UNION COUNTY — Though they never lived to see him wage his war of terror against the people of China, the men who sought to destroy Reconstruction and at least partly reverse the outcome of the Civil War understood Mao Zedong’s maxim that political power grows from the barrel of a gun.
In the aftermath of the defeat of the Confederacy and the end of slavery, many freed slaves exercised their newly-gained freedom by leaving the plantations, farms, and ranches to which they’d been tied their entire lives. Many of them initially shunned work, equating it with slavery.
The end of slavery and the reaction of the freed slaves presented the controllers of the southern economy, already flat on its back due to the war, with a crisis. That economy had been based on a labor force that no longer existed and that would not return to work under the conditions from which it had so recently escaped.
To force that return, southern states passed what became known as the “Black Codes,” laws designed to limit the rights of the freed slaves and force them back into servitude. The codes denied blacks the right to testify against whites or serve on juries; forbade them to move about without employment and required them sign labor contracts with the penalty for failing to do so being arrest and being hired out to work for white landowners. In some states the codes limited the occupations blacks could hold and even barred them from acquiring land. Other states permitted judges to assign black children to work for their former owners without the consent of their parents.
The Black Codes could also denied blacks the right to possess firearms and serve in state militias. This, of course, was necessary to ensure that the goal of the Black Codes — forcing blacks back into servitude — was achieved because, as the Founding Fathers understood when they included the Second Amendment in the Constitution, it was hard to impose a tyranny upon people when they have the means to resist such an attempt. It also confirmed Mao’s insight about the true source of political power.
The effort to return former slaves to servitude was undermined by the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which abolished the Black Codes. It was also undermined by the presence of men with guns, namely the U.S. Army, committed to defending the rights of the freedmen.
The opponents of black empowerment would not be denied and so began a series of violent campaigns against black empowerment and the Republican parties of the South that served as its vehicle. Sometimes this took the form of riots such as the Memphis Riot of 1866 which began as fight began the city’s police force of mostly of Irish immigrants and black Civil War veterans who’d recently been mustered out of the U.S. Army and were awaiting their discharge pay.
In response to the fight and rumors of an armed rebellion by the city’s black residents, white mobs invaded the freedmen’s settlements and attacked the residents and the missionaries there serving as teachers. By the time the riot ended three days later, 46 blacks and two whites had been killed, another 75 people injured, five women had been raped, and $100,000 worth of property damaged or destroyed.
Another form of resistance was the clandestine vigilante groups formed by white supremacists such as the Ku Klux Klan. While the Klan is the most infamous of these groups, it was not the only one.
Union County not immune to problems
In Union County, the first of these groups was called the “Slickers” which was not shy about using violence to achieve its goals. In one instance, a black who’d informed on the group to federal troops stationed in the county was hunted down by the Slickers, shot and killed and his body tossed in Fairforest Creek.
Though the violence that occurred in the South during Reconstruction was primarily white on black, there was black on white violence as well. One such incident occurred in Union County where a group of black militiamen sent to arrest several Klan members instead abandoned their mission to steal a barrel of whiskey from a wagon driven by a one-armed Confederate veteran.
When he refused to give them the whiskey, the militiamen opened fire on the veteran and the man riding with him. The two attempted to escape but the veteran was caught by the militiamen who shot him before getting drunk on the whiskey.
While 10 of the black militiamen involved in the murder of disabled veteran would eventually be killed by the Klan, a more common example of white supremacist violence and its purpose was the Klan’s murder of a white Republican justice of the peace killed for allowing blacks to hold political meetings in his home.
White supremacists — through organizations like the Slickers, the Klan, the Red Shirts, the White Leagues and Democratic Party they supported and were controlled by — used murder and terrorism to drive the Republican Party and its white and black supporters from power.
The most infamous example of this was the “Mississippi Plan,” a conspiracy by the Democratic Party in 1875 to overthrow the Republican Party that had won control the state government the previous year. The Republicans had won the governor’s mansion and a number of other state offices in the election of 1874 with a 30,000 vote majority.
The Democrats were stunned by the loss of one of their strongholds and embarked on a program of intimidation and outright violence to reverse their political fortunes. The precedent for the Mississippi Plan was set in Vicksburg in 1874 when armed gangs of whites physically prevented blacks from voting, bringing about the defeat of the city’s Republican officeholders.
In 1875, through attacks by organizations like the Red Shirts and the White Leagues, the Democrats forced white Republicans to either flee the state or switch parties. That accomplished, the Red Shirts and the White Leagues used even more brutal methods to suppress black voter turnout from intimidation at the polls to whippings and murder. The Democratic terrorists even provoked riots at Republican meetings shooting dozens of blacks in the process.
Return to power
The Democratic party returned to power in 1875 with a 30,000 vote majority. Further evidence of the Democratic war against black empowerment in Mississippi is the fact that there were only 12, seven, four, two, and zero votes cast, respectively, in five of majority-black counties.
The Mississippi Plan proved to be a model for South Carolina in 1876 when the state’s Democrats used their own Red Shirts to suppress the black vote in majority-black counties, paving the way for the party’s return to power and begin the process of reasserting white supremacy statewide.
The violence perpetrated by white supremacist groups had another effect by wearing down the North’s commitment to black empowerment. By 1876, most of the Republican state governments in the South were gone or just barely hanging on as the federal government had become increasingly reluctant to send in the army at election time to protect the rights of the blacks and their white allies.
The Republican Party itself had become demoralized due to the scandals of the Grant administration and the downturn in the economy that had paved the way for the Democrats to reestablish themselves as a force in Washington and undercut Reconstruction. To hang on to the presidency, the Republicans cut a deal with the Democrats, agreeing to remove the last federal troops from the South if the Democrats would allow the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, to become president.
The Democrats agreed and while Hayes would successfully oppose their efforts to repeal the civil rights laws passed by the Republicans, the Democrats would refuse to appropriate the funds needed to enforce them, thus ensuring the end of Reconstruction.
Though blacks would remain involved in southern politics for the rest of the 19th century and still win public office, the first era of black empowerment was essentially over. The years that followed would eventually black southerners squeezed out of power and their political rights in the name of white supremacy with the last black congressman leaving office in 1901.
After that, it would be nearly 30 years before another black would be elected to Congress, this time from outside the South. It would be more than 70 years and require the passage of the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s before another black would be elected to Congress from the South.
Today, blacks are not only elected to public office, they are elected to and hold a full range of public offices from the mayors of Union, Jonesville and Carlisle to the presidency of the United States.
Information for this article was taken partly from Wikipedia articles on Reconstruction, the Mississippi Plan, and Rutherford B. Hayes, and partly from “A Narrative History of Union County, South Carolina” by Allan D. Charles.
Editor Charles Warner can be reached at 864-427-1234, ext. 14, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.