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Q&A: Southern Violence During Reconstruction

Historians describe the violent conditions that prevailed in the American South after the Civil War, as freed slaves and their former masters struggled to develop and control new social, political, and economic relationships.

What caused violence in the South after the war?

Eric Foner: Violence is endemic in the South, from the end of the Civil War onwards. There's sporadic local violence in 1865-65: contract disputes, disputes over etiquette. A black guy doesn't tip his hat to a white and suddenly people are shooting each other. People refuse to get off the sidewalk to let someone else pass. All sorts of local incidents produce amazing outbreaks of violence. The Freedmen's Bureau in Texas has a register of murders with over a thousand in 1865-66 -- and they try to give the reason, you know. "Black man didn't tip his hat so I shot him." Things like that. And this is a sign of the instability of the whole racial system, and the fact that people are claiming new rights and others are resisting that.

Then, with the radical Reconstruction, you get political violence... You get organized groups -- the Ku Klux Klan and others, like the White League in Louisiana, the Knights of the White Camelia... whose purpose is to obstruct and destroy Reconstruction government, to assassinate or intimidate black and white Republican officials, to use violence to prevent people from voting. And this is quite widespread throughout the South. It's not a central organization. It's local groups all over the place. But they have the common goal of restoring white supremacy -- politically speaking, but also in many other areas. Blacks who get into contract disputes with their employers are often victims of the Klan. Schoolteachers are victims of the Klan, people like that. In other words, they're trying to use violence to restore a system of white supremacy that's been disrupted by the coming of Reconstruction.

Eric Foner

What kinds of violent things were happening ?

David Blight: [The Ku Klux Klan] would take people out of their houses or their cabins in the dark of the night, strip them out in a road, make them run down the road, make them sometimes lie on a rock where they would be whipped, where men would line up to whip them. Sometimes they would burn parts of their bodies.

These were sadistic tortures, the intention of which was -- we know this from testimony -- to stop these people from engaging in politics, to stop these people from trying to be independent economic actors, to stop these people from trying to get educated, from trying to be citizens.

The basic goal of the Ku Klux Klan was not this kind of sadism. It wasn't even murder. It was to put black people back into their place as the labor force of the South, and not much beyond, and to drive out of business the political force, the Republican Party, that was trying to take them to higher places.

...This is a part of American history that isn't easy to face. It tells us that we had a moment in our history when our politics broke down, our society broke down, our police power broke down; the government wasn't functioning sufficiently enough to protect one group of citizens from another who simply engaged in wanton vigilante violence of the worst kind. We don't like to face that. We don't even want to know about it. We like to believe we are a society of security and progress and improvement. Reconstruction makes us face an era when we were something else.

David Blight

Who did the violence target?

Clarence Walker: The violence in the South... was directed at white Southern Republicans. It was directed at black people. It was directed even at people who were not ostensibly political... this was a war of terror, aimed at not only the suppression of black voters and black politicos, but also at whites deemed to be "race traitors."

In the South, any association with the Republican Party became a mark of social pariah-ness, to such a degree that people were terrified, because you had horrendous acts of violence against these Southern white Republicans: people being shot and lynched, and people having their homes burned...

I think we have to understand that the South was not monolithic, in some ways, about the process of Reconstruction governments; that there had been some white Southerners who had been active participants in this, but they were to pay now a terrible price as the federal government relaxed restraints upon other elements in Southern society.

Clarence Walker

Was there retaliatory violence against whites?

Dana Nelson: There was a growing awareness among the whites of the possibility that there could be an organized military resistance to their attempt to dominate the workers. They were living in counties where they were seriously outnumbered, at the polls and in their neighborhoods, by African Americans... [Fan Butler is] always being warned by friends in the North about the dangers, and she does understand there could be an insurrection, and for that reason she sleeps every night with a pistol by her pillow.

But, she says, she has enough confidence in the loyalty of the people who work for her that she really believes that if there was an insurrection, someone would tip her off and she would be able to get out of the way before she came to any harm. So she professes never to be seriously worried by this.

Dana Nelson
page created on 12.19.03
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Reconstruction: The Second Civil War
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