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.