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Southern opposition to Reconstruction

Southerners struck back at Reconstruction with violence through terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan (1867). The original Ku Klux Klan lasted only for about six years before federal troops put it down, but its terrorist hatred did a lot of damage. Hundreds of blacks and their white helpers were beaten and murdered. Congress passed the Force Acts (1870), which used federal troops to largely stamp out the Klan, but white intimidation of blacks lasted well into the 20th century (see Chapter 14).

Frederick Douglass on the end of Reconstruction

"As the war for the Union recedes into the misty shadows of the past, and the Negro is no longer needed to assault forts and stop rebel bullets, he is in some sense, of less importance. Peace with the old master class has been war to the Negro. As the one has risen, the other has fallen. The reaction has been sudden, marked, and violent. It has swept the Negro from all the legislative halls of the Southern States, and from those of the Congress of the United States. It has, in many cases, driven him from the ballot box and the jury box. The situation has much in it for serious thought, but nothing to cause despair. Above all the frowning clouds that lower about our horizon, there is the steady light of stars, and the thick clouds that now obscure them, will in due season pass away."

By the 1890s, blacks were blocked from voting in the South by technically legal methods like rigged literacy tests and poll taxes. A hate-filled white minority didn't limit itself to legal methods; lynching and beatings of innocent blacks continued for 100 years after the Civil War.

After the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson made himself so unpopular with the Republican Congress that it moved to impeach him. Fearing that Johnson would fire the Republican members of the Cabinet he had inherited from Lincoln, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act (1867), which made that move illegal. Johnson fired Republican Secretary of War Edwin M. Stan-ton anyway because Stanton wanted strong Reconstruction measures. The House of Representatives voted to impeach Johnson. Amid much drama, the Senate came just one vote short of voting Johnson out of office. Tempers ran high, but the country stuck to democracy. No violence broke out among the Union and former Confederate leaders.

The national government's attempts at Reconstruction lasted until the disputed election of Rutherford Hayes as president in 1877 caused the Republicans to make a deal to pull the last Union troops out of the South. Even while it was going on, Southerners pushed back.

The political gains that blacks made during the 12 years of Reconstruction didn't last much longer than the last federal soldier on the scene to defend them. Powerful Southern whites refused to allow the status of blacks to change from slave to citizen in one generation. In fact, it took 100 years for blacks to be really free to vote, go to school, and live as Americans with the rest of Southern society.

The legacy of poverty had a lot of staying power. In the words of the distinguished ex-slave Frederick Douglass, a freedman was "free from the individual master, but still a slave to society . . . free from the old quarter that once gave him shelter, but a slave to the rains of summer and the frosts of winter. He was, in a word, literally turned loose, naked, hungry and destitute, to the open sky." Delayed but not forever denied, the gains of the 1960s civil-rights movement had their basis in the faltering reforms of Reconstruction in the 1860s.

The end of Reconstruction

The political fight that ended Reconstruction was the Hayes-Tilden Compromise (1877). Hayes was a Republican political hack running under the burden of Grant-administration corruption. Samuel Tilden was the Democratic reformer who had cleaned up the Boss Tweed scandal. Tilden racked up more popular votes, but the numbers in the Electoral College were about even.

The Democrats made a deal to let their opponent Hayes win in return for the Republicans' agreeing to withdraw the last federal troops from the South. In reality, the determination of the North to protect blacks in the South had faded with time.

The last-gasp Civil Rights Act (1875) was mostly overturned by the South-leaning Supreme Court in the Civil Rights Cases (1883). Even the Fourteenth Amendment was found by the court to apply only to government violations of civil rights, not to the denial of rights by individuals. Blacks were pretty much on their own in a hostile society for the next 100 years.

 
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