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Following the Civil War, the era of Reconstruction was a difficult time for Southerners. Their land was destroyed, their political institutions were overrun by outsiders, the economy was in transition and their society was in upheaval. It was in this climate that the Ku Klux Klan was born and the Redeemers sought to reestablish the Old South.
The time: Spring 1865, at the end of the Civil War
The place: The American South
The problems: Destruction, hunger, lawlessness and violence
More than a million African Americans were refugees, homeless, separated from family during years of slavery, wondering what to do now. The white male population had been decimated by the war. The survivors straggled home, many of them wounded. But when they arrived home, they found a strange new world waiting for them.
Governments in many places ceased to exist. Southern infrastructure was almost totally destroyed. Cities were in shambles. Chimneys loomed in overgrown fields where homes once stood. Farm fields were destroyed. The familiar social order was gone. Former slaves were now free with the same rights as everyone else. Even the so-called 'favorite' house slaves - the ones their masters had thought loved them - were long gone. The federal government was imposing their concept of Reconstruction, troops still marched through the cities to enforce new laws, and Northern civilians streamed in, for better or worse.
You might say these former Confederates got what they deserved; after all, slavery is wrong. But at least for the short term, the morality of slavery was irrelevant. The immediate problem was that it was late spring, and the crops needed to get in the ground before it was too late. The people who knew how to work the fields were demanding wages, yet land owners had no money to pay them until the harvest came in. What could possibly be done?
The new labor arrangements of tenant farming and sharecropping were born out of this necessity. Laborers who had everything they needed to farm (except the land) became tenant farmers. Essentially, they just rented the fields, with payment in cash either up front or at the harvest. Tenant farmers often had the freedom to plant whatever crops they wanted. But far more freedmen became sharecroppers. Sharecroppers rented tools and animals from the landowner, worked the land at their own expense and then agreed to pay the owner between half and two-thirds of the crop after the harvest. Sharecroppers usually had to plant specific crops required by the landowner.
These arrangements did offer a solution to the farming crisis, but sharecropping, especially, became a way for wealthy whites to continue dominating society and keep blacks repressed well beyond the Civil War. Contracts, of course, favored the land owner. Sharecroppers generally lacked the resources to market their harvest independently and were often cheated during the sale. Then there were the plantation stores. Operated by the land owner, the stores conveniently sold everything farmers needed to run their households, like seed, clothing, medicine and food items they couldn't grow. The stores granted a credit account to buy supplies when they were needed and then pay the tab at harvest. But the price for this convenience was extremely high. Many sharecroppers found that their share of the crops at the harvest wasn't enough to pay their debts to the store - much less give them anything for the year ahead. Debtors were then legally obligated to stay on at the plantation, hoping that next year's crop would be better and allow them to settle the bill.
This system of labor lasted in some parts of the south for a century, involving a majority of landless black and white farmers in many parts of the South.
Though sharecropping reduced many freedmen back to circumstances very similar to slavery, there were laborers who worked without any wages at all, legally. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, except as punishment for a crime. It was a pretty big loophole.
For many years after the Civil War, Southern states routinely convicted poor African Americans and some whites of vagrancy or other crimes, and then sentenced them to prolonged periods of forced labor. Owners of businesses, like plantations, railroads and mines, then leased these convicts from the state for a low fee. It was a win-win situation for people at the top. Business owners had an inexpensive workforce that couldn't make labor demands. And convicts were actually cheaper than slaves, so incentive to treat them well was low. The struggling state governments had nearly no overhead expenses when the convicts were leased, and the prisoners generated an enormous income stream. How big? In Alabama, convict leasing constituted 73% of the state's revenue in 1898!
It may come as no surprise that criminal populations multiplied in several states by as much as ten times between 1865 and the turn of the century. Inmates were big business. What kind of crime might lead someone to be sentenced to convict labor? Being homeless or having a home that seemed too expensive (suggesting the homeowner is stealing), being unemployed, gambling, vagrancy and a host of other real and imagined offenses. Convict leasing existed in every former Confederate state, except Virginia, and lasted for almost 60 years.
Sharecropping and convict leasing were just two of the ways that Democrats began to 'redeem' the South. Redeemers were white Southerners who worked to reclaim the social and political control that they had exercised for more than a century. The problem wasn't just that Republicans were in charge. Black men were now their political equals. Northern carpetbaggers were actually taking public office, along with traitorous scalawags (that is, Southern Republicans). Not only were former Confederates resentful of this political takeover, they also disdained the Northern social attitudes that were influencing the younger generation.
The Redeemers wanted to undo these changes by any means necessary. Though Presidents Lincoln, Johnson and Grant had believed that amnesty for former Confederates would help heal the wounds of the Civil War, their plan backfired. As soon as Southern Democrats had their right to vote restored, redemption was swift. Starting with Tennessee in 1869, Redeemers controlled all but three Southern states within seven years. They also set about restoring what they believed was the proper social order. They passed Black Codes that limited the rights of African Americans. These laws varied by locality but commonly included restrictions against blacks working in certain businesses, living in certain parts of town, carrying guns and testifying against whites. The 15th amendment forbid restricting the right to vote based on race but left open other loopholes. So, Redeemers gradually disenfranchised African Americans with unfair requirements, like literacy tests that were in languages other than English. Since non-voters couldn't serve in elected office or serve on juries, disenfranchisement further reduced the political power and legal protection of African Americans.
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Redeemers sidestepped the 14th Amendment by passing Jim Crow laws at the local and state levels to keep non-whites separated in public spaces. Whites had their own restaurants or entryways, train cars and schools, bathrooms and water fountains. In 1892, a man named Homer Plessy challenged these laws by buying a first class train ticket and taking his seat in the 'Whites Only' car. Mr. Plessy was 1/8 African American. He purposely informed the conductor that he was biracial and refused to move to the 'Colored' car. He was arrested, and his case ultimately went all the way to the Supreme Court. The 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision paved the way for legal segregation in the United States under the doctrine of 'separate but equal.' In reality, few facilities for non-whites were equal to those for whites. This form of racism was not overturned legally until the Brown v. Board of Education decision, integrating schools in 1954.
What couldn't be addressed by legal means was often handled by paramilitary groups. The best known of these organizations is the Ku Klux Klan (commonly called the KKK); formed by Confederate soldiers in 1865 originally to continue fighting the Civil War immediately after Lee surrendered. But soon, similar groups, such as the Knights of the White Camelia and the White League, organized almost exclusively at the local level throughout the South with the broader goals of restoring the social order of the Old South and overthrowing Republican reconstruction governments. Often (but not always) hiding behind robes and masks, Klan members used intimidation, threats and attacks on people and property to keep all blacks and white Republicans from voting and to preserve white supremacy.
The violence perpetrated by these paramilitary groups led to a crackdown at the federal level by President Grant. But whether it was due to the presence of federal troops or simply the fact that they had been successful at redeeming their governments, the activity of the terrorist groups declined in the mid-1870s. However, the KKK reemerged in 1915.
Let's review. Life in the South after the Civil War was difficult for everyone. While Northerners and the federal government debated the politics of Reconstruction, Southerners (black and white) knew they needed to get planting or face more severe famine than the war had wrought. Sharecroppers worked the fields, agreeing to pay a portion of the harvest as rent for the land. It was a system that wealthy landowners quickly exploited to keep African Americans under their control. State governments started hiring out convicted criminals to business owners resulting in a booming prison population.
White Southern Democrats, called Redeemers, took advantage of these systems as a way to restore what they believed was the proper social order. As soon as they could vote, they began retaking political offices and passing Black Codes to once again restrict the rights of African Americans. Jim Crow laws kept blacks and whites separated in public spaces. Vigilante groups, like the Ku Klux Klan, used violence and intimidation to preserve white supremacy and overthrow Republican reconstruction governments.
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