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[Charles Lane, guest-blogging, April 8, 2008 at 9:54pm] Trackbacks
Martin Luther King and Colfax

The just concluded MLK assassination anniversary was a somber event everywhere, and especially in our nation's capital, my hometown, which burned -- figuratively and literally -- in the wake of James Earl Ray's evil deed. I can remember those days from my childhood, and they're not happy memories. It took the city pretty much until now to recover, physically, from the destruction.

The renewed public reflection on the violence/nonviolence dynamic of those years reminds me, of course, of Reconstruction and the lost opportunities of the post-Civil War period. Could we have spared ourselves the trauma of the 60s -- not to mention the injustice and national disgrace of the racial oppression that came before -- if cases like Cruikshank and political events like the 1876 election had come out differently? In other words, could we have obviated the "Second" Reconstruction if we had gotten the first one right?

It's tempting to say yes. I don't think history supports such an answer, however. My study of Reconstruction leaves me hard-pressed to argue that there was ever much of a chance for a happy ending.

The African American population of the 1870s were overwhelmingly concentrated in the South -- and the Deep South at that. In addition, the vast majority of them were illiterate and completely dependent on whites for jobs, mostly on the same plantations they had once worked as slaves, or similar lands. And those whites were angry, defeated, bitter people, with few sources of status left other than their claim to racial superiority. In short, blacks were little more than a rural proletariat, surrounded by or intermingled with well-armed and relatively wealthy racial enemies. This social and economic weakness ruled out strategies of non-violent protest, such as strikes or boycotts.

Armed self-defense was perhaps a more promising notion, except that it required weapons, and the only sources of those, the federal government and Republican state governments, were profoundly ambivalent about "black militias." These were thought to be highly dangerous, because overly provocative of whites. "Race war" was a bugaboo throughout the period.

Thus, the only strategy available to blacks was to vote for Republicans, black and white, as long as their right to vote could be protected by federal power. And in time, as Southern resistance of all kinds -- legal and illegal -- proved intractable, the federal government's willingness to protect blacks faded. Out of sight, out of mind became increasingly viewed as an expedient approach to "the Negro problem." Surrender to white violence and fraud proved easy to justify amid incessant propaganda about the alleged corruption of black voters and the Republican politicians, black and white, whom they supported.

Things began to change with the Northern migration of African Americans in the 20th Century, and especially after World War II. Though, ironically, this meant that blacks were no longer a demographic majority or near-majority in certain Southern states, their dispersion increased their economic diversity and independence -- albeit slowly and minimally -- and opened up new political avenues. To oversimplify, in the cities, north and south, black people were harder to ignore. The Cold War gave Washington powerful incentives to ameliorate the condition of black citizens, if only to avoid international embarrassment.

Dr. King -- and let it never be forgotten that his movement began in the urban South, in places like Montgomery, Birmingham and Atlanta -- brilliantly exploited this new political space with a strategy that did not directly depend on federal support but constantly leveraged federal action through the spectacle of dignified, nonviolent resistance to a truly monstrous system of Southern apartheid.

This is what it took to revolutionize American race relations, and though it's dangerous to claim that anything in history was inevitable, I doubt it could have been accomplished under the conditions of 1870s America.

A footnote: A real irony of the 60s is that the Justice Department returned to the role its post-Civil War founders had intended for it. Its initial reason for being was to beef up federal enforcement of criminal and civil statutes intended to protect the freedmen. Once that authority faded in the post-Cruikshank years, the department branched out into other kinds of federal crimes, under Commerce Clause authority -- or even 18th Amendment authority!

Anyway, the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson Justice Deparments' role in desegregating the South was true to the department's primordial mission -- the mission guys like James R. Beckwith took up, with such limited results, in cases like Colfax.

PS I know J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, which harassed King no end, is a big, fat exception -- but even he made a great show of fighting the Klan.

jim smithers:
Hmm. Why don't we just stick with the words of the late Chuck Heston in re Martin Luther King: “a 20th-century Moses for his people”
4.8.2008 11:47pm
MarkField (mail):
You may be overly pessimistic about the chances of success after the Civil War. They were daunting, no doubt. It would probably have required at least two measures unlikely to have political support in the North: harsher punishment of Confederate political leaders and army officers; and land redistribution to the former slaves (40 acres and a mule).

At the same time as the North failed to isolate or imprison those who resisted the law (or even, for that matter, civilization), it adopted a self-defeating "sink or swim" policy vis a vis Southern whites who were not leaders and who desperately needed financial assistance. The Southern economy was destroyed by the war. Not only was the capital invested in slavery gone, but so was the capital invested in Confederate bonds. So was the (limited) transportation infrastructure needed for farmers to get crops to market. A concerted program of public investment -- railroads, roads, canals, banks -- in aid of Southern farmers, black and white alike, might well have gone a long way towards ending the sense of desperation which, in part, fueled the repression of blacks.

The armed self-defense issue is harder. You're right that the idea of armed blacks infuriated Southern whites. It's also true that the few black attempts at armed resistance failed pretty spectacularly (e.g., Colfax itself). In retrospect, though, it's hard to see how the terrorists could have been defeated without concerted and effective use of arms, and that probably means arming and training black militias (assuming the North was unwilling to pay for an army large enough, and policies brutal enough, to ensure security). Let's face it: the opposite approach failed. OTOH, competing armed camps of ethnic groups doesn't seem like a formula for success in Iraq or the Balkans, so it might not have worked here either.
4.9.2008 12:22am
Henry679 (mail):
If we are going to play counterfactual history, then instead of trying to salvage Reconstruction (a sure loser, IMO), just go all the way and dump the hideous "compromises" in the Constitution itself (i.e. The Three-Fifths Compromise, and allowing slave importation until 1808)--in short, dump the United States itself.

The "United States" could not help the existence of slavery--that was introduced here 170 years before it even existed. But birthing the nation on the acceptance of such hideous moral grounds is another issue altogether.

Of course since most people who live in the US are mighty glad to be here, suggesting any outcome where there is no US seems intuitively "wrong" to them. But that is no logical response (moreover, it is also possible that the North and South could have later refederated (post slavery), as happened in Europe in the 19th Century to create such modern states such as Germany and Italy.)
4.9.2008 1:56am
Elliot Reed (mail):
If we are going to play counterfactual history, then instead of trying to salvage Reconstruction (a sure loser, IMO), just go all the way and dump the hideous "compromises" in the Constitution itself (i.e. The Three-Fifths Compromise, and allowing slave importation until 1808)--in short, dump the United States itself.
What the heck, why not go back further and dump the Revolutionary War? That makes more sense than having an outcome where the states all remain independent post-revolution or something. Knowing what would have happened under some alternate history scenario is just hopeless but the Slavery Abolition Act came in 1833, which is considerably better than 1863.
4.9.2008 2:42am
donaldk2 (mail):
Anyone thinking that the 3/5 compromise was anti-black doesn't understand history.

On the decision not to bar slavery, without that there would have been no United States.

There might have been been two unions. Perhaps that would have worked out well. I would like to read a discussion of the matter.
4.9.2008 4:03am
common sense (www):
I seriously doubt the two union idea as being better for slaves. You would have an independent country fully devoted to slavery with little or no inside pressure to stop importing slaves or to release slaves. By forming a single country, abolitionists in the north could at least work to get slaves better rights, stop the importation of slaves, and eventually end slavery altogether. If there were no counterbalance to the south, do you believe that slavery would have ended when it did?
4.9.2008 8:15am
pireader (mail):
"There might have been been two unions. Perhaps that would have worked out well. I would like to read a discussion of the matter."

It's a commonplace about the Civil War that many Northerners fought for the Union but not against slavery. No doubt that was partly an emotional attachment; it was also a very cold-blooded calculation.

The original purpose of the Union was "geo-political"--to avoid turning North America into another Europe of divided, squabbling states, vulnerable to conflicts with each other and with outsiders. Th first Federalist Papers #2-5 (John Jay) are eloquent on this point.

If you'd like to read about it (beyond Jay), Harry Turtledove has written a series of novels that develop a "counter-factual history" of a divided warring North America of 'two unions'. Whatever their other merits, they show clearly what Jay was writing about.
4.9.2008 8:21am
donaldk2 (mail):
Since a Constitution outlawing slavery would not have been ratified (required approval by nine states) the Articles of Confederation would have remained in force. After that, who knows? Maybe a Northern Union, but unfortunately without Washington, Jefferson and Madison. And as pointed out above, the survival of slavery.
4.9.2008 9:19am
anon989 (mail):
I'd like to ask Mr. Lane and other commenters the following questions about King. These are not meant to be rhetorical. I've wondered these things myself and am interested in how other people feel.

1) Before he was assassinated, King was planning on leading a poor people's march on Washington. My impression (from "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" and other sources) is that he was not having much success recruiting people for the march. Then after he was killed, the march continued, led by people like Jesse Jackson. It turned into a debacle (marchers living in filthy man-made huts in a muddy field, etc.), and did not have the same impact of the more famous March on Washington. (It also ceased to be a significant media event when Robert Kennedy was assassinated.) Is this an accurate description, and do you think the march would have been more effective if King had lived to lead it?

2) Reading about King's later years, it seemed like in some ways he was losing control of the movement he had built up and led (not that he was a controlling person or expected to be in charge of everything, but he was definitely instrumental in holding the movement together). Do you think that he could have kept the broader movement together, along a more non-violent, peaceful, and inclusive direction, if he had lived?

3) King's attempts to deal with racial issues in the North (i.e. in the Chicago area) were not nearly as effective as his work in the South. What conclusions if any can be drawn from this? Was the racism in the North more difficult to confront because it was more subtle (i.e. not explicitly mandated by law)? What made King's experiences in Cicero different than in Birmingham? Was it that the region was different, or his strategies were less effective in the North and he had not learned how to adjust?

4) (I suspect this is a more controversial question.) In leading protests in Birmingham, King (or those with him) actually encouraged young people to march downtown instead of attend school. The famous scenes of young people being knocked over by water from fire hoses were the result of this decision. (No doubt that the city officials would have reacted similarly to the rest of the marchers anyway, and I'm not excusing them.) Was it wrong for King or other civil rights leaders to put young people in harms way, or was it necessary and justified? And was it unhealthy to suggest to young people that the movement was more important than an education? Is there a relationship between what happened in places like Birmingham, and the present situation where many young African-Americans look down on an education, even considering studying to be "acting white"?
4.9.2008 11:06am
JB:
Common Sense,
No Fugitive Slave Act. The North would, instead of allowing Southern bounty hunters free range on its Black population, laugh at them. The goal line for the Underground Railroad would be the Pennsylvania border, not the Canadian one, and Northern factory owners would be the staunchest supporters of the "no returning slaves" policy, as escaped slaves would be their best workforce.

It's possible that these policies would lead to an international war with the same territorial breakdown as the Civil War.
4.9.2008 11:27am
Al Maviva (mail):
But birthing the nation on the acceptance of such hideous moral grounds is another issue altogether.

Matter of fact, while we're applying cutting-edge progressive social attitudes to hardscrabble settlers of 240 years ago, let's just condemn this stinking hellhole of a country, which was born in a miasma of wood smoke, wood fires being one of the worst contributors to global warming. Never mind their terrible insensitivity to women, gays, minorities, indigenous personnel, and I daresay the North American fathers of Islamophobia, with those nasty Marines being sent shortly after the Republic's founding "to the Shores of Tripoli." (I'll conveniently ignore the Turk's rather nasty habit of making slaves out of any able-bodied white Christians that could be captured... can't apply our standards to foreign cultures, you know). And everywhere you look, fat white men, smoking and chewing tobacco, and drinking beer nearly all the time... Disgusting! Like the NASCAR fans of their day.


Progressivism: 19th Century Methodist reformers, New and Improved, to meet the needs of the 21st Century.
4.9.2008 11:27am
c.gray (mail):

What made King's experiences in Cicero different than in Birmingham?


What he was demanding in Cicero was viewed as different, and more alarming to whites, than what he was demanding in Birmingham.

In Birmingham, King's focus was demanding desegregation of public spaces, public transportation, shops, restaurants, etc.., and an end to the ritual humiliations blacks were forced to endure every time they interacted with a white-owned business.

In Cicero, his focus was demanding desegregation in housing. As well as literally demanding white people accept change closer to home, this was perceived, rightly or wrongly, as impacting the value of the largest investment most people make in their lives.

Asking a man to address you as "Mister" instead of "boy" is one thing. Asking him to accept a 10-25% drop in his home's resale price is quite another.
4.9.2008 11:43am
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
The armed self-defense issue is harder. You're right that the idea of armed blacks infuriated Southern whites. It's also true that the few black attempts at armed resistance failed pretty spectacularly (e.g., Colfax itself). In retrospect, though, it's hard to see how the terrorists could have been defeated without concerted and effective use of arms, and that probably means arming and training black militias (assuming the North was unwilling to pay for an army large enough, and policies brutal enough, to ensure security).

Another problem: a 19th century conventional army, and a militia, were not well suited to what was essentially terrorism. At best either could mount night patrols hoping to intercept the Klan by good luck. The Klan could, in turn, target militia leaders and militiamen for nighttime attack, striking at its own timing. As a representative of a duly established government, the militia and army would have trouble giving tit for tat, i.e., assassinating suspected Klan leaders.
4.9.2008 12:37pm
LarryA (mail) (www):
It's tempting to say yes. I don't think history supports such an answer, however. My study of Reconstruction leaves me hard-pressed to argue that there was ever much of a chance for a happy ending.
OTOH, it could have been much worse. Grant let the Southern soldiers keep their firearms, signaling an intention to accept them as once more being citizens. Lincoln intended to follow a policy of reintegration, unfortunately cut short by his assassination. Johnson was nearly run from office for following it.

It would probably have required at least two measures unlikely to have political support in the North: harsher punishment of Confederate political leaders and army officers; and land redistribution to the former slaves (40 acres and a mule).
Oh, I think the Northern political support was there. (See the Johnson impeachment.) But would such tactics have improved the situation? Many Northern leaders wanted a punitive reconstruction similar to the one Europe imposed after the War to End All Wars. We know how that turned out.

What we muddled through worked pretty well. We’re complaining here, yet 150 years after the end of the Civil War we are one nation. Other than those who still want to stir up resentment over Confederate Flags and such, it’s over. (Not to say that discrimination has been purged, but for the overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens on both sides the war itself no longer occasions more than jokes. In fact, most couldn’t point out the Mason-Dixon Line, or remember its significance.)

Compare that to conflicts around the world that are ongoing after a half-century or more. Compare it to the Arab/Israeli feud, approaching four millennia.

We aren’t doing so bad.

It's also true that the few black attempts at armed resistance failed pretty spectacularly (e.g., Colfax itself).
However, by MLK’s time black armed self-defense was a major factor. My father played a bit part in that. A good bit of the black experience with firearms, as well as self-confidence, came from black WWII veterans. My father was one of the white officers who volunteered to train and command black soldiers, thus helping them take advantage of that opportunity.
4.9.2008 12:41pm
wfjag:

And everywhere you look, fat white men, smoking and chewing tobacco, and drinking beer nearly all the time...


Al Maviva, you almost had me convinced, and then you said "drinking beer". Rye whiskey was what my ancestors drank. No "soft" drinks like beer.
4.9.2008 1:13pm
common sense (www):
JB,
That's a good point, but I wonder if the need to hunt down slaves is as large with relatively cheap importation of slaves from Africa. Also, I wonder if there would be as many fugitives with the less porous border that would exist. The north had no desire to create a screen across from Canada, whereas our counterfactual south might feel the need to do so with the US. I can't honestly say, but I still think having a divided country was better for slaves as a whole, long term, than a south with a strong need for slavery.
4.9.2008 1:37pm
common sense (www):
JB,
That's a good point, but I wonder if the need to hunt down slaves is as large with relatively cheap importation of slaves from Africa. Also, I wonder if there would be as many fugitives with the less porous border that would exist. The north had no desire to create a screen across from Canada, whereas our counterfactual south might feel the need to do so with the US. I can't honestly say, but I still think having a divided country was better for slaves as a whole, long term, than a south with a strong need for slavery.
4.9.2008 1:37pm
PubliusFL:
Elliot: "What the heck, why not go back further and dump the Revolutionary War? That makes more sense than having an outcome where the states all remain independent post-revolution or something. Knowing what would have happened under some alternate history scenario is just hopeless but the Slavery Abolition Act came in 1833, which is considerably better than 1863."

It seems unlikely that any scenario doing away with the Revolutionary War would also result in abolition of slavery as early as 1833. Avoiding the American Revolution would likely have required either American representation in Parliament or a separate parliament for the American colonies. In the latter case, the American parliament may well have had the right to pass its own laws regarding slavery, and could have delayed just as long as the U.S. did in bringing about the end of slavery. In the former case, a law to abolish slavery throughout the Empire could have been delayed by the presence of additional MPs representing American plantation owners and the need to compensate slaveholders for millions of additional slaves (the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 provided £20 million to compensate British slaveholders as it was).
4.9.2008 1:50pm
SeaDrive:

Armed self-defense was perhaps a more promising notion, except that it required weapons, and the only sources of those, the federal government and Republican state governments, were profoundly ambivalent about "black militias." These were thought to be highly dangerous, because overly provocative of whites. "Race war" was a bugaboo throughout the period.



Methinks you have been drinking too heavily of 2nd Admendment KoolAid. Neither the Federal Gov't, nor the states would have tolerated armed resistance for an instant.
4.9.2008 1:56pm
MarkField (mail):

Many Northern leaders wanted a punitive reconstruction similar to the one Europe imposed after the War to End All Wars. We know how that turned out.


Punishment only would have failed, IMO. That's why I mentioned the need for investment as well. There are reasons to think that wouldn't have worked either, though -- race-baiters were very good at dividing white from black despite shared economic interests.


What we muddled through worked pretty well. We’re complaining here, yet 150 years after the end of the Civil War we are one nation.


It's a shame, though, that we "muddled through" on the backs of the former slaves, the most vulnerable members of society. Looking back on the experience might give us some insight on how to avoid that in the future.


Other than those who still want to stir up resentment over Confederate Flags and such, it’s over.


The emotional defense of the Confederate flags tells me that it's not over for way too many people even today.
4.9.2008 1:58pm
Andy Freeman (mail):
> Anyone thinking that the 3/5 compromise was anti-black doesn't understand history.

To give a bit more information, the South wanted slaves to be counted as 1 while the North wanted them to be counted as 0.

The reason? We're talking about how members of the house of representatives are allocated. More population, more political power.
4.9.2008 2:16pm
Bob from Ohio (mail):
Two nations in 1789 would have been disastrous for whites and blacks.

The US in 1789 was pretty weak already. Two would have been prone to interference from Europe.

There would have been a race to expand west. War would have been inevitable. The industrial north and the farms of the Midwest of 1860 beat the south but it was not easy.

The commercial north of say 1815 or 1825 would have had a harder problem.

We probably would have had a second war. Maybe three. Like Europe had constant wars.

(Probably multiple wars with Mexico too.)

On the other hand, a weak south could have been forced to give up slavery. Regardless of the US ban on importation, Britain banned the slave trade and the Royal Navy enforced that ban. The South could not continue to import slaves. I think (hope?) that they could not have maintained slavery forever.

However, I doubt if any unfolding of history with two nations would have worked out well. In the long run, the compromises to establish the Constitution were well worth it.
4.9.2008 3:33pm
LarryA (mail) (www):
That's a good point, but I wonder if the need to hunt down slaves is as large with relatively cheap importation of slaves from Africa.
It’s not supply. You hunt down running slaves to deter the rest of the slaves, who are always thinking about running.

It's a shame, though, that we "muddled through" on the backs of the former slaves, the most vulnerable members of society. Looking back on the experience might give us some insight on how to avoid that in the future.
We did pretty well with Japan and our sector of Germany. I attended a “Victory in the Pacific” event at the nearby Nimitz Museum on the fiftieth anniversary of V-J Day. The local high school band marched past, each of their bass drums bearing the “Yamaha” logo. I think I was the only one that noticed.

The emotional defense of the Confederate flags tells me that it's not over for way too many people even today.
First, I was referring to the provocateurs on both sides of the issue. Second, I’d say that wanting to remember the history, maintain the monuments, and even peacefully reenact the battles is substantially different than throwing riots on the anniversary of 200-year-old incidents. Reenactors assemble, form units, and stage battles all in fun, and no one on either side pays too much attention which army their great-grandpas fought in. Have you seen that in any other country?

I have an essay, too long to post here, about how banning the Confederate Flag could be one of black America’s most disastrous triumphs.
4.9.2008 4:54pm
Henry679 (mail):
Somehow slavery disappeared throughout the Western Hemisphere without the need of war--especially a war that killed 600,000, mangled millions of others, introduced the first wave of drug addition, and offered up as it's "reward" a failed Reconstruction that allowed Jim Crow to last another 90 years.

If this was "the best of all possible outcomes", then, per Rev. Wright, God has truly damned the United States from the start.

PS: I always love how people NOT slaughtered in a fray are always so eager to tell us "worth it" it really was.
4.9.2008 5:48pm
Retired Guy:
All intriguing comments. I wonder what it says for our efforts to reconstruct Sunni-Shia/Badr-Mahdi strugges in Iraq?

If Larry A is right, what are our prospects for muddling through in Mesopotamia?
4.9.2008 5:49pm
JB:
Common Sense,
The British were cracking down pretty well on slave trading from the African side. In fact, had the South persisted in trying to get slaves from there, there might have been a South/Britain war.

Similarly, I doubt the South would have been able to maintain sufficient standing force to guard its entire border, nor would the North be thrilled at its maintaining that standing force so close to its territory. If it tried, the North might have joined Britain in the war.
4.9.2008 7:36pm
markm (mail):

JB:
...Northern factory owners would be the staunchest supporters of the "no returning slaves" policy, as escaped slaves would be their best workforce.

It's possible that these policies would lead to an international war with the same territorial breakdown as the Civil War.

It likely would have happened earlier, due to friction over westward expansion. As it was, a brush war started over whether Kansas and Nebraska would be free or slave several years before Lincoln's election. With an independent south, that would have been a real war, fought by regular armies instead of bushwhackers like Quantrill and John Brown, and it probably would have started even sooner, over Missouri at the latest. (An independent south would have annexed Texas ASAP and likely tried to wrest even more cotton land from Mexico, so a war with the north allied with Mexico against the south might have started even before 1840.)

Also, there would probably have been more states in the south. Over half the slave states did not officially secede - although in some cases that was only because federal troops occupied the state legislative chambers before they could vote on secession. Most of these would have joined an independent south to start with, and their militias would have been nearly 100% available to the southern army, instead of split between north and south as happened in our history. Putting this together with the earlier start to the war, when the difference in industrialization between north and south was not so pronounced, it's questionable whether the north could have won decisively.
4.9.2008 10:42pm
Jam:
What? No mention of the Union League and the Black codes in the north?
4.11.2008 12:09pm
Rich Rostrom (mail):
Mark M: eleven slave states declared secession. Only four did not. None of them had their capitals occupied by Federal troops at the time of decision. (Annapolis was occupied, but the Maryland legislature met in special session at Frederick, 60 miles away.)

As to the original question: there was IMHO a chance for Reconstruction to have succeeded, at least in part, if the southern Republicans and black leaders had followed a "citadel" strategy, and concentrated their resources on keeping control of one or two states. Even one "un-Redeemed" state would be a fatal breach in the wall of white supremacy.

Another possibility is the non-assassination of Lincoln. Unlike Andrew Johnson, he was actively interested in establishing some level of citizenship for blacks, and he was a Republican, interested in planting the party in the South. Johnson allowed ex-Confederate Democrats to seize complete control of the Reconstruction states, including draconian Black Codes. He was overruled by Republicans in Congress who launched Radical Reconstruction, including black majority in some areas. Nearly the entire white South then united behind white supremacy under the Democrats. Lincoln would have kept the ex-Confederates out, unless they turned Republican and compromised on black rights.
4.12.2008 12:30am