GLEN COVE, NY — Most people believe that with the
end of Reconstruction came the end of black participation in Southern
politics until the Civil Rights era starting in the 1960s. The truth
is more complex.
The role of the Army in Southern political processes — as well as
that of New England veterans who had assumed fictitious Southern residences
to hold office — came to a close. While the end of Reconstruction
did have an adverse effect on the black share of political power in
the South, what really diminished the role of blacks was the rise of
the Progressives and Populists. These new forces ousted the Conservative
Democrats who had dominated Southern politics during the last quarter
of the nineteenth century.
When Mississippi was represented in the Senate from 1877 to 1879
by both the unquestioned leader of the anti-Reconstruction forces in
Mississippi, Confederate officer and former slaveholder, Democrat Lucius
Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, and black Republican Blanche Kelso Bruce,
they not only worked together for the good of Mississippi but liked
each other and were political allies. The last black Republican Congressman
from the old South left office in 1901, and the last black Republican
victory in municipal elections in a major Southern city was in 1898
— precisely the era when Progressivism and Populism were beginning
to take over the Democrat Party.
From 1877 to 1913, all U.S. presidents except Grover Cleveland were
Republicans, most Republicans in the South were black, and blacks held
some federal appointive offices. Most of the Southern blacks who could
read lived in the cities. When most of the South after Reconstruction
implemented a literacy requirement to vote, the number of black voters
fell sharply. With this decrease came a gradual decline in the number
of black candidates elected to office.
Political power in the South in this era was in the hands of former
slave owners and people who had been assimilated into their society.
The majority of the white population (and, in most of the South, the
majority of the entire population) consisted of sharecroppers, mill
workers, and small farmers. The attitudes of the two groups toward
the black population were quite different. The former slave owners
employed blacks, often members of families formerly owned by their
families or those of their friends. The poorer whites, in contrast,
felt threatened by black upward mobility and wanted to enforce a strict
exclusion of blacks from their own opportunities.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, the Progressive movement emerged.
Progressives viewed all progress as necessarily good. They believed
strongly in Darwinian evolution and that the white race had evolved
through natural selection from other less biologically developed races.
Theodore Roosevelt was by and large a Progressive, but he believed
in racial equality. He did not consider President William Howard Taft
to be progressive enough and conducted a third-party campaign against
him that resulted in the election of the complete Progressive, Woodrow
Wilson. As President Wilson racially segregated both the Armed Forces
and the federal bureaucracy, he killed off all the federal support
that black Southern politicians had previously enjoyed. The result
was to effectively eliminate them from the Southern political equation.
At about the same time as the rise of the Progressives, the Populist
movement emerged in the West and was typified by William Jennings Bryan.
Progressives and Populists were natural allied in trying to overthrow
the powerful classes in America. When Progressivism reached the South,
it became a movement of sharecroppers and mill workers (and those who
were good at pretending to be such) to overthrow the rule of the “Bourbons” or
former slave owners. Southern Populism often included a good dose of
racism and also two new things alien to the traditional culture of
the South — anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism.
Under Populist rule in the South, every aspect of public life became
segregated. Lynching became common. Indeed, the Populists ushered in
the period that American historians call the “nadir of race relations.” When
labor unions came, their memberships were either exclusively white
or black, never biracial. The white unions worked to make it impossible
to hire blacks in unionized workplaces by such devices as laws requiring
separate doors for black and white workers.
When the Conservative Democrat Bourbons ended Reconstruction, they
had reduced the role of blacks but did not try to eliminate them or
prevent their advancement. With the overthrow of the Conservative Democrats
and beginning in 1890, however, the new governing class of Populists
and Progressives replaced reasonable literacy requirements with ones
that voters be able to read and explain the state constitution. They
used these harsher requirements against the literate as well as the
illiterate blacks to achieve a virtually all-white electorate, closed
off employment opportunities for blacks, and instituted a regime of
racial suppression that lasted more than half a century.
The Confederate Lawyer column is copyright © 2011
by Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com.
All rights reserved.
Charles G. Mills is the Judge Advocate or general counsel for the
New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in
many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles
about the law.
See his biographical sketch and additional columns here.
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