The South is my home even if I don’t always feel at home in it. The voices and experiences that stamped me were within a lopsided geometric shape connecting Memphis /Mississippi, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. All of these states were members of the Confederacy and slavery was deeply embedded in the economy and culture of the region. The ladder was sturdy and clear with white people firmly in charge and Black people banned from the ladder. They were possessions of the people on the ladder. After the Civil War and the south’s defeat, the ladder was briefly dismantled but not destroyed. After reconstruction and a period of Black participation in government and public life, White southerners were able to reassemble the ladder with laws, policies, and rules that kept Blacks on the bottom rungs.
Blacks were enslaved 246 years before the South surrendered and the 13th amendment was ratified in 1865. By May of 1865 Andrew Johnson was president after Lincoln’s assassination in April. His plans for the Reconstruction of the South reflected his belief in states’ rights. Therefore all the land confiscated by the Union army and distributed to freed slaves were given back to their prewar owners. The South was given free reign to reconstruct itself. Kendi called it “reconstruction of slavery.”In South Carolina, my paternal grandmother’s birthplace, Edmund Rhett was an editor of the Charleston Mercury. He wrote a letter to a politician and outlined a plan to manage the “negro problem” that later would be enacted as Black codes across the former Confederacy. In Mississippi, my current home, the legislature hurried to enact these codes. By November, 1865 a collection of laws began to pass. Blacks would be fined and could be arrested if they were found to be without employment or a home. Blacks were paid only at the end of a term of employment and if they quit before the term ended, they would not be paid. They could not own land except within incorporated towns so farming was not an option for them. If they could not pay a fine they could be hired out to a White person who agreed to pay their fine. Blacks could be arrested for a long list of very vague actions that amounted to free reign of Whites to rule. During this time before Radical Reconstruction, Whites frequently acted out against programs for Blacks funded by the Freedman’s Bureau.
Today it is difficult to remember that the Republican Party was the party of Lincoln and the Democratic Party dominated the South. Andrew Johnson was a Democrat before the Civil War and ran with Lincoln on a Union Party ticket in 1864. The ticket was supported by the Republican Party and War Democrats. Although he believed in preserving the Union and waging war to be sure it was preserved, his states’ right sympathies were with the South. This set up an inevitable conflict with Republicans that led to his eventual impeachment. In the meantime the Republicans responded to his reconstruction program with a much more stringent set of policies that came to be called Radical Reconstruction. The South was temporarily divided into 5 military districts and required new constitutions to organize universal male suffrage. The states had to ratify the 14th amendment that required due process and a broader definition of citizenship. Later in 1869 the 15th amendment was enacted that protected the right to vote from any interference “based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The most severe Black Codes in Mississippi and South Carolina were never implemented. The South entered a short period of progressive legislation and the participation of Blacks in public life. It was over by 1877.
What I have learned from Ibram Kendi, helped me view these historical events as reflective of the driving force of self interest. It was in the interest of White southerners to create laws, rules, and customs to be sure that even though they must allow Blacks on the ladder, Blacks were confined to the bottom rungs. It was in the self-interest of the North to pass the 14th and 15th amendments so that Blacks would stay in the South, not for moral reasons. This force of self -interest continues today. On Thursday I want to delve more deeply into Reconstruction because I think it teaches us something about today.