmer class of the South opposed black power, carpetbaggers and military rule, and sought white supremacy. Planter Democrats nominated [compliant] blacks for political office and tried to steal other blacks from the Republican side. When these attempts to combine with the blacks failed, the planters joined the common farmers in simply trying to displace the Republican governments.

The planters and their business allies dominated the self-styled “conservative” coalition that finally took control in the South. They were paternalistic toward the blacks but feared they would use power to raise taxes and slow business development.

Historians have noted that the peak period of lynchings took place years after Reconstruction ended as Southern whites were imposing Jim Crow laws and that they were more often used to keep black men down, with a rate associated with settlement of sharecropper accounts at the end of the season, than for any other reason.”

“An explosion of violence [also] accompanied the campaign for Mississippi’s 1875 election, in which Red Shirts and Democrat rifle clubs, operating in the open, threatened or shot enough Republicans to decide the election for the Democrats. Hundreds of black men were killed. Republican Governor Adelbert Ames asked Grant for federal troops to fight back; Grant initially refused, saying public opinion was “tired out” of the perpetual troubles in the South. Ames fled the State as the Democrats took over Mississippi.

The campaigns and elections of 1876 were marked by additional murders and attacks on Republicans in Louisiana, North and South Carolina, and Florida. In South Carolina, the campaign season of 1876 was marked by murderous outbreaks and fraud against freedmen. Red Shirts paraded with arms behind Democrat candidates; they killed blacks in the Hamburg and Ellenton, SC massacres; and one historian estimated 150 blacks were killed in the weeks before the 1876 election across South Carolina. Red Shirts prevented almost all black voting in two majority-black counties. The Red Shirts were also active in North Carolina.

Reconstruction continued in South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida until 1877. The elections of 1876 were accompanied by heightened violence across the Deep South. A combination of a rigged ballot and intimidating blacks suppressed their vote even in majority black counties. The White League was active in Louisiana. After Republican Rutherford Hayes won the disputed 1876 presidential election, the national “Compromise of 1877” was reached.

The white Democrats in the South agreed to accept Hayes’s victory if he withdrew the last Federal troops. By this point, the North was weary of insurgency. White Democrats controlled most of the Southern legislatures and armed [private] “militias” controlled small towns and rural areas. Blacks considered Reconstruction a failure because the Federal government withdrew from enforcing their ability to exercise their rights as citizens.

On January 29, 1877 President Grant signed the Electoral Commission Act that set up a 15-member commission of 8 Republicans and 7 Democrats to settle the disputed 1876 election. [Presidents were inaugurated in March following a Presidential election until Franklin Roosevelt] The Electoral Commission awarded Rutherford B. Hayes the electoral votes he needed; Congress certified he had won by one electoral vote.

The Democrats had little leverage – they could not block Hayes’ election, but they were mollified by the implicit, “back room” deal that federal troops would be removed on the condition that the Southern States pledged to protect the lives of African-Americans. Hayes’s friends also let it be known that he would promote federal aid for internal improvements, including help for a railroad in Texas, and name a Southerner to his cabinet. With the removal of Northern troops, the President had no method to enforce Reconstruction, thus this “back room” deal signaled the end of American Reconstruction.

After assuming office on March 4, 1877, President Hayes removed troops from the capitals of the remaining Reconstruction states, Louisiana and South Carolina, allowing the Redeemers to have full control of these states. President Grant had already removed troops from Florida before Hayes was inaugurated and troops from the other Reconstruction states had long since been withdrawn. By 1879, thousands of African-American “exodusters” packed up and headed to new opportunities in “historically free” Kansas.

The Civil Rights Act of 1875, introduced by Republicans Charles Sumner and Benjamin F. Butler, stipulated a guarantee that everyone, regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, was entitled to the same treatment in public accommodations, such as inns, public transportation, theaters, and other places of recreation. This Act had little effect but, ultimately led to the most important case in civil rights history.

[An 1883 Supreme Court decision ruled that the act was unconstitutional in some respects, saying Congress was not afforded control over private persons or corporations by the U.S. Constitution. With white southern Democrats forming a solid voting bloc in Congress, with power out of proportion to the percentage of population they represented, Congress did not pass another civil rights law until 1957.]

The response of the southern States to this Act was to pass “Jim Crow” laws, which were racial segregation laws enacted at State and local levels after Reconstruction was ended and after Grant left office in 1877 – and which continued in force until 1965. They mandated de jure [by law] racial segregation in all public facilities in the Southern states of the former Confederacy, starting in 1890, a “separate but equal” status for African-Americans.

The origin of the phrase “Jim Crow” has often been attributed to “Jump Jim Crow”, a song-and-dance caricature of blacks performed by white actor Thomas D. Rice in blackface, which first surfaced in 1832 and was used to satirize Andrew Jackson’s populist policies. As a result of Rice’s fame, “Jim Crow” had become a pejorative expression meaning “Negro” by 1838. When southern legislatures passed laws of racial segregation – directed against blacks – beginning at the end of Reconstruction, these became known as Jim Crow laws.

These Jim Crow laws followed the 1800–1866 Black Codes, which had previously restricted the civil rights and civil liberties of African-Americans with no pretense of equality. The separation in practice led to conditions for African-Americans that were inferior to those provided for white Americans, systematizing a number of economic, educational and social disadvantages. De jure segregation mainly applied to the Southern United States, while Northern segregation was generally de facto [by practice] – patterns of segregation in housing enforced by covenants [which are still being found – and ignored – in old property deeds], bank lending practices [called “red-lining”] and job discrimination, including discriminatory labor union practices – lasting for decades.

Jim Crow laws mandated the segregation of public schools, public places and public transportation, and the segregation of restrooms, restaurants and drinking fountains for whites and blacks. The U.S. military was also segregated, as were federal workplaces – initiated in 1913 under Democrat President Woodrow Wilson, the first Southern president since 1856. His administration practiced overt racial discrimination in hiring, requiring all candidates to submit photos.

In 1890, Louisiana passed a law requiring separate accommodations (separate railway cars) for colored and white passengers on railroads. Louisiana law distinguished between “white”, “black” and “colored” (people of mixed European and African ancestry). The law already specified that blacks could not ride with white people, but colored people could ride with whites before 1890. A group of concerned black, colored and white citizens in New Orleans formed an association dedicated to rescinding the law. The group persuaded Homer Plessy, who was one-eighth “Negro” and of fair complexion, to participate in an orchestrated test case.

In 1892, Plessy, born a free man and was an “octoroon” (of seven-eighths European descent and one-eighth African descent however, under Louisiana law, he was classified as black, and thus required to sit in the “colored” car) bought a first-class ticket from New Orleans on the East Louisiana Railway.

The railroad company, which opposed the law on the grounds that it would require the purchase of more railcars, had been previously informed of Plessy’s racial lineage, and the intent to challenge the law. Additionally, the association hired a private detective with arrest powers to detain Plessy, to ensure he was charged for violating the Separate Car Act, as opposed to vagrancy or some other offense

Once he had boarded the train, he informed the train conductor of his racial lineage and took a seat in the whites-only car. He was directed to leave that car and sit instead in the “coloreds only” car. Plessy refused and was immediately arrested. The Citizens Committee of New Orleans fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court. Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), is the landmark United States Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities under the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

In his case; Homer Adolph Plessy v. The State of Louisiana, Plessy’s lawyers argued that the state law which required East Louisiana Railroad to segregate trains had denied him his rights under the 13th and 14th Amendments of the United States Constitution, which provided for equal treatment under the law. However, the judge presiding over his case, John Howard Ferguson, ruled that Louisiana had the right to regulate railroad companies while they operated within State boundaries. [Apparently, the Civil War wasn’t over for Judge Ferguson.] Plessy was convicted and sentenced to pay a $25 fine. Plessy immediately sought a Writ of Prohibition.

The Committee of Citizens took Plessy’s appeal to the Supreme Court of Louisiana, where he again found an unreceptive ear, as the state Supreme Court upheld Judge Ferguson’s ruling. Undaunted, the Committee appealed to the United States Supreme Court in 1896. Two legal briefs were submitted on Plessy’s behalf. One was signed by Albion W. Tourgée and James C. Walker and the other by Samuel F. Phillips and his legal partner F. D. McKenney. Oral arguments were held before the U.S. Supreme Court on April 13, 1896. Tourgée and Phillips appeared in the courtroom to speak on behalf of Plessy.

Tourgée built his case upon violations of Plessy’s rights under the 13th Amendment, prohibiting slavery, and the 14th Amendment, which guarantees the same rights to all citizens of the United States, and the equal protection of those rights, against the deprivation of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Tourgée argued that the reputation of being black was equivalent to being “property”, which, by the law, implied the inferiority of African Americans as compared to whites.”

They lost in the infamous decision Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, in which the Court ruled that “separate but equal” facilities were constitutional. Once again, as they had in Dred Scott, the United States Supreme Court handed down a monumentally flawed decision, fundamentally failing to protect the rights of all American citizens by declaring African-Americans now somehow “less equal” than whites in access to equal opportunities under the law.

“In the decision handed down on May 18, 1896 (Justice David Josiah Brewer did not participate because of the death of his daughter), the Court rejected Plessy’s arguments based on the 14th Amendment, seeing no way in which the Louisiana statute violated it. In addition, the majority of the Court rejected the view that the Louisiana law implied any inferiority of blacks, in violation of the 14th Amendment. Instead, it contended that the law separated the two races as a matter of public policy.

The decision, by an amazing vote of 7 to 1, had the majority opinion written by Justice Henry Billings Brown and the dissent written by Justice John Marshall Harlan. Louisiana Justice Edward Douglass White was one of the majority: he was a member of the New Orleans Pickwick Club and the Crescent City White League, the latter being the paramilitary organization that, as we have seen, had supported white supremacy with violence through the 1870s in order to suppress black voting and regain political power by white Democrats.

When summarizing, Justice Brown declared,

“We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.”

While the Court did not find a difference in quality between the whites-only and blacks-only railway cars, this was manifestly untrue in the case of most other separate facilities, such as: public toilets, cafés, and public schools, where the facilities designated for blacks were consistently of lesser quality than those for whites. Justice John Marshall Harlan, who decried the excesses of the Ku Klux Klan, wrote a scathing dissent in which he predicted the court’s decision would become as infamous as that of Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). Following is part of Justice Harlan’s dissent, asserting;

“[I]n view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.”

Plessy legitimized the state laws establishing racial segregation in the South and provided an impetus for further segregation laws. Legislative achievements won during the Reconstruction Era were erased through means of the “separate but equal” doctrine. The doctrine had been strengthened also by the 1875 Supreme Court decision that limited the federal government’s ability to intervene in State affairs, guaranteeing only Congress the power “to restrain states from acts of racial discrimination and segregation”. The ruling basically granted States legislative immunity when dealing with questions of race, guaranteeing the States’ right to implement racially separate institutions, requiring them only to be “equal”.

The Plessy finding sanctioned 58 more years of legalized discrimination against black and people of color in the United States.

The effect of the Plessy ruling was immediate; there were already significant differences in funding for the segregated school system, which continued into the 20th Century; States consistently underfunded black schools, providing them with substandard buildings, textbooks, teachers and supplies. States which had successfully integrated elements of their society abruptly adopted oppressive legislation that erased Reconstruction era efforts. Surprisingly, in 1908 Congress defeated an attempt to introduce segregated streetcars into the capital itself.

The principles of Plessy v. Ferguson were reaffirmed in Lum v. Rice (1927), which upheld the right of a Mississippi public school for white children to exclude a Chinese American girl. Despite the laws enforcing compulsory education, and the lack of public schools for Chinese children in Lum’s area, the Supreme Court ruled that she had the choice to attend a private school – hardly “equal”.

Jim Crow laws and practices spread northward in response to a second wave of African-American migration from the [still agricultural] South to [newly industrialized] Northern and Midwestern cities. Some jurisdictions established de jure segregated educational facilities, separate public institutions such as hotels and restaurants, separate beaches among other public facilities, and restrictions on interracial marriage, but in other cases, segregation in the North was related to unstated practices and operated, as mentioned before, on a de facto basis among numerous other facets of daily life.

In the early 20th Century, the Supreme Court did begin to overturn some Jim Crow laws on constitutional grounds. In Buchanan v. Warley (1917), the court held that a Kentucky law could not require residential segregation. The Supreme Court in 1946, in Irene Morgan v. Virginia ruled segregation in interstate transportation to be unconstitutional, in an application of the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.

But, it was not until 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS that the court held that separate facilities were inherently unequal in the area of public schools, effectively overturning Plessy v. Ferguson, and outlawing Jim Crow in other areas of society as well. This landmark case consisted of complaints filed in the States of Delaware (Gebhart v. Belton); South Carolina (Briggs v. Elliott); Virginia (Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County); and Washington, D.C. (Spottswode Bolling v. C. Melvin Sharpe), shaped primarily by the attorneys  of the NAACP – the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Next: The Harlem Renaissance.




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