How would someone feel if after being enslaved for their entire life, they were finally set free and promised equal rights, only to discover that their current situation was almost as bad as their former state of servitude? “…the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” This quote by W.E.B. Dubois is representative of the failure of the Reconstruction era following the end of the Civil War. From 1866-1877, during a period called Reconstruction, things were looking up for black freedmen. Radical Republicans intended to rebuild the Southern economy and government, in addition to providing equality and opportunities for blacks. Unfortunately, this dream was crushed and violence and racism ran rampant. Many blame the South for this failure and forget the North’s inability to shake their deeply ingrained racism and provide the blacks with the support they dearly needed. While it is true that Southern violence was also at fault for ending the period of progress for freedmen following the Civil War, the North’s increasing apathy was the reason why it ultimately failed.
The South did everything it could to resist Reconstruction. After the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, which gave blacks more protection and rights, white supremacist groups formed to protest and hinder the progress made. One such manifestation of southern resistance was the Ku Klux Klan, which originated as a fraternal organization for Confederate soldiers, but quickly became a terror group that used scare-tactics such as night rides, burning, beatings, whippings, and even murder to target the people who had worked against them or had different beliefs. The KKK’s influence expanded and they gained more power, even to the point of controlling the press. Nobody was apparently safe; not the freedmen, the carpetbaggers (Northerners who moved to the South to help Reconstruction), or the scalawags (Southern whites who supported Reconstruction). One testimony from a former slave, Abram Colby, who had been elected to the Georgia State legislature, describes the abuse that he faced at the hands of the KKK: “[the Klansmen] broke my door open, took me out of bed, took me out to the woods and whipped me three hours or more and left me for dead” (B1). This account gives insight as to what the blacks would face if they exercised the rights they gained from the amendments. The picture to the left from Harper’s Weekly shows two white men holding guns up to a terrified black man’s head (B2). The caption, “Of Course He Voted for the Democratic Ticket,” implies that blacks were threatened to vote for the party favored by the white supremacists. These tactics worked and many freedmen were wary and unwilling to risk voting. The South, through its threats and violence, negatively impacted the period of progress for freed slaves.
It is true that Southern violence was a major inhibitor to Reconstruction, but it was the North’s increasingly diverted attention and growing apathy towards freedmen that eventually ended the era. The North became preoccupied with other concerns that impacted the entire nation, such as the Panic of 1873, a major financial crisis, and the corruption Grant’s Administration (C1). These issues demanded their full attention, and soon many grew weary and indifferent to the plight of freedmen and the KKK’s violence in the South. As Gerald Danzer, author of the textbook The Americans says, “the tide of public opinion in the North began to turn against Reconstruction policies” ( C1). This became evident when, in the fall of 1873, the firmly pro-freedmen Boston Evening Transcript ran a letter arguing that blacks as a whole were unfit for politics and they needed serious education and instruction in order to become productive members of society (D1). Other northern newspapers reflected this opinion of freedmen. In 1874, Harper’s Weekly featured an artist’s portrayal of the South Carolina Legislature on its cover (D2). The black politicians were depicted as ape-ish and out of control, clearly disrupting the peace and productivity of the rest of the meeting. The whites seem tired and exasperated and one man in the background is even throwing his hands up in the air, fed up with the chaos. The North obviously had a change in attitude in the decade following the Civil War and public opinion turned against Reconstruction; people felt they were wasting their time and energy on something that was not worth it. If the North’s interest in protecting the rights of freedmen had not waned, they would have found a way to stop the southern violence. Therefore, ultimately it is the northerners’ neglect and indifference that brought an end to Reconstruction.
Although Rutherford B. Hayes removed Union soldiers from the South, thereby formally putting an end to Reconstruction with the Compromise of 1877 (also known as the “Great Betrayal”), the truth is that the movement was already dying. The South fought to keep freedmen from progressing and gaining equality; the North let the situation continue and did nothing to stop them. Both sides were negatively impacting the lives of the freedmen. However, the North is mostly to blame for not carrying out what they started. They knew they were going to face opposition and they should have been there to support the freedmen like they set out to do, instead of losing interest midway and letting the blacks fend for themselves in a country where their voices went unheard.
B1- Abram Colby, testimony to a joint House and Senate Committee in 1872.
B2- Harper’s Weekly, October 21, 1876. Image.
C1- Gerald Danzer et al., The Americans, McDougall Littell, 1998.
C2- Harper’s Weekly, 1876. Image.
D1- Heather Cox Richardson. The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001.
D2- Harper’s Weekly Cover, March 14, 1874. Image.