Friday, April 22, 2016

Confederate Heritage Month: The Strange Fruit That Fed Jim Crow

[That's right, it's April, which means that it's Confederate Heritage Month. We continue our coverage. Previous installments at the bottom.]
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,

Here is a strange and bitter crop.
-- Lewis Allen, "Strange Fruit" (popularized by Billie Holiday)

Slavery and war were the human institutions most closely related to eliminationism as it was practiced historically, proceeding as they did from the same dark, violent corner of the human psyche -- the one in which resides the impulse to dominate our fellow humans, along with its cornermate, the impulse to reduce our fellow humans to mere objecthood.

Thus the lion's share of the eliminationism practiced by the European colonists in the Americas had gone hand in hand with warmaking and enslavement. Most of the violent eradication of the native population -- particularly the extermination of the straggling remnant of Indians in North America after 1800 -- had occurred under the pretense of waging war, which itself was merely a pretext for taking land. And in the early years, at least, when the Spanish took many hundreds of thousands of Mesoamericans as forced labor for their mines -- which was itself a death sentence -- slavery played a significant role in the natives' extermination, both physically and culturally; even those slaves kept alive were usually forced conversos for whom observing any of their traditional rites or ceremonies was punishable by death.

The natives, however, were seen in quite distinct terms from the Africans captured as slaves and brought to American shores by the colonists. The former were identified with the wilderness and were the equivalent of untameable beasts, which played a large role in the white settlers' inclination toward rubbing them out. But African slaves were seen as completely subservient and thus a negligible threat.

This may explain why, during the years leading up to the Civil War, blacks in the South were rarely the victims of lynchings -- since they were viewed as property, it was considered an act of theft to kill someone else's slave. The main exception to this was directly related to those occasions in which the slaves were perceived as actual threats -- namely, putting down slave revolts.

The fear of black insurrection (and there were a handful of real slave revolts, notably Nat Turner's 1831 Virginia rebellion, in which some sixty whites were killed) was so pervasive among Southerners that any rumor that one might occur could bring swift death to the alleged conspirators, even if, as was often the case, it later turned out there were no such plans. In any event, when lynching did occur in the years before the Civil War, the victims predominantly were whites. Many of these were in the antebellum South, where lynch-mob treatment was often administered to abolitionists and other "meddlers."

If blacks' slave status largely protected them from racial violence before the Civil War, then its abolition also left them remarkably vulnerable to such assaults upon the South's defeat. Certainly, once emancipated, they became seen as a real threat to whites, and particularly to their dominant status; much of this perception, particularly regarding the violent nature of the newly freed blacks, as we shall see, was more an illusion produced by psychological projection than real in any meaningful way.

This became immediately manifest, during Reconstruction, when black freedmen were subjected to a litany of attacks at the hands of their former owners that went utterly unpunished. As documented by Philip Dray in his definitive study, At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, these crimes turned up in hospital records and field reports from the federal Freedmen's Bureau, all of which described a variety of clubbings, scalpings, mutilations, hangings and even immolations of former slaves, all within the first year after Appomattox.

In 1866, the violence became discernibly more organized with the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, which originated with a clique of Confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee, and spread like wildfire throughout the South. Initially much of the Klan night riders’ activities were relegated to whippings, a punishment intended to remind the ex-slaves of their former status. But as the assaults on blacks increased, so did the intensity of the violence visited on them, culminating in a steady stream of Klan lynchings between 1868 and 1871 (when the Klan was officially outlawed by the Grant Administration); at least one study puts the number at 20,000 blacks killed by the Klan in that period. In the ensuing years, the violence did little to decline, and in fact worsened, despite the Klan's official banishment.

David M. Chalmers in Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan, describes the early Klansmen was drawing from both the upper and lower strata of society, but unquenchably violent [p. 10]:
The method of the Klan was violence. It threatened, exiled, flogged, mutilated, shot, stabbed, and hanged. It disposed of Negroes who were no respectful, or committed crimes, or belonged to military or political organizations such as the Loyal and Union Leagues. It drove out Northern schoolteachers and Yankee storekeepers and politicians, and "took care" of Negroes who gained land and prospered, or made inflammatory speeches or talked about equal rights. It assaulted carpetbag judges, intimidated juries, and spirited away prisoners. It attacked officials who registered Negroes, who did not give whites priority, or who foreclosed property.

The Klan's violence, however, was not broadly eliminationist, but rather carefully channeled. Its clear intent was not to drive out blacks generally -- they were, after all, a valuable source of labor -- but to keep them under the thumb of their white "superiors." The chief means of doing this, however, entailed eliminating anyone who might pose even the slightest hint of a threat to the status of whites, particularly "interlopers" and "outsiders" who arrived after the war to help the freed slaves get on their feet:
Although Klansmen occasionally sortied out across the moonlit countryside to punish criminal behavior, they most frequently called upon Radicals, Union and Loyal Leaguers, Republican candidates, and Northern schoolteachers. The purposes were clearly to destroy the basis of Negro political effectiveness by driving out its leaders, white and black. The particular opposition to schoolteachers seems based on the reasoning that the Negro was not capable of learning anything other than polticial insurrection and insolence toward whites, and in the years before the war, teaching a Negro to read had been a serious crime. In eastern Mississippi the new institution of public schooling had to face the added problem of economic depression. During a period when times were hard and Reconstruction had made labor uncertain and elevated livestock theft to a common profession, the farmers were called upon to pay taxes for a new school system which they feared might eventually mingle white and Negro schoolchildren. The response was a veritable reign of terror which saw schools burned and teachers whipped, tortured, murdered, and driven out of the state.

Francis Simkins' study of the South Carolina Klan observed that the Klan's campaign was "against the Negro as a citizen -- one attempting to be a voter and at times, the social equal of other men -- rather than against the Negro as a violator of law or the infringer upon the rights of other men." So to rationalize away their own wanton criminality, the Klan and its supporters relied on rhetoric aimed to convince the public of the criminality of the black population.

The chief purpose of the Klan, as Exalted Cyclops Ryland Randolph of South Carolina put it, was to stop what they saw as an insidious Northern plan "to degrade the white man by the establishment of Negro supremacy" -- though, of course, their actual purpose was to degrade the black man by the establishment of white supremacy. This kind of precisely mirrored projection was present in nearly every aspect of white racial hatred toward blacks, particularly regarding the most common defense for the wave of lynching that was to follow -- namely, that it was a natural community defense against savagely lascivious black men and their wanton desire to rape white women.

Sexual paranoia, rooted in long-held Christian European notions about sexuality that associated it with sinfulness, with the "muck" of nature and the wilderness, was central to the lynching phenomenon. In the years following black emancipation -- during which time a previously tiny class of black criminals became swelled by the ranks of impoverished former slaves -- a vast mythology arose surrounding black men's supposed voracious lust for white women.

"The Negro race," after all, was still closely associated with the jungles of Africa, the "heart of darkness" in the European mind; and sexual voraciousness was assumed in such folk, for though tame they might be, they still were scarcely a step removed from wild men of the jungle themselves; still scarcely human. Yet this was a legend for which in truth there was scant evidence, and one that stands in stark contrast to (and perhaps has its psychological roots in) the reality of white men's longtime sexual domination of black women, particularly during the slavery era.

In any event, the omnipresence of the threat of rape of white women by black men came to be almost universally believed by American whites. Likewise, conventional wisdom held that lynchings were a natural response to this threat: "The mob stands today as the most potent bulwark between the women of the South and such a carnival of crime as would infuriate the world and precipitate the annihilation of the Negro race," warned John Temple Graves, editor of the Atlanta Constitution. Such views were common not merely in the South, but among Northerners as well. The New York Herald, for instance, lectured its readers: "[T]he difference between bad citizens who believe in lynch law, and good citizens who abhor lynch law, is largely in the fact that the good citizens live where their wives and daughters are perfectly safe."

The cries of rape, for many whites in both South and North, raised fears not merely of sexual violence but of racial mixing, known commonly as "miscegenation," which was specifically outlawed in some 30 states. White supremacy was not only commonplace, it was in fact the dominant worldview of Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries; most Caucasians believed they represented Nature's premier creation (having been informed this by a broad range of social scientists of the period, whose views eventually coalesced into the pseudo-science known as eugenics), and that any "dilution" of those strains represented a gross violation of the natural order. Thus it was not surprising that a number of lynching incidents actually resulted from the discovery of consensual relations between a black man and a white woman.

Underlying the stated fear of black rape, moreover, was a broad fear of economic and cultural domination of white Americans by blacks and various other "outsiders," including Jews. These fears were acute in the South, where blacks became a convenient scapegoat for the mesh of poverty that lingered in the decades following the Civil War. Lynching in fact was frequently inspired not by criminality, but by any signs of economic and social advancement by blacks who, in the view of whites, had become too "uppity."

There were, of course, other components of black suppression: segregation in the schools, disenfranchisement of the black vote, and the attendant Jim Crow laws that were common throughout the South. But lynching was the linchpin in the system, so to speak, because it was in effect state-supported terrorism whose stated intent was to suppress blacks and other minorities, in no small part by eliminating non-whites as competitors for economic gain. These combined to give lynching a symbolic value as a manifestation of white supremacy. The lynch mob was not merely condoned but in fact celebrated as an expression of the white community’s will to keep African-Americans in their thrall. As a phrase voiced commonly in the South expressed it, lynching was a highly effective means of "keeping the niggers down."

As Chalmers describes the early Klan violence:
[I]n addition to lynching for rape ... the Klan whipped for sass, insolence or theft. Here and elsewhere, industrious Negroes who improved their farms also received attention from the Klan.

Other suffered because they violated the racial mores. The Klan punished Negroes who associated with poor white women. White prostitutes in South Carolina accused of receiving Negroes were tarred and driven away. A Negro was killed and his daughter was whipped because she had "caused some embarrassment" to a white family by beating the child of one of its members. Another Negro girl was beaten for "breaking the peace" between a wife and her husband.

Many of the poor, ignorant, illiterate South Carolina men, who later confessed in open court, pleaded that they had only joined the Klan to avoid becoming its victims. Their night riding had been crudely conceived and carried out, with none of the dash and the disciplined planning that marked much of the Klan activity elsewhere. Generally speaking, however, the leadership, if not the rank and file, represented some of the best elements of society, with the younger men usually the most venturesome. Acts of violence were usually applauded by the conservative press and justified then, and afterward, by the always allegedly bad reputation of the victims.

Moreover, in addition to the night-riding type of terrorist attacks, mass spectacle lynchings soon appeared. These were ritualistic mob scenes in which prisoners or even men merely suspected of crimes were often torn from the hands of authorities (if not captured beforehand) by large crowds and treated to beatings and torture before being put to death, frequently in the most horrifying fashion possible: people were flayed alive, had their eyes gouged out with corkscrews, and had their bodies mutilated before being doused in oil and burned at the stake. Black men were sometimes forced to eat their own hacked-off genitals. No atrocity was considered too horrible to visit on a black person, and no pain too unimaginable to inflict in the killing. (When whites, by contrast, were lynched, the act almost always was restricted to simple hanging.)

A classic instance of this occurred in the little East Texas town of Center, about sixty miles due north of Jasper, in 1920. The victim was a black teenager named Lige Daniels, who was accused of killing an elderly white woman who lived in Center. When word reached the governor that mob violence was imminent, he wired the captain of the Seventh Cavalry stationed nearby to protect the prisoner. The cavalry, however, never showed. The captain later explained that he had been unable to "find any members of his company in time for mobilization."

So at about noon on August 3, 1920, a mob of about one thousand men stormed the Center jail, knocked down the steel doors, and dragged Daniels outside, where they proceeded to beat him severely. A rope was thrown over a nearby oak tree, and Daniels was then hung.

A photo postcard that was available for many years afterward, mostly in the backwaters of trinket shops, recorded the event. It is a remarkable photo, and not only for the warm glow of the sun peering through the oak tree and bathing Lige Daniels' corpse, hanging from the bough, in an almost angelic light. What makes the portrait unforgettable instead is the crowd gathered below—stern-faced fathers and laborers, all looking quite proud of themselves; and a handful of children. One young boy (he appears to be about ten), dressed in his Sunday shirt and tie, is beaming beatifically. He probably remembered that day till he died.

There were many such postcards. Perhaps the most notorious were those from the lynching of another black teenager, Jessie Washington, by a mob of several thousand residents of Waco, Texas, on May 16, 1916. Washington, who was retarded, had confessed to the murder of an elderly Waco resident. At the moment his conviction (with four minutes' deliberation by a white jury) was announced, the mob surged forward into the courtroom and dragged Washington outside, where he was stripped, beaten, stabbed, and wrapped with a chain, which was draped over a tree limb, just above a pyre of wooden crates. Washington was then jerked twice into the air, and his body lowered onto the pyre, where he was sprinkled with coal oil and set alight.

The lynching of Jessie Washington, May 16, 1916, Waco, Texas
Afterward, mob members proudly strung the charred corpse back up for a brief public display, after which Washington's body was lassoed by a horseman and dragged around the town until the skull bounced loose. Some motorists then tossed his remains into a black bag, tied it to the back bumper of their car, and tooled around the countryside with it in tow. A constable finally retrieved the bag from a nearby town, where it was left hanging.

The lynchings of Daniels and Washington were mere drops in an ocean of bloodshed. Between 1882 and 1942, according to statistics compiled by the Tuskegee Institute, there were 4,713 lynchings in the United States, of which 3,420 involved black victims. Mississippi topped the list, with 520 blacks lynched during that time period, while Georgia was a close second with 480; Texas' 339 ranked third. And most scholars acknowledge that these numbers probably are well short of the actual total, since many lynchings (particularly in the early years of the phenomenon) were often backwoods affairs that went utterly unrecorded. In that era, it was not at all uncommon for a black man to simply disappear; sometimes his body might wash up in one of the local rivers, and sometimes not.

The violence reached a fever pitch in the years 1890-1902, when 1,322 lynchings of blacks (out of 1,785 total lynchings) were recorded at Tuskegee, which translates into an average of over 110 lynchings a year. The trend began to decline afterward, but continued well into the 1930s, leading some historians to refer to the years 1880-1930 as the "lynching period" of American culture.

The lynching of Rubin Stacy
There are many postcards that recorded these lynchings, because the participants were rather proud of their involvement. This is clear from the postcards themselves -- many of which can be seen at the Without Sanctuary site -- as they frequently showed not merely the corpse of the victim but many of the mob members, whose visages ranged from grim to grinning. Sometimes, as in the Lige Daniels case, children were intentionally given front-row views. A lynching postcard from Florida in 1935, of a migrant worker named Rubin Stacy who had allegedly "threatened and frightened a white woman," shows a cluster of young girls gathered round the tree trunk, the oldest of them about 12, with a beatific expression as she gazes on his distorted features and limp body, a few feet away.

Indeed, lynchings seemed to be cause for outright celebration in the community. Residents would dress up to come watch the proceedings, and the crowds of spectators frequently grew into the thousands. Afterwards, memento-seekers would take home parts of the corpse or the rope with which the victim was hung. Sometimes body parts -- knuckles, or genitals, or the like -- would be preserved and put on public display as a warning to would-be black criminals.

That was the purported moral purpose of these demonstrations, at least in the South: Not only to utterly wipe out any black person merely accused of a crimes against whites, but to do it in a fashion intended to warn off future perpetrators. This was reflected in contemporary press accounts, which described the lynchings in almost uniformly laudatory terms, with the victim's guilt unquestioned, and the mob identified only as "determined men." Not surprisingly, local officials (especially local police forces) not only were complicit in many cases, but they acted in concert to keep the mob leaders anonymous; thousands of coroners’ reports from lynchings merely described the victims’ deaths occurring "at the hands of persons unknown." Lynchings were broadly viewed as simply a crude, but understandable and even necessary, expression of community will. This was particularly true in the South, where blacks were viewed as symbolic of the region's continuing economic and cultural oppression by the North. As an 1899 editorial in the Newnan, Georgia, Herald and Advertiser explained it: "It would be as easy to check the rise and fall of the ocean's tide as to stem the wrath of Southern men when the sacredness of our firesides and the virtue of our women are ruthlessly trodden under foot."

Thus the numbers of deaths produced by the lynching phenomenon only hint at their impact, which broadly affected literally millions of more Americans, effectively keeping them in the thrall of terror that their white neighbors might, with the least provocation, murder them horribly.

Of course, the threat of the rape of white women and other pretenses for lynching presented handy pretexts for these horrors. As always, the violence was predicated on a fear of future violence; lynching was excused as a preemptive act.

Yet in reality a black person could be lynched for literally no reason at all -- in some cases, simply for defending himself from physical assault, or for just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Lynching laughed at the notion of blacks advancing through hard work; moderately prosperous blacks who managed to do so were often the first targets of angry lynch mobs intent on dealing with "uppity" blacks.

Lynchings unquestionably had the short-term desired effect of suppressing blacks' civil rights; the majority of African Americans in the South during that era led lives of quiet submission in the hope of escaping that horrific fate, and relatively few aspired beyond their established station in life. Those who did often migrated northward, where lynchings were hardly unknown (some of the most notorious occurred in places like Indiana and Minnesota, and they in fact were recorded in nearly every state in the Union), but were not as endemic. However, the awfulness of the mobs' brutality, often reported and photographed in gruesome detail, ultimately also inspired a reaction that gave birth to the Civil Rights movement and eventually the demise of the racial caste system lynching was intended to enforce.

The first voices raised against lynching were heard in the 1890s, even as the bloodbath was cresting. Civil-rights pioneer Ida B. Wells, a well-educated black woman who had risen to the editorship of a leading black newspaper in Memphis, began questioning the myths underlying the popular rationale for condoning the killings. As she gathered statistics about lynching, she noted, for instance, that even though the threat of black rape was the foremost excuse for the phenomenon, in fewer than one-third of the lynchings was rape even alleged. (Later, more complete statistics particularly bore this out; congressional testimony in 1922 indicated that only 28.4 percent of the blacks lynched between 1889 and 1918 had been accused of raping or attempting to assault a white woman. This remained the case over time as well; the Tuskegee Institute's lynching data for 1882 to 1951 indicate that lynching victims were accused 41 percent of the time of felonious assault, 19.2 percent of rape, 6.1 percent of attempted rape, 4.9 percent of robbery and theft, 1.8 percent of insulting white people, and 27 percent for miscellaneous offenses. Moreover, among the lynching victims between 1882 and 1927 were 76 black women.) Often the accusations of rape were completely spurious.

Indeed, in two-thirds of the cases, Wells found, lynchings were for incredibly petty crimes such as stealing hogs and quarreling with neighbors. A black person could easily face an agonizing death at the hands of a mob merely for trying to vote, or for testifying against a white man or getting into a fight with him, or asking a white woman to marry -- and sometimes for no offense at all.

Wells also attacked the myth of black men's sexual voraciousness. She adroitly observed that during the Civil War, many slave owners willingly left their wives and daughters in the care of their black manservants, who were frequently entrusted with the defense of the home during those years. And if black men were prone to sexual assault, there was little evidence of it before the war as well; contemporary historian Ulrich B. Phillips, for instance, examined Virginia's court and criminal records from 1783 to 1863, and found only 105 blacks convicted of sexual assault over the eighty-year span.

Wells (who became Ida Wells-Barnett in 1895 after her marriage to Chicago attorney Ferdinand Barnett) ultimately published her findings in a widely distributed 1901 book titled Lynching and the Excuse. She was soon joined in her crusade by other leading African Americans, including W. E. B. DuBois, Frederick Douglass and William Monroe Trotter. It was their view that the systematic oppression of black Americans needed to be confronted directly, and lynching was the system's most egregious component. In 1905, DuBois, Wells-Barnett, and other black leaders organized the Niagara Movement to demand full citizenship rights for African Americans: freedom of speech, an "unfettered and unsubsidized" press, full voting rights, full civil liberties, and recognition of the principle of human brotherhood. The Niagara Movement's manifesto, written mostly by DuBois, did not address lynching directly, but observed: "The Negro race in America -- stolen, ravished, and degraded, struggling up through difficulties and oppression -- needs sympathy and receives criticism, needs help and is given hindrance, needs protection and is given mob-violence, needs justice and is given charity, needs leadership and is given cowardice and apology, needs bread and is given a stone. This nation will never stand justified before God until these things are changed."

However, the leading black figure of the time in the minds of most Americans was Booker T. Washington of Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, acclaimed for its pioneering work in education young black people. His famed 1895 speech (which came to be known as the "Atlanta Compromise") before a mostly white audience at the Atlanta Exposition had counseled black Americans to give up agitation for political rights and social equality in exchange for the opportunity to work and prove themselves, suggesting that racial segregation was an acceptable and perhaps even desirable state. Washington urged blacks to steer away from dreams of returning to Africa: "Cast down your bucket where you are," he counseled. Instead, he admonished them to focus their efforts on their own resourcefulness and hard work, and to emphasize the honor of common labor. For these sentiments, Washington was widely praised by white politicians across the American spectrum, but other black leaders were unconvinced. The Niagara Movement, with its emphasis on open agitation for blacks' civil rights, represented a direct challenge to Washington's compromise.

Though this nascent organization mostly foundered, its underlying principles came fully to life in 1909, when DuBois, Wells-Barnett, and other Niagara leaders joined forces with white civil-rights reformers to create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP's principles were broad-ranging, but within the first year of its existence it became clear that the primary challenge it faced was in organizing a national campaign to combat the practice of lynching -- and for the ensuing three decades, leading the fight against lynching and mob violence was the organization's major preoccupation.

It was clear to the NAACP's leadership that Booker T. Washington's "compromise" was not only counterproductive, but his prescription for black Americans -- steady forward progress by embracing the all-American values of hard work, integrity and individual enterprise -- was in fact a recipe almost certain to invite vicious repercussions in the form of a lynch mob. As the NAACP began systematically compiling information about lynchings, it became clear that blacks who succeeded economically and socially (particularly those who became landowners) were the frequent targets of lynching, and any indications of civic advancement by blacks often met violent opposition. Among the many victims of lynchings were black postal clerks, grocery owners, farmers, and white-collar professionals, such as doctors. Black veterans returning from action in World War I were sometimes lynched merely for wearing their uniforms in public.

Likewise, it was becoming increasingly clear, even to the public, that the rationales proffered for decades to justify the lynch mobs' actions -- particularly the threat of black rape -- were not merely flimsy but entirely hollow, a cover for the real motivation for lynching, which was to terrorize and subjugate the black community. A 1918 lynching case drove this point home in horrific fashion.

It began on May 16 when a white landowner in rural Valdosta, Georgia, was shot to death at his home. His wife accused a black man named Sidney Johnson, and a lynch mob soon formed with the purpose of carrying out summary justice for the farmer's murder. However, when it was unable to locate Johnson, the mob turned its wrath on five black men who'd had the misfortune of being in the vicinity at the time and lynched them instead. Among the five was Haynes Turner, a former employee of the murdered farmer.

Turner's wife, Mary, was eight months pregnant, and when she heard of the murder, she vowed publicly to find the men responsible, swear out warrants against them, and ensure they were punished in the courts. Not surprisingly, her vow to seek justice doomed her; as an Associated Press report of the affair put it, Mary Turner had made "unwise remarks" about the execution of her husband, "and the people, in their indignant mood, took exceptions to her remarks, as well as her attitude." The local sheriff placed her under arrest, reportedly for her protection, but then surrendered her to a mob of several hundred white men and women -- as well as a number of children -- determined to "teach her a lesson."

At a place outside town called Folsom's Bridge, they stripped her, tied her ankles together, and hung her upside down from a tree. Dousing her with gasoline, they slowly roasted her to death. While she was still alive, a man using a knife ordinarily reserved for splitting hogs walked up and cut open the woman's abdomen. "Out tumbled the prematurely born child," wrote a news reporter covering the event. "Two feeble cries it gave -- and received for the answer the heel of a stalwart man, as life was ground out of the tiny form." Hundreds of bullets were then fired into Mary Turner's body. Sated, the mob left her body by the roadside. She and her child were buried in a shallow grave near the bridge.

Mary Turner's murder -- which made clear irrevocably that lynching more often than not had nothing to do with black rape -- made national headlines. On its heels came the "Red Summer" of 1919; there were seventy-six blacks lynched that year, but even more horrifying were the "race riots" that broke out in twenty-six cities, including Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Omaha, Nebraska; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Charleston, North Carolina; and Knoxville, Tennessee. These insurrections in fact were massive assaults by whites upon local black populations, often sparked by an imagined offense. In Tulsa, where a prosperous black population was literally bombed out of existence over two days of complete lawlessness, the rioting was set off by a black youth's alleged assault on a local white girl that later turned out to be harmless consensual contact. Nonetheless, a Tulsa newspaper had publicly called for the young man's lynching, and when a group of local blacks attempted to ward off a lynch mob, the fighting broke out. By the time the violence had subsided, as many as three hundred black people were believed killed, many of them buried in a mass grave, and thirty-five city blocks lay charred.

Such horrors, and many others of similar brutality, lent real credence to the NAACP's anti-lynching campaign. Its black-white coalition made steady gains in attaining widespread respect for its cause, both with public officials and the public at large, in the decade after its founding. A 1915 nationwide boycott of D. W. Griffith's film The Birth of a Nation (an overtly racist paean to the Ku Klux Klan and the virtues of the lynch mob), was reasonably successful and helped attract a broad range of supporters. Moreover, the fledgling organization worked tirelessly to lobby local and state officials about the pernicious nature of lynching and to act to correct the injustices.

Over the succeeding years, the NAACP's anti-lynching campaign gathered momentum, particularly during the fight in Congress over the Dyer Bill, the anti-lynching law passed by the House in 1922 but killed by Southern Democrats in the Senate. There were subsequent attempts to pass anti-lynching legislation. The Dyer Bill was resurrected in 1926, but again did not survive the Senate. In 1934, a pair of Democratic senators -- Colorado's Edward Costigan and New York's Robert Wagner -- offered a measure that would have punished law-enforcement officials who by neglect allowed their charges to be taken by a mob. Again the legislation had the NAACP's full-fledged backing, and again the public support was overwhelmingly in its favor (indeed, one poll found even that 65 percent of Southerners supported a federal law outlawing lynching). Ultimately, however, it met the same fate as the Dyer Bill; it passed handily in the House, only to succumb to a fatal filibuster by Southerners in the Senate. Two later efforts in the 1940s to pass anti-lynching legislation met similar fates.

These failures, however, were anything but. What no one expected was that even though the effort to enact federal anti-lynching laws did not succeed, the broad national debate it had inspired achieved nearly spectacular results in undermining the lynching phenomenon. By the 1930s lynching was no longer celebrated in the public view, but widely condemned as barbarous and unjust by nearly every responsible segment of society. Even in the South, the views of such Caucasian organizations as the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching had come to hold sway.

Over the course of the succeeding decade, from 1922 to 1932, lynching deaths -- which had somewhat steadily declined in frequency after 1904 anyway -- dropped dramatically, from fifty-nine black lynchings in 1922 to only six in 1932. The trend continued during the 1930s; only ninety-three black lynchings were recorded during the entire decade.

The nature of lynchings changed dramatically during this period -- driven, almost certainly, by the stigma that had become attached to mob justice, and the clear withdrawal of public sanction for such murders. The mass spectacle lynchings, which had seemingly reached their apex in the bloody "Red Summer" of 1919, virtually disappeared over the course of the 1920s. By the 1930s, lynchings had largely reverted back to the form in which they first manifested themselves during the early Reconstruction period: furtive affairs involving midnight riders, arsonists and shooters, usually involving only a handful of perpetrators. By 1952, when there were no black lynchings recorded at Tuskegee (though it must be noted that, even then, this did not necessarily none had occurred), the era of the lynch mob seemed to have become a thing of the past.

This watershed change in the American cultural landscape occurred with virtually no official or legal support from Washington, D.C. Congress, of course, never enacted an anti-lynching law. And the Supreme Court, for most of the lynching era, had declined to involve itself in lynching cases, preferring to leave them to the jurisdiction of state courts. A handful of decisions, however, gradually turned the tide in the courts, and simultaneously left a permanent impression on the larger body of criminal law: Moore v. Dempsey in 1923, which overruled the death sentences of six black men convicted (in a lynch-mob atmosphere) of insurrection following a rural Arkansas "race riot," for the first time stipulated that in light of the requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment, any denial of due process was the concern of the federal government; Powell v. Alabama in 1932, which overturned the verdict in the infamous case of the "Scottsboro Boys," nine itinerant black workers who were convicted on flimsy evidence of raping two white women, and which further stipulated that the right to an attorney was an indispensable part of due process; Norris v. Alabama in 1935, which overturned the third conviction delivered against the Scottsboro boys, on grounds that the exclusion of blacks from the jury violated the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; and finally Brown v. Mississippi in 1936, which found that a Southern sheriff’s extraction of a murder confession from a black suspect by torturing him was likewise a violation of a defendant’s constitutional rights. However, most of these rulings came well after the lynching era had begun its decline, and only Moore v. Dempsey -- delivered at a crucial juncture in the national debate -- could be said to have had any appreciable role in the sea change of public attitudes about mob justice.

Where the legal system failed, though, it is clear in retrospect that the moral suasion underlying the campaign to combat lynching succeeded. While the NAACP's campaign to pass a federal anti-lynching law fell short, its broader campaign to debunk the myths that had been used to defend lynching, and to permanently stigmatize the practice as inimical to basic American values of justice and fair play, were remarkably effective. It could be argued that this tends to support the position of Caucasian anti-lynching organizations like the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, which had opposed federal anti-lynching laws as an unnecessary intrusion on a natural process of incremental change in cultural attitudes wrought by moral persuasion and not the law. But the historical record is also clear that when anti-lynching statutes were properly enforced -- as they were, for example, in Illinois after 1911 -- the laws were remarkably effective tools for changing social mores regarding lynching.

Although lynchings declined, they did not disappear altogether, by any means. Certainly, the deep racial animus that had always inspired them was still alive and well, particularly in the South. They continued to occur periodically, but instead of being treated as commonplace, they became the subject of intensive international news coverage. The 1955 lynching of a Chicago teenager named Emmett Till, on vacation in Mississippi, for being "fresh" with a white woman, became a national cause célèbre, playing a prominent role in the claims of civil-rights advocates that justice for black people did not exist in the South.

For those Southerners still dedicated to the tenets of white supremacy, and who permanently opposed the substantial gains made during the 1950s and '60s for African Americans' civil rights -- in particular the desegregation of schools and other facilities that began with the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v Board of Education ruling in 1950 -- lynching continued to hold its longtime value as a tool for terrorizing the black community and reaffirming the dominance of white supremacy. But without the cover of public sanction, lynching and racial violence became a surreptitious crime that was strategically deployed in a vain attempt to stem the tide of the Civil Rights movement. As such, lynchers frequently targeted the persons they saw as the source of the agitation. The 1964 slayings of three civil-rights workers in Mississippi, which became a landmark in rising national attitudes supporting the movement, was in most respects a classic lynching. But now the lynchers also turned to other kinds of violence: burning and bombing African American churches, attacking civil-rights marchers, and assassinating the leaders in the movement.

All these events, of course, were largely playing out in the South, which had its own special history as the place where the Klan and lynching had largely originated. Yet that focus obscured a broader reality: Just as the Klan, by the 1920s, had become a genuinely national phenomenon (with national headquarters located in Indiana) so too was the lynching of black Americans widely practiced throughout America. In fact, a quick look at the Tuskegee Institute's state-by-state numbers for the so-called "Lynching Era" (1882-1968) reveals that they in fact occurred in nearly every state in the Union, particularly in the Midwest -- though not as prolifically as they occurred in the South. Likewise, a survey of "race riots" in the same period reveals they occurred in a number of places well outside the South.

The raw numbers of lynched blacks outside the South, however, were smaller for a simple reason: their purpose was different. Lynchings in the Midwest, Northeast, and the West occurred for an explicitly, and broadly, eliminationist purpose. Unlike their Southern brethren, whites elsewhere simply chose not even to let blacks live among them, and so they violently drove them out of their communities en masse and forbade them to return thereafter.

Thus the fight over Brown v. Board of Education and school desegregation took place largely in the South for a very simple reason: school districts outside the South largely did not have to desegregate because blacks had not been permitted to live within their borders for generations. They had just been driven out.

In the South, whites chose to deal with blacks by oppressing them; in much of the rest of the country, white communities simply eliminated their presence altogether. And by making the South the nation's racial scapegoat, it allowed those communities to smugly pretend that since they had no such strife to face, they were not part of the problem.

As a result, the unsettled legacy of racism in the South continues to be a wound in the national psyche that refuses to heal -- and the hidden legacy of eliminationist racism in the rest of the country continues to fester like a long-silent cancer.

[Note: This post is a republication of a piece originally published Jan. 10, 2007.]

Confederate Heritage Month:

Day 1: Strange Fruit

It Was About Slavery

That Peculiar Institution

How Poor Whites Got Suckered

 The First American War Criminals

'The River Was Dyed'  

War By Other Means

Carpetbaggers, Scalawags, and the Liars Who Named Them

Crying 'Bloody Shirt' 

Hamburg and Reconstruction's End

Red Shirts and Whitewashes

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Confederate Heritage Month: Red Shirts and Whitewashes

[That's right, it's April, which means that it's Confederate Heritage Month. We continue our coverage. Previous installments at the bottom.]

The 94 white men who were indicted by the coroner's jury in the Hamburg Massacre were never prosecuted, and not merely because those indicted included some of the most prominent figures in South Carolina politics. It was also because the indictment occurred in the court of an African American Judge named Prince Rivers.

As always, the Confederates were determined to manifest the judgment of Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney in Dred Scot 20 years previously that black people "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

Ben Tillman, one of the leaders of the Hamburg Massacre, saw to that. Stephen Budiansky, in The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox, describes what happened after the indictments were issued:

Ben Tillman went into Aiken and got the good ladies of the town to run up a set of homespun shirts for the men, and also bought some Venetian red and turpentine, and he brought them back and a high time was had manufacturing their very own "bloody shirts" that, the men said, they for once would wave at the Yankees. And when the day came they donned their red shirts and wore them outside their pants with their pistol belts buckled over them ...
The indicted men and their supporters made a long parade into Aiken, where the county courthouse was, to mock the proceeding, replete with banners and large paper masks of "negroes." It was a rowdy affair, and the proceedings inside the courthouse -- where the indicted men all brought their pistols with them -- were a bolloxed affair that ended with the judge issuing bonds, and the clerk permitting the men to stand for each other as bond.
"In truth the whole performance was a laughable travesty on law," Ben Tillman said, "for if they had attempted to put us in jail I am sure few or none of us would have acquiesced; and we would have probably killed every obnoxious radical in the court room."
They all walked out that day in their red shirts and never came back. But the red shirts became a fixture -- the Klan symbol without the mask or the robe. And it spread throughout the South.
The red shirt in South Carolina appeared in Charleston on August 25, 1876, during a Democratic torchlight parade. It was to mock the waving of the bloody shirt speech by Senator Oliver Morton in the Senate that was meant to bolster support for the Republicans' Reconstruction policies in South Carolina. The red shirt symbolism quickly spread. The accused in the Hamburg Massacre wore red shirts as they marched on September 5 to their arraignment in Aiken, South Carolina. Martin Gary, the organizer of the Democratic campaign in 1876, mandated that his supporters were to wear red shirts at all party rallies and functions.

Wearing a red shirt became a source of pride and resistance to Republican rule for white Democrats in South Carolina. Women sewed red flannel shirts and made other garments of red. It also became fashionable for women to wear red ribbons in their hair or about their waists. For young men, a red shirt was viewed as compensation for their inability to have contributed to the Southern cause because of their age.
Nor did the terror end after that parade in South Carolina, according to Budiansky:
Ben Tillman made sure to be on hand the day that fall when the Sweetwater Sabre Club got ahold of state senator Simon Coker, a colored man they did not much care for, and marched him out to a field and made him kneel and shot him dead, and then one of the boys had put his pistol right up to the dead man's head and shot him once more, remarking as he did that he remembered what a mistake they had made with Pompey Curry, and, "Captain, I did not want any more witnesses coming to life again."
The Red Shirts became ominpresent in the state, per Wikipedia:
State Democrats organized parades and rallies in every county of South Carolina. Many of the participants were armed and mounted; all wore red. Mounted men gave an impression of greater numbers. When Wade Hampton and other Democrats spoke, the Red Shirts would respond enthusiastically, shouting the campaign slogan, "Hurrah for Hampton." This created a massive spectacle that united and motivated those present.

Red Shirts sought to intimidate both white and black watchers into voting for the Democrats or even not at all. The Red Shirts and similar groups were especially active in those few states with an African-American majority. They broke up Republican meetings, disrupted their organizing, and intimidated black voters at the polls. Many freedmen stopped voting from fear, and others voted for Democrats under pressure. The Red Shirts did not hesitate to use violence, nor did the other private militia groups. In the Piedmont counties of Aiken, Edgefield, and Barnwell, freedmen who voted were driven from their homes and whipped, while some of their leaders were murdered. During the 1876 presidential election, Democrats in Edgefield and Laurens counties voted "early and often", while freedmen were barred from the polls.
Armed and mounted Red Shirts accompanied Hampton on his tour of the state. They attended Republican meetings and would demand equal time, but they usually only stood in silence. At times, Red Shirts would hold a barbecue nearby to lure Republicans and try to convince them to vote for the Democratic ticket.

Hampton positioned himself as a statesman, promising support for education and offering protection from violence that Governor Daniel Henry Chamberlain did not seem able to provide. Few freedmen voted for Hampton, and most remained loyal to the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln. The 1876 campaign was the "most tumultuous in South Carolina's history." "An anti-Reconstruction historian later estimated that 150 Negroes were murdered in South Carolina during the campaign."

After the election on November 7, a protracted dispute between Chamberlain and Hampton ensued as both claimed victory. Because of the massive election fraud, Edmund William McGregor Mackey, a Republican member of the South Carolina House of Representatives, called upon the "Hunkidori Club" from Charleston to eject Democratic members from Edgefield and Laurens counties from the House. Word spread through the state. By December 3, approximately 5,000 Red Shirts assembled at the State House to defend the Democrats. Hampton appealed for calm and the Red Shirts dispersed.
Within the year, Reconstruction itself was dead, killed finally by the election of 1876, which ended with a disputed result between Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican nominee, and Samuel J. Tilden, the Democratic nominee:
An informal deal was struck to resolve the dispute: the Compromise of 1877, which awarded all 20 electoral votes to Hayes. In return for the Democrats' acquiescence in Hayes's election, the Republicans agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South, ending Reconstruction. The Compromise effectively ceded power in the Southern states to the Democratic Redeemers, who went on to pursue their agenda of returning the South to a political economy resembling that of its pre-war condition, including the disenfranchisement of black voters.
Hayes ordered the removal of the Union Army from South Carolina on April 3, 1877, completing the white takeover of the state's political apparatus. Wikipedia notes that in "the gubernatorial election of 1878, the Red Shirts made a nominal appearance as Hampton was re-elected without opposition."

And the men who made it all happen profited handsomely. The murderers of Hamburg eventually became some of the most prosperous people in South Carolina.

Matthew C. Butler
One of the first people to profit from the events in Hamburg was General Matthew C. Butler, one of the instigators and leaders of the event and the man who demanded the black militiamen's guns. Shortly after the Democratic faction that came to power in South Carolina on the backs of the Red Shirts in 1876, who should be named by the legislature the state's newest U.S. Senator but Butler himself.

Budiansky explains why no one was ever prosecuted for these crimes, beyond the red-shirted charade of their initial hearing.
Through the good offices of the editor of the Charleston News and Courier, and with the urging and enthusiastic support of United States senator Matthew C. Butler, the federal government in 1879 had agreed to drop the civil rights cases it had brought against the Hamburg murderers and Simon Coker's murderers and all the other white rifle club members who were never prosecuted by the state for the crimes committed in the bloody fall of 1876 that had brought them to office. The price the federal government asked in return was modest enough; namely, that the state of South Carolina would in return drop all the corruption cases it had brought in the meanwhile against former Republican officeholders of the state.
Butler was displaced in 1894 by none other than his former comrade-in-arms, Benjamin Tillman -- who wound up having a far more illustrious political career. Indeed, if anyone benefited from his associations with the Hamburg massacre over the years, it was Tillman.

From a New York Times review of Tillman's biography:
Tillman's role in the Hamburg Riot established him as a leader of men in that time and that place. His involvement, about which he boasted constantly in future years, was the cornerstone upon which he would build a remarkable political career, first as governor of South Carolina and then, for 24 years, as a United States senator.

Ben Tillman in 1880
How could these execution-style murders of 1876 serve as the springboard for such extraordinary political advancement -- and a legacy of racism that would keep Tillman's name alive as Pitchfork Ben well into the 20th century? The explanation lies, Kantrowitz believes, in the determination of white men in the post-Civil War South to reclaim what they had lost through emancipation and the experience of Reconstruction: their sense of independent, unfettered manhood. ''Tillman sought to transform the slogan 'white supremacy' into a description of social reality, reconstructing white male authority in every sphere from the individual household to national politics,'' Kantrowitz, who teaches American history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, writes. Tillman's constituents responded to his leadership because they too believed that the end of slavery and the enfranchising of blacks had set loose a threat to white society that had to be checked by whatever means necessary. It took a man like Tillman -- an ideologue, an organizer and a terrorist'' -- to give voice to their fears and to translate their determination into physical and political action.

Tillman proved to be a master at pillorying his well-bred political opponents -- white Negroes,'' he called them, or effete urban ''dudes'' produced by aristocratic institutions of higher learning like the Citadel or the University of South Carolina. When it came to reforms that might actually help to relieve the farmer's economic plight, however, Tillman offered precious little: an agricultural college for white men (Clemson), a new school for white women (Winthrop College) and a state-run dispensary system to regulate liquor sales. Almost everything else he proposed had a single goal: the suppression of the state's black population to a position of permanent inferiority.

In 1892, a group of Tillman's supporters in Abbeville, S.C., prepared a banner anointing the governor the ''Champion of White Men's Rule and Woman's Virtue.'' Earlier that year, Tillman had coupled a statement opposing lynching with a declaration that he would ''willingly lead a mob in lynching a Negro who had committed an assault upon a white woman.'' His ''lynching pledge,'' as this promise became known, was never personally carried out, but it reveals a great deal about Tillman's rhetorical and political strategy. The black man, in Tillman's words, ''must remain subordinate or be exterminated.'' An epidemic of mob killings broke out in South Carolina in the 1890's, and in the upcountry counties of Abbeville, Edgefield, Laurens and Newberry, lynchings outnumbered legal executions during that decade.
When Tillman went to Washington, his message went with him. Now known as Pitchfork Ben -- in 1892 he had threatened to stick a pitchfork in that ''bag of beef'' Grover Cleveland -- Tillman became the ''resident wild man'' of the Senate. His record was a model of negative consistency. He opposed woman suffrage (the vote would ''rub the bloom off of the peach,'' he said). He opposed American overseas expansion (building an empire comprising nonwhite peoples he looked upon as a form of insanity). And he opposed any exercise of federal authority that would allow the national government to intrude in a state's ''domestic affairs.'' This ensured his opposition to any measure that might actually provide some economic relief for the farmers back home.
Budiansky lets Tillman himself explain his worldview:
Ben Tillman in the Senate
He was elected governor and then United States Senator, and for forty years he fought off attacks by the Bourbons and the real Populists alike by reviving the horrors of "negro misrule" that he said the state had endured under Reconstruction. That was his ticket to power, and for forty years of political life he offered what he called a "solid front to all comers on the bond of white supremacy." He stood on the floor of the United States Senate and jabbed his finger and said "we had to shoot negroes" and recounted again and again how the black man had "tasted blood," had been infected by unscrupulous Northern carpetbaggers with the "virus of equality" back in those dark days, and that they only way to make sure that it never happened again was for whites to remain politically united behind men like him who weren't afraid to tell the truth about how they had to shoot niggers back then.
"The poor African became a fiend, a wild beast, seeking whom he may devour, filling our penitentiaries and our jails, lurking around to see if some helpless white woman can be murdered or brutalized," Pitchfork Ben said on the floor of the United States Senate, and he always reprinted his best such efforts in pamphlets that he sent to everyone. "We realize what it means to let ever so little a trickle of race equality to break through the dam."

In 1895 South Carolina called a convention to rewrite the state constitution to disenfranchise the last remaining colored voters who hadn't already been cheated or beaten out of their ballots, and Pitchfork Ben came and again retold the story of the "infamy" of those dark days, and how at any moment that sleeping viper might be "warmed into life again and sting us whenever some more white rascals, native or foreign, come here and mobilize the ignorant blacks."

The "hell hounds" who had masterminded it all the last time, he explained, had hated the South and were seeking revenge. They had concocted the most perfect scheme for "degrading us to the lowest level possible" -- giving the ballot to our own ex-slaves. "The most fertile imagination, if it had been given a thousand years to concoct a scheme of revenge, could not have surpassed it."
And he continued: "How did we recover our liberty? By fraud and violence. We tried to overcome the thirty thousand majority by honest methods, which was a mathematical impossibility. After we had borne these indignities for eight years life became worthless under such conditions. Under the leadership and inspiration of Mart[in] Gary ... we won the fight. In 1878 we had to resort to more fraud and violence, and so again in 1880. Then the Registration Law and the eight-box system was evolved from the superior intelligence of the white man to check and control this surging, muddy stream of ignorance.

"And this must be our justification, our vindication, and our excuse to the world that we are met in Convention openly, boldly, without any pretense of secrecy, to announce that it is our purpose, as far as we may, without coming into conflict with the United States Constitution, to put such safeguards around this ballot in future, to so restrict the suffrage and circumscribe it, that this infamy can never come about again." 
Confederate Heritage Month:

Day 1: Strange Fruit

It Was About Slavery

That Peculiar Institution

How Poor Whites Got Suckered

 The First American War Criminals

'The River Was Dyed'  

War By Other Means

Carpetbaggers, Scalawags, and the Liars Who Named Them

Crying 'Bloody Shirt' 

Massacre at Colfax

Hamburg and Reconstruction's End

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Confederate Heritage Month: Hamburg and Reconstruction's End

[That's right, it's April, which means that it's Confederate Heritage Month. We continue our coverage. Previous installments at the bottom.]
"We intend to beat the negro in the battle of life, and defeat means one thing: EXTERMINATION."

-- editorial on the 'Vicksburg riots,' Birmingham News, 1875
By 1874, the defeated Confederates had a strategy for retaking political control of the South. They called it "the Mississippi Plan":
part of the white insurgency during the Reconstruction era in the Southern United States. It was devised by the Democratic Party in that state to overthrow the Republican Party in Mississippi by means of organized threats of violence and suppression or purchase of the black vote. Democrats wanted to regain political control of the legislature and governor's office. Their success led to similar plans being adopted by white Democrats in South Carolina and other majority-black states.
The name came from a series of violent skirmishes that broke out in Vicksburg, Miss., that resulted in the deaths of several hundred freed black citizens:
In 1874 whites in the city of Vicksburg were determined to suppress black voting in that year's election. White armed patrols prevented blacks from voting and succeeded in defeating all Republican city officials in the August election. By December the emboldened party forced the black sheriff, Crosby, to flee to the state capital. Blacks who rallied to the city to aid the sheriff also had to flee in the face of superior white forces, as armed whites flooded the city. Over the next few days, armed white gangs may have murdered up to 300 blacks in the city and its vicinity, in what became known as the Vicksburg riots.
The plan quickly spread throughout the South, particularly in South Carolina, where two years later another massacre, similar to the Colfax Massacre in scale and outrageousness, occurred in the now-nonexistent town of Hamburg, just across the Savannah River from Savannah, Georgia. It began with an intentional provocation, as these things always seemed to:
On July 4, 1876, Independence Day, two white planters drove in a carriage down Hamburg's wide Market Street, where they encountered the local company of the National Guard for South Carolina, which was drilling (or parading) under command of Captain D. L. "Doc" Adams. The men in the Hamburg company were mostly freedmen. According to a late 19th-century version of the events, the militia company purposely deployed to block the street and deny passage to the white men.(Allen 1888, 314) In another, the white men in the carriage intentionally drove up against the head of the column. In any case, after an exchange of words, the white planters passed through the ranks of the black parade (Haworth 1906, 131 and Allen 1888, 314).

The planters went to the local court where, at a hearing on July 6, they charged the militia with obstruction of a public road before Trial Justice Prince Rivers. The case was continued until the afternoon of July 8. More than 100 whites from Edgefield and Aiken counties arrived at court, armed with "shotguns, revolvers, hoes, axes and pitchforks." At that time Matthew Calbraith Butler, an attorney from Edgefield, appeared as the planters' counsel. (Of the many men surnamed Butler involved in this incident, he was referred to as 'General' Butler based on his service in the Confederate Army.) Despite the lack of any official standing, M. C. Butler demanded that the Hamburg company disband and turn their guns over to him personally (Allen 1888, 314-315).

As armed white men gathered in the vicinity, the militia company refused to disarm. They took refuge in the armory in the Sibley building near the Charlotte, Columbia and Augusta Railroad bridge. The white militia surrounded the building. Perhaps 25 black militia and 15 other freedmen were in the building when firing began. In the exchange of gunfire, McKie Meriwether, a local white farmer, was killed.
Location map for Hamburg in 1872
Outnumbered, running out of ammunition, and learning the whites had brought a small cannon to the city from Augusta, the militiamen in the armory slipped away into the night. James Cook, Hamburg's Town Marshal, was shot and killed in the street (Budiansky 2008 233-234).

The white militia rounded up around two dozen freedmen, some from the militia, and about 2 a.m. took them to a spot near the South Carolina Railroad and bridge. There the whites formed what was later called the "Dead Ring", and debated the fate of the black men. The whites picked out four men and, going around the ring, murdered them one at a time: Allan Attaway, David Phillips, Hampton Stephens, and Albert Myniart. Several other freedmen were wounded either in escape or in a general fusillade as the ring broke up. According to the state attorney general's report, freedman Moses Parks was also killed here (Allen 1888 316); the US Senate investigation said he had been killed earlier near Cook (Budiansky 2008 233-234). The white militia looted the town and damaged homes and businesses (Budiansky 2008 226-237, Allen 1888 314-317).
Stephen Budiansky, in The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomatox, describes what happened next:
 By about eleven o'clock the rifle club men had rounded up twenty-seven of the colored militiamen and marched them a ways down Market Street just between the last house and the South Carolina Rail Road and surrounded them with a ring of men with guns, pistols, axes, hatchets, and grubbing hoes to keep them there. They were there for some time.

Ben Tillman and his squad had been in on the shooting of [Town Marshal Jim] Cook on the street north of the Sibley Building, and two of McKie Meriweather's cousins were in his company, and they had come up and said it was a damned poor piece of work to have lost one of their best men and have only two dead Negroes to show for it. So they made their way up to the ring where the prisoners were being held. It was now two in the morning. Henry Getzen lived close enough to Hamburg to know some of the colored men, and he was accordingly given the task of designating the "meanest characters" among them.

Allan Attaway was a county commissioner and a lieutenant of the militia, and when he saw Getzen approach the ring, he called out to him. "Mr. Getzen, do what you can for me."

"God damn you, I will do what I can for you directly. I know you."

And a dozen or so of the rifle club men grabbed Attaway and marched him across the railroad tracks down to the field. "Turn around you yellow son of a bitch," a voice yelled, and then there was the sound of gunshots, and then the white men returned, without Attaway.

Then Getzen called out another man, David Phillips, and then Pompey Curry, and then Albert Myniart, and then Hampton Stephens, and each one was marched off across the railroad, and each time the sound of shooting came back across the night.

Pompey Curry managed to break away and run when his name was called and he was hit in the leg below the know and fell to the ground and pleayed dead and managed to crawl away and hide in the bushes when the men had gone back for their next prisoner. (When Curry survived to give depositions against the white men, they were furious that they had been so careless.)

And when they finished with the men Getzen had picked out, the rifle club men started arguing about what to do with the rest. One voice suggested they take them to the jail in Augusta, and another said turn them loose, and one of the Georgia men who had come over to help answered, "By God, if you do that you need never call in the assistance of Georgia any more." But one of the men who had led most of the executions, John Swearingen, Ben Tillman's brother-in-law, said they had lynched enough of them, and he said, "All you niggers hold up your right hands and swear you will never raise arms against the white man ever again and never give any evidence against them in court." And then he told them to go, and then the rifle club men fired some volleys after them, as they were fifty yards down the road, inflicting a few parting injuries.
There was a coroner's jury held afterward headed up by the African American Judge Prince, and it indicted 94 white men in the attack, including Matthew C. Butler, Ben R. Tillman, A. P. Butler, and others of the most prominent men in Aiken and Edgefield Counties, South Carolina, and Richmond County, Georgia. As we will see, not only were they never prosecuted, but some of these men became some of the most prominent national politicians from South Carolina in history.

The official report by the Attorney General of South Carolina ends with this statement:
... the facts show the demand on the militia to give up their arms was made by persons without lawful authority to enforce such demand or to receive the arms had they been surrendered; that the attack on the militia to compel a compliance with this demand was without lawful excuse or justification; and that after there had been some twenty or twenty-five prisoners captured and completely in the power of their captors, five of them were deliberately shot to death and three more severely wounded. It further appears that not content with thus satisfying their vengeance, many of the crowd added to their guilt the crime of robbery of defenceless people, and were only prevented from arson by the efforts of their own leaders. (Allen 1888, 317)
What's also undeniable is that the Hamburg Massacre was the final capstone of the violent campaign to overturn Reconstruction. Within a year the valiant attempt to enforce the verdict of the war would end.

Confederate Heritage Month:

Day 1: Strange Fruit

It Was About Slavery

That Peculiar Institution

How Poor Whites Got Suckered

 The First American War Criminals

'The River Was Dyed'  

War By Other Means

Carpetbaggers, Scalawags, and the Liars Who Named Them

Crying 'Bloody Shirt' 

Massacre at Colfax

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Confederate Heritage Month: Massacre at Colfax

A contemporary magazine illustration of the siege of the Colfax courthouse
[That's right, it's April, which means that it's Confederate Heritage Month. We continue our coverage. Previous installments at the bottom.]

The violence against the newly freed black populace and their white defenders had been slowly ratcheted up by a series of increasingly horrifying acts of individual violence -- school burnings, lynchings, floggings, assassinations -- that began to reach a fever pitch that finally exploded in the spring of 1872.

There can only be one inevitable outcome to that much unrestrained and unrequited hate: an act of near-genocide like the Colfax Massacre.

It grew out of the realization that Democrats in the South, particularly Louisiana, were beginning to seize back political control not through the ballot box but by force -- literally sending in armed militias to take control of local government officers. One of the places where this was particularly acute was in Grant Parish, Louisiana. Wikipedia:
Fearful that the Democrats might try to take over the local parish government, blacks started to create trenches around the courthouse and drilled to keep alert. The Republican officeholders stayed there overnight. They held the town for three weeks.

On March 28, Nash, Cazabat, Hadnot and other white Fusionists called for armed whites to retake the courthouse on April 1. Whites were recruited from nearby Winn and surrounding parishes to join their effort. The Republicans Shaw, Register and Flowers and others began to collect a posse of armed blacks to defend the courthouse.

Black Republicans Lewis Meekins and state militia captain William Ward, a black Union veteran, raided the homes of the opposition leaders: Judge William R. Rutland, Bill Cruikshank and Jim Hadnot. Gunfire erupted between whites and blacks on April 2 and again on April 5, but the shotguns were too inaccurate to do any harm. The two sides arranged for peace negotiations. Peace ended when a white man shot and killed a black man named Jesse McKinney, described as a bystander.
In his excellent reconstruction of the tragedy, The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction, Charles Lane describes how McKinney, who had just returned to his home from the courthouse, was killed:
McKinney was repairing his fence, no more than twenty-four paces from his front door. As he worked, a group of about a dozen white riders suddenly galloped up. Some of them jumped their mounts over the fence. A man in a white shirt and black vest raised a pistol and fired it at McKinney's head. McKinney let out a ghastly scream, like the wail of a slaughtered pig, and sank to the ground. "I got him, he's dead as hell!" his attacker cried. The group whooped and capered around his body. It had all happened in an instant -- right in front of Laurinda McKinney, who was standing on the front porch, with her six-year-old son, Butler. She hugged Butler to her knees and waited for their turn to die. 
Lane explains that though "the whites rode off," the murder "was the end of the peace conference. The whites had drawn first blood." Soon, the number of blacks at the courthouse increased to 500,  including women and children seeking refuge from the violence breaking out all across the countryside.

Wikipedia again:
Another armed conflict on April 6 ended with whites' fleeing from armed blacks. With all the unrest in the community, black women and children joined the men at the courthouse for protection. William Ward, the commanding officer of Company A, 6th Infantry Regiment, Louisiana State Militia, headquartered in Grant Parish, had been elected state representative from the parish on the Republican ticket.

He wrote to Governor Kellogg seeking U.S. troops for reinforcement and gave the letter to William Smith Calhoun for delivery. Calhoun took the steamboat LaBelle down the Red River but was captured by Paul Hooe, Hadnot and Cruikshank. They ordered Calhoun to tell blacks to leave the courthouse.

The black defenders refused to leave although threatened by parties of armed whites commanded by Nash. To recruit men during the rising political tensions, Nash had contributed to lurid rumors that blacks were preparing to kill all the white men and take the white women as their own.

On April 8 the anti-Republican Daily Picayune newspaper of New Orleans distorted events by the following headline: “ THE RIOT IN GRANT PARISH. FEARFUL ATROCITIES BY THE NEGROES. NO RESPECT SHOWN TO THE DEAD. ”

Such news attracted more whites from the region to Grant Parish to join Nash; all were experienced Confederate veterans. They acquired a four-pound cannon that could fire iron slugs. As the Klansman Dave Paul said, "Boys, this is a struggle for white supremacy."
 Cazabat had directed Nash as sheriff to put down what he called a riot. Nash gathered an armed white paramilitary group and veteran officers from Rapides, Winn and Catahoula parishes. He did not move his forces toward the courthouse until noon on Easter Sunday, April 13. Nash led more than 300 armed white men, most on horseback and armed with rifles.

Nash reportedly ordered the defenders of the courthouse to leave. When that failed, Nash gave women and children camped outside the courthouse thirty minutes to clear out. After they left, the shooting began. The fighting continued for several hours with few casualties. When Nash's paramilitary maneuvered the cannon behind the building, some of the defenders panicked and left the courthouse. About 60 defenders ran into nearby woods and jumped into the river. Nash sent men on horseback after the fleeing black Republicans, and his paramilitary group killed most of them on the spot.

Soon Nash's forces directed a black captive to set the courthouse roof on fire. The defenders displayed white flags for surrender: one made from a shirt, the other from a page of a book. The shooting stopped. Nash's group approached and called for those surrendering to throw down their weapons and come outside.

What happened next is in dispute. According to the reports of some whites, James Hadnot was shot and wounded by someone from the courthouse. "In the Negro version, the men in the courthouse were stacking their guns when the white men approached, and Hadnot was shot from behind by an overexcited member of his own force." Hadnot died later, after being taken downstream by a passing steamboat. In the aftermath of Hadnot's shooting, the white paramilitary group reacted with mass killing of the black men. 
Henry Louis Gates, in his review of Lane's book, describes the melee that ensued, leading up to the final bloodletting:
Sensing trouble, the few remaining whites inside the courthouse fled, leaving approximately 150 black men to fight for the Republican cause.
At high noon, literally, the white riders galloped through town, with former sheriff Nash shouting at the women whose husbands had gone up to the courthouse: "You see these damned sons of bitches have run off and left you to take care of yourself. Now you women get out of here, and not a damn one of you will get hurt."
Once at the courthouse, Nash and the other members of the white mob set up their cannon and fired it and their guns. The blacks in and around the courthouse met their volley and tried using their own cannon, but in the heat of battle, it simply exploded. For two hours, the fighting continued without either side claiming the advantage until the whites relocated their cannon to an unguarded levee around the blacks' left flank. One black defender, Adam Kimball, was struck in the abdomen, and "[w]hen he looked down," Lane writes, "he saw his intestines falling out."
Outgunned, the black defenders inside the trenches retreated to the courthouse. Others fled, many of them captured or killed by the whites. The quickest way to smoke the rest of them out, ex-sheriff Nash decided, was to set the two sides' long-fought-over prize on fire, which his men did by hoisting kerosene-soaked cotton wads to the end of a bamboo fishing pole and forcing one of their black prisoners at gunpoint to take it inside. "You're a good old nigger," his former boss, William "Bill" Cruikshank, proclaimed.

Christopher Lemann, in his book Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War, describes the horrifying denoument inside the courthouse:
Inside the building they pried up floorboards and tried, unsuccessfully, to hide beneath them. They were all killed, unarmed, at close range, while begging for mercy....What was happening now was not a hard military fight but a killing frenzy after the battle was over, after the outcome had been clearly settled, and with [the whites'] opponents unarmed.
The aftermath, from Wikipedia:
 As more than 40 times as many blacks died as did whites, historians describe the event as a massacre. The white paramilitary group killed unarmed men trying to hide in the courthouse. They rode down and killed those attempting to flee. They dumped some bodies in the Red River. About 50 blacks survived the afternoon and were taken prisoner. Later that night they were summarily killed by their captors, who had been drinking. Only one black from the group, Levi Nelson, survived. He was shot by Cruikshank but managed to crawl away unnoticed. He later served as one of the Federal government's chief witnesses against those who were indicted for the attacks.[14]

... The officers filed a military report in which they identified by name three whites and 105 blacks who had died, plus noted they had recovered 15-20 unidentified blacks from the river. They also noted the savage nature of many of the killings, suggesting an out-of-control situation.

The exact number of dead was never established.: two U.S. Marshals, who visited the site on April 15 and buried dead, reported 62 fatalities; a military report to Congress in 1875 identified 81 black men by name who had been killed, and also estimated that between 15 and 20 bodies had been thrown into the Red River, and another 18 were secretly buried, for a grand total of "at least 105"; a state historical marker from 1950 noted fatalities as three whites and 150 blacks. 
The historian Eric Foner, a specialist in the Civil War and Reconstruction, wrote about the event:
The bloodiest single instance of racial carnage in the Reconstruction era, the Colfax massacre taught many lessons, including the lengths to which some opponents of Reconstruction would go to regain their accustomed authority. Among blacks in Louisiana, the incident was long remembered as proof that in any large confrontation, they stood at a fatal disadvantage. "The organization against them is too strong. ..." Louisiana black teacher and Reconstruction legislator John G. Lewis later remarked. "They attempted [armed self-defense] in Colfax. The result was that on Easter Sunday of 1873, when the sun went down that night, it went down on the corpses of two hundred and eighty negroes."

The case did not end with the smoldering wreckage of the courthouse. Federal authorities attempted to prosecute the main perpetrators, and the case wound up going all the way to the Supreme Court -- where the cause of the Reconstruction itself was dealt a deadly legal blow. From Wikipedia:

When the federal government appealed the case, it was heard by the US Supreme Court as United States v. Cruikshank (1875). The Supreme Court ruled that the Enforcement Act of 1870 (which was based on the Bill of Rights and 14th Amendment) applied only to actions committed by the state, and that it did not apply to actions committed by individuals or private conspiracies. ... The Federal government could not prosecute cases such as the Colfax killings. The court said plaintiffs who believed their rights were abridged had to seek protection from the state. Louisiana did not prosecute any of the perpetrators of the Colfax massacre; most southern states would not prosecute white men for attacks against freedmen.

The publicity about the Colfax Massacre and subsequent Supreme Court ruling encouraged the growth of white paramilitary organizations. In May 1874, Nash formed the first chapter of the White League from his paramilitary group, and chapters soon were formed in other areas of Louisiana, as well as the southern parts of nearby states. Unlike the former KKK, they operated openly and often curried publicity. One historian described them as "the military arm of the Democratic Party." Other paramilitary groups such as the Red Shirts also arose, especially in South Carolina and Mississippi, which also had black majorities of population.
The Washington Post noted:
As Lane points out, nowhere in Chief Justice Morrison Waite's 5,000-word opinion did he mention the fact that dozens of black men had been murdered in cold blood at Colfax. Cruikshank hammered the final nail into the coffin of federal efforts to protect the basic rights of black citizens in the South. Reconstruction effectively ended a year later, and the Jim Crow era began. 
If you travel to Colfax, Louisiana, today, there isn't much left to remind people of these events, except for this sign, erected by the state in 1950:

"On this site occurred the Colfax Riot, in which three white men and 150 negroes were slain. This event on April 13, 1873, marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South."

That would be one way of putting it.

Another can be found down at the old Colfax cemetery, where the following memorial can be found:

"Erected to the memory of the heroes, Stephen Decatur Parish, James West Hadnot, Sidney Harris, who fell in the Colfax riot fighting for white supremacy. April 13, 1873"

 As Richard Rubin observed in The Atlantic: "It is the frankest monument I have ever seen."

Confederate Heritage Month:

Day 1: Strange Fruit

It Was About Slavery

That Peculiar Institution

How Poor Whites Got Suckered

 The First American War Criminals

'The River Was Dyed'  

War By Other Means

Carpetbaggers, Scalawags, and the Liars Who Named Them

Crying Bloody Shirt