Hidden Connections: A 'Counterrevolution of Property'

Slave emanicpation in the United States

The maintenance of slavery in the United States had rested, from its earliest beginnings, on violence—both the everyday coercion by which black labourers were compelled to work in the fields and the concentrated force required byany slave society to police the enslaved and suppress attempts at rebellion. The apparatus that slave-owners constructed over more than two centuries rendered the American South a particularly violent society, with a large proportion of its white male population proficient in the use of weaponry, familiar with the fundamentals of military discipline, and skilled in basic horsemanship. 

In many areas local elites played a leading role in organizing and equipping military companies and, later, paramilitary organizations like the Klan. But even beyond the ranks of the
planters, a large proportion of white men were drawn into the slave patrols, and the recurring threat of slave insurrection left the region prone to chronic violence. The region’s exceptional military tradition, rooted in slavery and bound up with white supremacy, would be a crucial (if insufficient) asset during the war, but would also be an important factor in setting the limits to black freedom in its aftermath. 

The embitterment brought on by defeat in the Civil War only added to this toxic mix, and from the earliest days following emancipation freedpeople had to contend with bands of white paramilitaries, ‘bushwhackers,’ who roamed rural areas meting out punishment against blacks who stepped out of line. One federal officer who observed this early violence at close range remarked that “[a] s a general thing… those killed are the smart Negroes, who have the insolence to assert their rights.” By 1867, this largely unorganized violence took on a more coherent form under the direction of the newly founded Ku Klux Klan and an array of similar groups operating under names like the White League or the Knights of the White Camelia. 

While the composition of the Klan varied from one location to another, white paramilitaries were united in their determination to reverse the revolution that emancipation had inaugurated in Southern society. Few freedmen were immune from Klan outrages, but its primary targets were black Radicals and their white allies: ministers active in their communities and Union League leaders, schoolteachers and Republican Party organizers were the most common victims of paramilitary violence, and especially in isolated rural areas the Klan’s mobility and their ability to carry out night-time assaults under cover of anonymity were effective in immobilizing the Radical project. 

During the 1870 elections, the level of atrocities reached such intensity that federal authorities felt compelled to intervene, declaring martial law in the worst affected areas and taking vigorous action to bring perpetrators to trial. But suppression of the Klan in 1870 and 1871 marked only a temporary reprieve for the Reconstruction governments of the South: by the mid-1870s conservatives had reorganized into open paramilitary ‘rifle clubs,’ scoring one success after another in taking down Republican state governments. 

In what historian W. E. B. Du Bois termed a “counterrevolution of property,” the final overthrow of Reconstruction during the elections of 1876 was accomplished through a combination of massive intimidation and voter fraud. The South Carolina demagogue (and future Governor) ‘Pitchfork’ Ben Tillman would later recall that conservatives “had to run right over the 14th and 15th amendments” in order to retake power. “We took the Negro to a precipice and shoved him over to his political death,” Tillman gloated. “The result is that these days, the Negroes in South Carolina are in the fields picking cotton on election days.”

Freedmen Forced to Vote the Radical Ticket

Freedmen Forced to Vote

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper

The Colifax Massacre and its Aftermath: Freedpeople 'Lying Out' in the Louisiana Swamps to Avoid Resprisals; Removing the Wounded

Lying Out

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper

'Wanted Mangled Niggers': Conservative Propaganda Aimed at Discrediting Black Testimony about Klan Violence

'Wanted Mangled Niggers'

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper

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