This week at In The Past Lane, the American History podcast, we take a look at Reconstruction, specifically the ratification of the 15th Amendment which took place 150 years ago this week. It was the third of three amendments added to the Constitution after the Civil War and it was specifically intended to protect African American voting rights. In these early years of Reconstruction, formerly enslaved people registered to vote, voted, and won election to office, including Congress. But just a few years after the 15th Amendment was ratified, southern whites, with the acquiescence of white northerners, dismantled the accomplishments of Reconstruction, including black political power, and re-imposed white supremacy.
And we also take a look at some key events that occurred this week in US history, like the onset of the1918-1919 Spanish Flu Pandemic and Martin Luther King’s 1967 speech against the Vietnam.
Feature Story: The Ratification of the 15th Amendment
On March 30, 1870 – 150 years ago this week – the US Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish, certified that the required 3/4 of the states had ratified the 15th amendment to the Constitution and it was now in effect. This was the third of three amendments added to the Constitution in the wake of the Civil War. The 13th amendment abolished slavery. The 14th amendment defined US citizenship, established voting rights for African-Americans, and established the principle of equality before the law. The 15th amendment was intended to strengthen the right of African-Americans to vote. It read: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State, on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
For African Americans and their white Republican allies, the 15th amendment was hailed as a key achievement in reshaping the US political system into a multiracial democracy. As President Ulysses S. Grant put it, the 15th amendment “completes the greatest civil change and constitutes the most important event that has occurred since the nation came to life.”
Grant and his fellow Republicans were right in celebrating the revolutionary nature of the amendment, but some of them expressed an unfounded and naïve optimism about its ability to empower African Americans. They claimed that with the 14th and 15th Amendments in place, black Americans no longer needed federal protection from vengeful white southerners who bitterly resented the end of slavery and black freedom and equality.
Rep. James Garfield of Ohio, the Speaker of the House and future president, said the 15th Amendment “confers upon the African race the care of its own destiny. It places their fortunes in their own hands.” The message was clear: African Americans now had everything they needed to succeed. And if they failed to secure their place in American life then it was their own fault.
Well, let’s hold that thought for a moment. We’ll return to it shortly.
For now, let’s consider what had already happened in the years leading up to the ratification of the 15th amendment. First, African Americans had already gained the right to vote in 1867 under a Civil Rights Act passed by Congress. And this right was then made permanent in 1868 under the 14th Amendment.
Immediately, formerly enslaved people seized this new freedom. Some 700,000 African-Americans registered to vote, nearly all of them as members of the Republican party – the party of Lincoln, emancipation, and now civil rights.
And the results were remarkable: More than six hundred formerly enslaved men won seats in state legislatures and to other state and local offices. Still hundreds more served in all manner of posts, from register of deeds to justice of the peace. Some even went to Congress. Between 1869 and 1901 twenty-two African Americans would serve in the U.S. Congress (twenty in the House, and two in the Senate).
Let’s note just one example. On December 12, 1870, Joseph Rainey, a man born into slavery in South Carolina in 1832, was sworn in as a member of the US House of Representatives. A man who just a few years earlier was considered property and possessing no rights, was now a citizen and member of Congress. Historical change doesn’t get more revolutionary than that. That’s why I always refer to the first half of Reconstruction, roughly 1865 to 1872, as the Reconstruction Revolution.
The impact of this revolution in the South in the early years of Reconstruction was profound. Under Republican rule, southern states enacted progressive legislation designed to improve the lives of average citizens. Most states, for example, significantly expanded public education which had been woefully underfunded in the past. Many also passed laws protecting the civil rights of citizens and launched public works projects such as road building to boost economic growth. They also changed state tax codes lesson taxes on the poor and middle classes an increase them on the wealthy.
Not surprisingly, white southern resistance to these changes was intense, as were efforts to undermine and thwart black political power. The most vivid form of this resistance were vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan that used violence and murder to oppress African Americans and their allies.
This was the context in which the 15th Amendment was passed and ratified in 1870. It was a recognition by Congress that African American voting rights faced intense opposition.
And Congress did something else in 1870 to protect black civil rights: it passed the first of several so-called Force Acts that compelled the federal government to use its power and authority to defeat groups like the KKK. And it worked. Within two years, the federal government succeeded crushing these violent groups throughout the South.
And so, as I always say at this point when talking about Reconstruction, if we stop the clock at this point – say, roughly 1872 – the Reconstruction Revolution had achieved remarkable results.
It had won for African-Americans citizenship and full civil rights, including the right to vote.
It had seen hundreds of thousands of African Americans vote for the first time and many of them win election to public office.
It had seen them join with white allies in the South to form an extraordinary and unprecedented experiment in interracial democracy.
It had seen that interracial coalition pass laws and adopt policies in Southern states designed to protect civil rights and expand opportunities for average citizens.
But this exercise in “stopping the clock” is just that – an exercise that allows us to take stock of a historical situation. Because history doesn’t stop. In marches on. And march on it did during Reconstruction.
And it was in the years after 1872 that saw many of the accomplishments of Reconstruction dismantled by a process one might call the Reconstruction Counter-Revolution.
Here’s what happened in a nutshell:
The single most important thing that allowed the Reconstruction Revolution to occur was the use of federal authority to protect civil rights. So long as the federal government remained committed to upholding civil rights and democracy in the South, the achievements of Reconstruction would endure and grow.
What happened, however, is that this commitment on the part of political officials in the north began to waver and eventually disappear altogether after 1872.
It did so for several reasons. First, the Grant administration became ensnared in a series of scandals involving high ranking officials, including members of Congress and cabinet officials. Second, the Panic of 1873 touched off five years of the most severe economic depression in US history to that time. Third, many conservatives began to argue that the federal government had done enough for the freedmen and that it was time to remove the US military from the South and leave African Americans to chart their own destiny.
Now would be a good time to recall that quote by James A Garfield, who said of the 15th Amendment that it, “confers upon the African race the care of its own destiny. It places their fortunes in their own hands.”
The combination of these three factors created a climate in which it became very difficult for Northern politicians to justify a continued federal commitment to protecting the rights of African Americans in the South.
As a result, after 1872 organized white resistance to Republican rule – both legal and illegal — began to rise. This resistance, much of it involving violence by vigilante groups, had two goals:
1. to strip away the freedmen’s hard-won economic, social, and legal rights and
2. to prevent them from voting and holding office.
This violence reached full development in Mississippi in 1875 when armed groups of whites allied with the Democratic Party waged a carefully organized campaign of terrorism that came to be known as the Mississippi Plan. Through threats, beatings, and killings, they delivered an unambiguous message: blacks and their white allies who dared vote Republican risked their lives and livelihoods.
Alarmed, Mississippi governor Adelbert Ames asked the Grant administration to send troops to keep the peace and protect the polls. His request was rejected.
Not surprisingly, more than sixty thousand Mississippi voters—nearly all black and Republican—stayed away from the polls on election day. When fifteen hundred African Americans gathered to vote in Aberdeen, Mississippi, they were informed by the mob that “if they did not leave town within five minutes … the last man would be shot dead.”
Democrats swept to victory in Mississippi and took control of the state legislature for the first time since the Civil War. Immediately they threatened Governor Ames with impeachment and forced him to resign.
The success of the Mississippi Plan in intimidating black voters and demolishing the base of the Republican Party inspired other Southern states to employ their own version of it. And the political terrorism worked.
One by one the remaining Republican state governments fell to a new class of political leaders known as Redeemers. As the name suggests they cast themselves in almost biblical terms as saviors of Southern society. Saviors from black and Republican rule.
As one African American Republican named George Arnold put it, “It seems to me that we are drifting, drifting back under the leadership of the slaveholders. Our former masters are fast taking the reins of government.”
We can see the success of this counter-revolution in the career of the aforementioned Joseph Rainey, the former slave turned congressman. Rainey served four terms in Congress and played an important role in the debates over Reconstruction. In 1876, however, as the Mississippi Plan and the Redeemer movement gained momentum, Rainey barely won reelection against his white Democratic opponent. Two years later, that same Democratic challenger defeated Rainey, ending his political career.
The Counter-revolution was completed in the 1880s and 1890s as southern state governments devised clever ways to undermine the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. They imposed segregation and the US Supreme Court allowed it. They also imposed all manner of things to deprive black citizens of the right to vote, things like the poll tax and literacy tests. By 1900, African American voting in the South had been nearly eliminated. And that would remain the case until the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
And here’s a key takeaway from this story: laws, even constitutional amendments, are only valuable insofar as they are enforced. Laws and amendments that are not enforced are not worth the paper they are printed on. Sadly, we see evidence of this fact in 2020, as many states in recent years have enacted laws and policies intended to diminish the ability of people – especially people of color – to vote. The 15th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 say this is illegal. But it’s all about enforcement. That’s something to ponder on this, the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment.
So what else of note happened in US history this week?
March 31, 1776 Abigail Adams wrote her now famous letter to her husband John Adams, urging him and the members of the Continental Congress to “remember the ladies” in the making of laws for a nation that seemed on the verge of declaring its independence from England. Women, she wrote, in so many words, deserved liberty too.
April 4, 1967 – The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his “a time to break silence” speech against the Vietnam war at Riverside Church in New York City. “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” King was vilified by many for this speech, including President Lyndon Johnson.
Exactly one year later, on April 4, 1968 King was assassinated in Memphis, TN.
April 5, 1918 – The first report was published that noted the rapid spread of a deadly strain of influenza in Haskell, Kansas. It was the first indication in the US of what would come to be known as the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919, one that killed 700,000 Americans and worldwide between 50 and 100 million people. And if you want to know more about this story, check out ITPL Episode 105.
And how about birthdays of some notable people?
March 31, 1927 labor leader Cesar Chavez
March 31, 1875 heavy weight boxing champion Jack Johnson
April 2, 1875 automobile magnate Walter P. Chrysler
April 4, 1802 pioneering advocate for humane treatment of the mentally ill, Dorothea Dix
Let’s give it to Abigail Adams, who 244 years ago this week, wrote to her husband John Adams urging him to push for greater rights for women in the soon-to-be independent United States of America.
“I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
For more information about the In The Past Lane podcast, head to our website, www.InThePastLane.com
Music for This Episode
Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (JayGMusic.com)
The Joy Drops, “Track 23,” Not Drunk (Free Music Archive)
Sergey Cheremisinov, “Gray Drops” (Free Music Archive)
Pictures of the Flow, “Horses” (Free Music Archive)
Ondrosik, “Tribute to Louis Braille” (Free Music Archive)
Alex Mason, “Cast Away” (Free Music Archive)
Dana Boule, “Collective Calm” (Free Music Archive)
Blue Dot Sessions, “Pat Dog” (Free Music Archive)
Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)
The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)
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