Freedom: A History of US

Webisode 7. Segment 5
A Failed Revolution

Stevens had helped write the Fifteenth Amendment, which was passed in 1869. It gives black men all across the country the right to vote Check The Source - Frederick Douglass: An Appeal to Congress. In the South social reforms are now spreading quickly. Integrated legislatures are creating free public schools. Soon black boys and black girls are enrolled in 4,000 new schools in the South. At least nine black colleges are opened See It Now - Students at Howard University. In the near future Congress will pass a civil rights bill prohibiting discrimination in hotels, theaters, and amusement parks. It is a civil rights revolution. A freedom movement. But it will not last.

Economic conditions in the South are dreadful. Cotton prices are low, the weather is poor, and so are the harvests. The white farmers are exhausted and angry: their sons are dead—killed in the war—and their savings are gone. They have no money to hire workers or buy equipment and seeds, and most of the black farmers have no land. Before the war there were no lynchings of blacks. Slaves were valuable possessions. Now hate groups, like the masked Ku Klux Klan, begin waging war on former slaves. Lynchings become increasingly common Check The Source - A Ku Klux Klan Trial. Ben Johnson, a southern black, becomes a witness to one of their crimes. He writes: Hear It Now - Ben Johnson "It was on a cold night when the Ku Kluxers comed and drug the niggers Ed and Cindy outa bed. They carried 'em down in the woods and whup them, then they throws 'em in the pond, their bodies breaking the ice. Cindy ain't been seen since Check The Source - The Testimony of Elias Hill."

In 1871, the black citizens of Frankfort, Kentucky, send a petition to Congress. It reads: Hear It Now - Petition "We believe you are not familiar with the Ku Klux Klan's riding nightly over the country and in the county towns, spreading terror wherever they go by robbing, whipping, ravishing, and killing our people without provocation. We have been law-abiding citizens, pay our tax, and, in many parts of the state, our people have been driven from the polls—refused the right to vote."

Most of the South's big landowners are Democrats. Those Democrats are determined to bring back as much of the old South as possible, using whatever it takes: black codes, murderous Klansmen, or unfair and unconstitutional poll taxes and literacy laws that stop poor blacks from voting. The Democrats who oppose Reconstruction call themselves Redeemers. In the 1870s they are busy "redeeming" one state after another, driving Republicans from power. Emmanuel Fortune is a former slave living in Florida who is among those driven out by the Klan. He writes, Hear It Now - Emmanuel Fortune "Their object is to kill out the leading men of the Republican party—men who have taken a prominent stand."

In Washington Andrew Johnson is the wrong man for the job. And his Republican successor, the former Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant See It Now - Ulysses S. Grant, isn't right either. Being a general made him popular, but it didn't prepare him for the presidency. He is too trusting and many of those men he appoints are untrustworthy. They steal millions and millions of dollars in public lands and resources. The President and the people are their victims. The Grant presidency is a time of appalling corruption. A newspaper editor writes, "It is a political position and he knows nothing of politics Check The Source - Ulysses S. Grant's Second Inaugural Address."

By the time Grant enters the final year of his presidency, the North's citizens are tired of hearing about the need for a just society in the South. They have problems enough worrying about fair government in Washington. Then in 1876 there comes a controversial presidential election. The votes for Samuel Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes are so closely divided it all comes down to some disputed returns in Florida and two other states. There are reports that blacks have been kept away from the polls in Florida, and that ballots there were confusingly printed. A special Electoral Commission is created to decide who should be the next president. Finally, when Republican candidate Hayes promises to pull federal troops out of the South if he is elected, he gets the job in what many see as a political deal. Hayes keeps his promise. Soldiers leave the South; and no one is left there to enforce civil rights for blacks. Reconstruction is over. Hayes has been willing to sacrifice blacks' constitutional rights to gain the presidency Check The Source - Rutherford B. Hayes's Inaugural Address See It Now - Rutherford B. Hayes.

After 1876 the old guard in the South—the Redeemers—begin to take power again. They pass laws that make voters pay a poll tax: that means most blacks can no longer vote. They make it impossible for blacks to get a decent education or buy land. They will not allow blacks to have fair trials. Soon many Southern blacks are not much better off than they had been when they were slaves. Some are worse off. James Garfield is a congressman and former clergyman who will soon become president. He asks: Hear It Now - James Garfield "What is freedom? Is it the bare privilege of not being chained? If this is all, then freedom is a bitter mockery, a cruel delusion."

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