Black Struggle Series #2

The Struggle of Black Americans in the U.S.A.
– part 2

by Rev. Warner Traynham

Holy Faith, Inglewood • Pentecost 17 • July 25, 2021

Two weeks ago, in our discussion of the struggle of American Blacks to attain their Civil Rights, we had ended with the ratification of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, the assassination of Pres. Lincoln, Pres. Andrew Johnson’s attempt at reconstruction, his impeachment and the beginning of Congressional reconstruction. This last is where we begin today.

Under the leadership of the “Radical Republicans”, the intention of Congressional reconstruction was to sweep away the last vestiges of slavery, give blacks citizenship and the vote, and create biracial democratic institutions throughout the south.

The army, occupying the south was charged with registering blacks for the vote and when it had, blacks outnumbered eligible whites, yet half the delegates to the new Constitutional Conventions which Congress mandated were white. 

Those conventions met to redesign the states old constitutions through 1867 and 1868. Blacks compromised on some of the issues such as segregated schools, in order to get public schools started, but stood firm on more basic rights. Subsequently, Republicans emerged with majorities in all the state legislatures but white supremacist Democrats had substantial minorities. 

The proportion of black legislators subsequently elected ranged from 1 percent in North Carolina to 40 percent in Mississippi. Needless to say, “Negro rule”, the South’s great fear, did not materialize. However, during this period, two black senators sat in the US Senate and eight blacks served in the House of Representatives. There were also hundreds of black government officials elected across the south.

When 7 of the legislatures ratified the 14th amendment, Congress was satisfied the south was on its way to establishing republican government and readmitted those states to the Union.

But, to the white supremacists, readmission to statehood meant the return of home rule, states rights and the withdrawal of Union troops. The absence of the military meant that whites could put blacks back in their place. Georgia, for instance, once readmitted, expelled all its black members from the legislature. They appealed to the state Supreme Court which upheld them, but no one would enforce the ruling. The south decided they could live with the 14th amendment by ignoring it.

Through the Klan and other groups, whites kept blacks and white republicans from the poles by threats, terror and murder. They had the bullwhip, the mutilation knife, the torch and the lynch rope. They also had the land, jobs, the money and the force of their traditional status as rulers of the south. Thousands of blacks and white republicans were killed or otherwise kept from the polls.

The 15th Amendment was passed as Johnson left office and President Grant came in. It forbade state action in depriving blacks of the vote, but it did not forbid individuals depriving blacks the vote, which was not an accident.

By Pres. Grant’s second year, all the former Confederate states had been readmitted to the Union having ratified the 14th and 15th amendments and having established equal rights Constitutions. Nevertheless, the struggle intensified. Congress passed a series of enforcement acts intended to give teeth to the Amendments.

The Klan and others groups continued the use of terror to enforce their will. Congress asked for proof and Grant sent it 5000 documented cases of beatings, lynchings and other acts of terrorism against blacks and white republicans. Congress sent a joint committee to look into the south. That committee report ran to 13 volumes of evidence of actions intended to deprive blacks of their civil rights and to drive the Republican party out of the south. But Congress did nothing further.

Grant’s second term was marred by a general abandonment of civil rights in the south. In 1875 Congress enacted a Civil Rights Act which said that “ all persons in the US are entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of public accommodations etc.” The measure was never enforced during the 8 years before the Supreme Court struck it down.

The actions of the Supreme Court made the 14th and the 15th Amendments and the Civil Rights Act, dead letters in the south. In US vs. Cruikshank, the Court threw out the indictment of100 white men for the Colfax massacre in Louisiana in which 105 blacks and 3 whites were killed, on the grounds that the amendment only forbade acts by the states and not by private individuals. In US vs. Reese, the Court dismissed an indictment against a Kentucky official who refused to count a black man’s vote. The opinion said the 15th amendment did not give blacks the vote, but merely prohibited the states from restricting that privilege on racial grounds. The amendments remained in the Constitution, but the statutes designed to enforce them were wiped out.

1876 was a Presidential election year. The Republicans nominated Rutherford B. Hayes. The Democrats nominated Samuel J Tilden. After the election there were competing returns from several states. Congress set up a commission to decide the election. The Commission went for Hayes. The Democrats objected, and a deal was arranged. Hayes was confirmed as President and the south which had gone for Tilden, got Hayes’ promise that the Federal troops still there, would be withdrawn. President Grant, who was finishing his second term, agreed.

The result of the “deal of 76”, was that the southern society which reemerged under white rule was comparable to that in the south before the Civil War. All three branches of the federal government agreed not to enforce the constitutional rights of blacks in the south. The Freedman’s bureau was ended. The south refined the black codes. The Republican party was excluded from the south and the whole nation went on to embrace the neo-confederacy’s ideology of white supremacy and to practice gross discrimination in employment, public and private and in the armed forces. The entire nation and our government were structured to keep white people on top and black people on the bottom, for almost another 100 years. The unfinished business of reconstruction made necessary the second reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.

Now we turn to the century between reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s during which the south re-enslaved black americans by law and custom. and the few women drawn in, this did not last a lifetime and did not automatically extend from one generation to the next. But it was none the less slavery, a system by which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the bidding of white masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion.

We have already noted that when slavery was abolished, the slaves were given nothing, but their freedom, no land to till and to quote Thaddeus Stevens, “without a hut to shelter them or a cent in their pockets.” They were given nothing to sustain them economically, in the land of their birth, unlike the white indentured servants referred to earlier.

Even during reconstruction, the Freedman’s Bureau, in the absence of providing property to blacks, encouraged the freedmen to sign work contracts with their former masters. 

The results were written agreements between whites and mostly illiterate black farm hands filled with provisions aimed at restoring their former subjugated state. Some whites even tried to coerce their former slaves into signing “life contracts”, but even the yearly contracts obligated the black workers to remain throughout the planting and harvesting season in order to receive their full pay and under which they agreed to limitations on personal freedom that echoed the slave laws before emancipation. They agreed not to leave the owners property without a written pass, not to own firearms, to obey all commands, to speak in a servile manner and in the event of violations to accept whatever punishment the farmer deemed appropriate, often the lash.

After the crop was in, tenants and sharecroppers came to the planter on whose land they lived and asked for settlement. Landowners tallied the cost of seed, supplies, rent and every other purchase taken on interest from plantation stores since the previous harvest, subtracted the total from each family’s share of the crop and paid the difference in cash. Aware that any worker clear of his debt might attempt to relocate to another more attractive plantation, planters routinely exaggerated costs and interest so virtually no one could ever clear their debts. Instead they might get a small bonus to celebrate before beginning another crop season on the same land.

Next came the laws outlawing vagrancy and so vaguely defining it that virtually any freedman not under the protection of a white man could be arrested for the crime. Mississippi required every black worker to enter into a labor contract with a white by January 1 or risk arrest. Several states made it a crime for blacks to change employers without that employer’s permission.

The laborer might be denied his pay, half fed, or beaten, but if he failed to keep his contract he was a criminal. There were planters who did starve, mistreat, abuse and beat men to force them to break their contracts in order to get them arraigned before the justice of the peace, in order to secure another year of servitude from the laborer.

In addition to the vagrancy laws blacks were arrested for violations of laws specifically written to intimidate blacks; riding freight cars without a ticket, engaging in sex or loud talk with white women, or for no demonstrable crimes at all. The intention of these laws was to bind black labor to the whites who benefitted economically from that labor, just as they had from slavery. The punishment for violating these laws in most cases was the prospect of being sold into forced labor.

By the end of the 1850’s prior to the Civil War, a vigorous practice of slave leasing was already a fixture of southern life. Farm production was by its nature an inefficient cycle of labor, with intense periods of work in the early spring planting season, idleness during the growing season and then a great burst of harvest activity in the fall and early winter. Slave owners were keen to maximize the return on their most valuable assets and rented out their slaves wherever opportunities appeared.

By the end of reconstruction every formerly confederate state except Virginia, had adopted the practice of leasing black prisoners into commercial hands. Nearly all the penal functions of government were turned over to the companies purchasing convicts. In return for what they paid the state they received absolute control of the prisoners. They were responsible for keeping them incarcerated. They could punish those attempting to flee, and whip the disobedient, almost without limit. Over 8 decades, almost never were there penalties to any acquirer of these convicts for their mistreatment or deaths.

During antebellum slavery, the slaves were minimally insulated from physical harm because of their financial value. But the convicts of the new system were of value only as long as their sentences or physical strength lasted. If they died in custody there was no legal or financial penalty to the company leasing them. Another black laborer would always be available from the state or the sheriff. So they could be and often were, worked to death.

Forcing convicts to work as part of their punishment for an ostensible crime was clearly legal too. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the brief text of which I read in my first sermon in this series, specifically permitted involuntary servitude as a punishment for “duly convicted” criminals. Furthermore, whites realized that the combination of trumped up legal charges and forced labor as punishment, created both a desirable business proposition, and an incredibly effective tool for intimidating rank and file emancipated blacks to submit to the system of white supremacy imposed across the south, as well as doing away with their most effective leaders.

County sheriffs and justices of the peace developed special relationships with local companies to supply them with black convict labor. Trials were discouraged. Lawyers for defendants were few. The fee system, with its additional charge for each act in the judicial process or appearance of another witness, was a built-in disincentive to prisoners who knew that each added dollar of their fine and costs would mean additional days held in forced labor in a mine or lumber camp.

All this was predicated on the absolute defenselessness of black men to the legal system, and the near certainty that they would be unable to pay the fines imposed on them. White farmers who had advanced money to black tenants at the beginning of a crop season, began to enforce their debts, not by evicting those who fell behind, but by accusing them of fraud. Facing certain conviction, by a white judge, the tenant would accept responsibility before trial. It was the nineteenth century equivalent of the modern plea bargain you have seen on “Law and Order” or some other TV court drama, in which the defendant agrees to a lesser sentence ahead of a trial, in order to be spared the possibility of a more severe punishment. 

The farmer who brought the action would post a bond for the accused and the laborer would sign a contract to work for the farmer without compensation for however long it took to pay back the loan. This practice came to be called “Peonage.” It was slavery by another name.

Attorneys for those accused of slavery, argued that no federal statute made slavery a crime. Cases of slavery would have to be brought in state court under a law against false imprisonment. But no state jury would convict and Congress made no move to pass a statute outlawing slavery. A Federal judge in Georgia held the state convict leasing system unconstitutional, but in 1905 The US Supreme Court overturned the order saying that the Federal court had no jurisdiction to overturn the system.

In 1909 the NAACP was organized to secure the rights guaranteed in the 13, 14, and 15th Amendments and the elimination of race prejudice in America. 

In the half century since the Civil War, the Federal Government was the one area of American public life where black officials could still be appointed to important public positions such as Postmasters, customs officers and other administrative roles. The Federal Government hired thousands of black workers and in Federal buildings some civil equity with whites was maintained.

In 1912 Woodrow Wilson, an avowed white supremacist, was elected President. He curtailed black appointees in his administration and introduced the demeaning southern traditions of racially segregated work spaces, office buildings and restrooms in Washington D.C. Further, he backed southern demands to be left to deal with blacks and black voting without Federal interference. Another half century would pass before this anti-black regime was cracked by the Civil Rights movement.

At the conclusion of World War 1 black soldiers returning to the US after fighting for the freedom of Europe, hoped to be met with some relief from racial animosity at home. Instead they were met with white race riots in S. Carolina, Texas, Washington D.C., Illinois, and Arkansas and a new wave of lynchings.

Between 1910 and 1940, 6 to 10 million blacks migrated from the violence, discrimination and lack of opportunity in the south to the opportunity, discrimination and the ghettos of the north.

In 1921, John S. Williams of Georgia was visited by two agents of the FBI and in the course of the visit he became aware that he was committing “peonage.” If you pay a nigger’s fine or go his bond and you work him on your place, you are guilty of peonage.” one of them told him. The agents saw the slave quarters where chains and shackles were used to restrained laborers at night, but aware no Georgia jury would convict Williams for doing what was common among white farmers in the area, they told him not to worry, but not to violate the law further.

However, Williams possessed thousands of acres of farm land and he didn’t want to lose them, so he called his black overseer and told him, “You have to get rid of the stockade niggers.” During the next few days he and his overseer murdered eleven of the black forced laborers to conceal slavery on his property and disposed of their bodies. Only when the decomposing bodies began to surface was there an investigation. Williams and the overseer were tried and convicted of the killings. Williams was the only white found guilty in Georgia of killing a black during ninety years between 1877 and 1966.

Subsequently, several white men were caught in this system designed for blacks, and when their deaths came to light, public outrage rose against the system. In Alabama the total number of blacks arrested on misdemeanor charges and subject to sale in 1927 grew to 37,701. The files of the DOJ contained thousands of allegations of peonage and involuntary servitude which remained unexamined. In 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and realizing the nation’s enemies would exploit the slavery issue, the DOJ began to prosecute the crime. The DOJ prosecuted the U.S. Sugar Co. of forcing blacks into its sugar cane fields. In 1951Congress passed a statute criminalizing slavery in the US, 86 years after the institution had been abolished. And at the end of the war Pres. Truman desegregated the armed forces of the US.

Throughout the South, chemicals and mechanization reduced the need for labor. In 1954, the US Supreme Court in Brown vs. the Board of Education reversed the cynical logic of Plessey vs. Ferguson and the terror regime dominating black life for 90 years began to end. The nation’s racial dance took a step forward once again.

58 years earlier in 1896 the High Court, in Plessey vs. Ferguson, upheld a Louisiana law providing for equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races on its railroad cars. In 1892 a light skinned black man refused to sit in a Jim Crow car. He was brought before Judge John H. Ferguson of the criminal court of New Orleans who upheld the state law. By a 7 to 1 vote, the High Court said that the state law “Implies merely a legal distinction” between the two races. “The 14th Amendment enforces the absolute equality of the races before the law. Laws requiring their separation …do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race. The argument against segregation laws was false, because of the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with the badge of inferiority. If this is so,” the Court held “, it is…solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.” Further, If the Supreme Court had cared to look, they would have discovered no equality in those separate facilities either.

Following this judgment, restrictive legislation based on race expanded steadily until some of it was overturned.

Unlike the commercial sector of Nazi Germany with respect to the Holocaust, the commercial sector of the US has never been asked to account for their roles as primary enforcers of segregation and not at all for engineering the resurrection of forced labor after the Civil War. It was business that policed adherence to America’s racial customs more than any other actor in US society. Banks maintained ubiquitous discrimination in lending practices across the country until the 1960’s, that prevented millions of blacks from obtaining the lines of credit especially for mortgages that millions of white families used to move into the middle class.

Next Sunday I will conclude this story with some suggestions for substantially furthering the black struggle for equality in the US of A.

  • NOTES ON THE STATE OF VIRGINIA, by Thomas Jefferson
  • YOUTUBE: Jefferson, Slavery, Reconstruction.
  • YOUTUBE: “The Revolutionary Origins of the Civil War, by Gordon Wood
  • THE  ATLANTIC MONTHLY  of June, 2014, “The Case for Reparations, by Ta-Nehisi  Coates
  • AFTER  APPOMATTOX: Military  Occupation and the Ends of War,  by Gregory P. Downs
  • AFTER APPOMATTOX: How the South Won  the War, by Stetson Kennedy
  • SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME: The Reenslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to WW II, by  Douglass A. Blackmon
  • UNTIL JUSTICE BE DONE, by Kate Masur
  • THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS, by Isabel Wilkerson.
  • THE NEW JIM CROW:  Mass Incarceration in the  Age of Color Blindness, by Michelle Alexander.