From racial division to class unity

The stages of development of the ideology of race in the United States

Reconstruction and After

Despite the fact that the Civil War was a war between two different sections of the capitalist class, the industrial capitalists and the agrarian capitalists, it was one of the truly great revolutions in history. When that war ended, it ended with the greatest expropriation of property the world had ever known, the greatest redistribution of wealth that had ever taken place up to that time. It expropriated $4 billion in slave property and returned it to the slaves themselves.

The next step would have been to break up the plantations and parcel them out to the freedmen and the landless poor whites. This would have finished off the planters as a class, and such widespread ownership of productive property would have democratized the South. The transition from slave to yeoman farmer could have been possible. The existing means of production were applicable to small farming as the sharecropping system was to prove. Traitor's land, abandoned and vacant land and land that had been grabbed by the banks at tax sales could have gone to the freedmen.

Of course, this was not in the interest of the Northern oligarchy. A South consisting of independent farmers would have posed an economic and political threat to the industrial-financial hierarchy of the North. The reality was that an alliance with an economically dependent and politically subordinate Southern ruling class was in the interests of the Northern industrial ruling class. That was the only way they could rule the South.

The general conditions of the workers and the possibilities they faced were decisively and materially changed by the Civil War. Although hundreds of thousands had been mobilized to fight for freedom, people's social thinking didn't change. The concept of races - superior and inferior races - was not destroyed with slavery. The workers never understood or they rejected the idea that they had to take up the demands of the freed slaves as the program of the revolution. The only consistently revolutionary class during the period of Reconstruction was comprised of the freed slaves and those landless whites that gravitated around them. They could not live without the break-up of the plantation system. This was possible only with the seizure of power by the workers allied with the tradesmen, small farmers, and small producers. Such an alliance presupposed the fight for social, economic and political equality of the ex-slaves. The acceptance by a large group of workers and farmers of the second class citizenship of the freed slaves spelled the doom of the movement at that juncture in history. It would take over 100 years and countless lives before the chance would come again.

For Northern financial and industrial interests the South, and particularly the Black Belt region of the South, offered a reserve of cheap raw materials, almost limitless opportunity for high return investment and an abundance of cheap labor. The Black Belt, with its rich soil and natural resources was the economic heart of the South. It was here that the majority of the African Americans were concentrated.

Winning the Civil War had only been a step in gaining control over the riches of the South. Southern political power was still preserved in the institutions of the U.S. government. A Southerner sympathetic to Southern interests, Andrew Johnson, held the Presidency. The Supreme Court was still dominated by Southern justices. Southern senators and representatives were gaining strength in Congress, elected in elections where neither African Americans nor the majority of poor whites were allowed to vote. Northern interests were in a delicate position. To achieve their goals they had to break the power of the Southern planters and replace it with their own. They had to do this without disturbing the rights of private property.

Breaking the stranglehold of the Democratic Party in the region was key to gaining political control in the South. Northern interests set out to swamp the tightly controlled pro-planter votes with the democratic impulses of millions of freed slaves. The 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution guaranteed the right to vote and freedom from discrimination. Newly enfranchised, African Americans turned out in phenomenal numbers to elect Republican state legislatures throughout the South. (Remember, the Republicans were the party of Lincoln, the victorious party in the Civil War.) This weakened the political base of the planters and strengthened the hand of the financiers and industrialists and their representatives and allowed them to further their economic goals without fear of serious political resistance.

It is important to note the nature of the governments these newly enfranchised voters attempted to create. Reconstruction governments were among the most progressive this country has ever seen. Universal education, tax relief, ready credit, increased freedom of movement, access to employment in all trades and some degree of physical protection raised all boats in the effort to lift up those on the very bottom of society.

The Northern rulers wanted only to debilitate the power of the Southern planters. White supremacy and the violence it inspired still remained useful tools in guaranteeing that the democratic forces which had been unleashed did not go too far. This is clearly seen in Federal authorities' handling of the epidemic of violence that swept the South as the once disenfranchised and enslaved stepped forward into the political arena. Secret societies such as the Knights of the White Camelia and the Ku Klux Klan roamed the South terrorizing African Americans and those poor whites that allied with them. Intimidation, torture and murder were all used to drive the freed slaves away from the ballot box and back into submission. Only 10 percent of those arrested for Klan activity were ever brought to trial. Even those who were actually convicted were let off with small fines or suspended sentences. In cases of electoral fraud, only 34 percent of the cases tried between 1870 and 1877 resulted in any kind of conviction. In 1871, President Grant actually pardoned a group of Klansmen that had been convicted for violence earlier that year.

While they used the impulses of the freed slaves to batter away at the power of the planters on the political front, Northern industrial-financial interests were consolidating their economic dominance. By the 1870s, as C.Vann Woodward points out in his book, The Origins of the New South, "at least half of the planters were either Northern men or were organized in corporations and financed by Northern banks." Further, "not one third of the cotton plantations of the Mississippi Valley were owned by the men who held them at the end of the war." In the next thirty years, the Mellons, the Rockefellers and the Morgans took over the South, buying up and controlling railroads, mines and banks. Southern businessmen still made great fortunes, but the economy they "presided over was increasingly becoming one of branch plants, branch banks, captive mines, and chain stores" and agricultural production financed by Northern bankers. The profits flowed North while the South, and the Black Belt in particular, remained backward and largely agrarian.

The Hayes-Tilden agreement of 1877 ratified the alliance between now-dominant Northern financial and industrial interests and a subordinate Southern ruling class. The agreement gave the Presidential election to the Republicans at the price of restoring a now Wall Street-dominated reactionary Democratic political power in the South. Each side gained in the deal. The Southern interests received millions of dollars in patronage, federal assistance to be made use of by the Democratic Party to reestablish political control in the South and, once the remaining federal troops were removed, the freedom to rule the South the way they saw fit. In return, Wall Street was guaranteed its first colony, the Black Belt South. Northern capital reaped huge profits from the region - up to 70 percent return on investments. The tremendous expansion of capital that these profits represented laid the foundation for the expansion of U.S. imperialism into the Caribbean, Latin America and parts of the Pacific.

The interests of both sides required that the forces that had been unleashed during the Civil War and Reconstruction now be subjugated. The South was turned into a bastion of political reaction and the Black Belt was transformed into a bastion of fascism. On the one hand, this arrangement allowed U.S. imperialism to emerge safely beyond the political reach of the democratic masses. On the other hand, it guaranteed that the Southern rulers could maintain control over labor within their own domain and continue to deliver the profits for the imperial North. As always, the success of this strategy rested firmly on the color question. As long as African Americans and whites could be divided and labor remained weak, there would be no force strong enough to challenge the combined power of a growing imperial power, either in the South or in the rest of the country.

Destroying any common ground between whites and blacks was the key to controlling all labor in the South. The task became more urgent because of the ways that organizational and political mobilization of millions of freed slaves intersected with the resistance of poor whites to being forced into the sharecropping system. While defeat had turned the South upside down politically and socially, there hadn't been any significant technological innovations in cotton production since the cotton gin in 1793. If the capitalists were to realize the potential of the expanding world market, human labor on a massive scale had to be harnessed to the demands of cotton production. Thousands of agricultural workers were still needed to plant, tend, grow, harvest and ship cotton, whether that labor was emancipated or not. To meet this need, former slaves and their families and poor whites and their families were inevitably pulled into the life of poverty and misery of the sharecropping system. Under sharecropping, the farmer was a tenant on land provided by the plantation owner, and paid for housing and subsistence goods in the form of shares of his crop. The share often amounted to more than 100 percent of the crop, thus leaving the sharecropper with nothing at the end of the harvest. This system tied the sharecropper to the landlord through never ending debt, guaranteeing a cheap and vulnerable workforce.

In response to these conditions and the terrible agricultural depression of the 1870s, agrarian workers' organizations developed throughout the South and the West. While white supremacy by no means disappeared - indeed, some of the agrarian populist leaders were virulent white supremacists - these groups realized that they would not get anywhere without enlisting African Americans in a common struggle. In various states, the African American vote was marshaled alongside the white vote for Populist Party candidates who stood for a radical program of agrarian reform.

The rulers knew that the prospect of social privilege and the cultivation of racist ideology were the keys to crushing any possibility of any sense of common identity or pursuit of any common political action, however temporary or superficial. Populist leaders stepped forward to help accomplish this. Where once they had led populist forces in an attack against the planters - coinciding with the demands of Northern interests - they once again furthered these interests by mobilizing whites against African American enfranchisement and in favor of segregationist policies. The result was that African Americans were driven into a new slavery - and the conditions of poor whites deteriorated nearly as much.

Ever more terrible violence accompanied this campaign to control all workers by re-enslaving the African Americans and repealing all the progressive reforms of the Reconstruction period. Rayford Logan in his book, The Betrayal of the Negro, has called this period between 1890 and 1920, "the nadir of race" relations. These years were witness to something more terrible than the white supremacy of the slavery period. It was a pathological race hatred instilled by a ruling class intent upon maintaining and tightening its hold in the process of constructing a new economic and political order from the ashes of the old.

Ritualized torture, lynching and terror swept the South. African Americans accused of crimes against whites were no longer subject to mere lynching (which was terrible enough in itself). Now, the lynch impulse led to the ritualized capture and torture of the accused, with hundreds and sometimes thousands of spectators with children in tow coming to view the lynching as on a family holiday. The degree of planning necessary for such lynchings - the care it took to publicize the event, arrange for a site and select and secure the instruments of the tortures - testified to the dehumanization of the victim and the reduction of his tormentors to a level beneath the animalistic. "There was, indeed, something new and horribly palpable on the earth," wrote Joel Williamson in The Crucible of Race. "It was signalized by the mob, the rushing swelling fury of a mass of struggling men, the bloody and mangled bodies, and the smell of burning flesh." From 1889 to 1899, on the average, one person was lynched every other day, and two out of three of those lynched were African American. In the first decade of the 20th century, a person was lynched approximately every fourth day, and nine out of ten were African American. In the second decade, one person was lynched every five days, and in the third, one every nine days.

Such violence served to protect the slavery of the sharecropping system and enforce the disenfranchisement and segregation that formed the foundation of the Southern political system. Potential African American voters were almost completely disenfranchised through a series of restrictions such as literacy tests and the poll tax. Segregation now kept African Americans and whites even more strictly separated than during the pre-Civil War period, and with the Supreme Court's "separate but equal" ruling (Plessy v. Ferguson) in 1896, this became not just the common practice of the South but the law of the nation. Discrimination and segregation throughout the country was anchored and given strength by conditions in the South. Isolated and disenfranchised, African Americans in the South could do little to protect themselves against the snares of the sharecropping credit system or the system of southern terror.

Keeping African Americans down was supposed to give poor whites additional status - that was the lure. But the poor whites' actions and support of such policies were clearly turned against them. The poll tax and literacy tests, among other things, disenfranchised many poor whites as well as African Americans. The credit-lien system reduced Southern whites to wage laborers just as it had African Americans, Jacqueline Jones shows in her book, The Dispossessed, how both suffered from the fence laws, vagrancy laws, contract enforcement legislation and high personal property taxes. Such laws disempowered poor African Americans and poor whites, making them far more vulnerable to the legal system and increasing the landowners' ability to exploit them. Although it is true that whites had the additional option of leaving farming to enter the textile mills, the overall economic and political climate kept even factory wages much lower than those of their Northern counterparts.

The lynchings, beatings, violence and torture that was used to enforce the changing order of race and labor relations made a mockery of the rule of law. Due process, a jury of one's peers, innocent until proven guilty - all such concepts were tossed out the window. While African Americans constituted the overwhelming number of lynching victims, it was not unknown for whites to feel the rope if they became too outspoken or friendly with African American neighbors.

At the apex of the political system sat the Southern senators, public officials who, because so few people could actually vote in the South, were virtually impossible to turn out of office. In 1924, for example, only six percent of the Southern electorate voted in the Presidential election that year. When one Southern senator learned that just over one thousand votes had been cast for Coolidge (the Republican candidate), he exclaimed, that he was "astonished to know that they were cast and shocked to know they had been counted." Their reach far exceeded their limited home state base. Their inevitable seniority bestowed upon them control over the key Congressional committees and from here they were pivotal in dictating the policy and direction of the entire country. "If it is favorable to capital it will be given their stamp of approval," John Keller points out in Power in America. "If it is favorable to labor it can be killed in committee."

Thus, the maneuverings of the ruling class during the Reconstruction years and after were not simply aimed at keeping whites dominant. They sought to guarantee first and foremost the subjection of the South as a region, and the colonial exploitation of the Black Belt in particular. The imperialist North inherited and utilized white supremacy of the defeated South to keep it subjugated. In the Black Belt South, the questions of class, nation and race intertwined to create the most brutal social pathology

Through all these measures - disenfranchisement, segregation, terror and reactionary and outright fascist politicians elected for life - the South was secured as the base for the emerging, aggressive, jingoistic United States imperialism.

Throughout the twentieth century, this colonial relation shaped racism in particular ways. Racism and its results were never uniform throughout the country. A black worker in the North was very often better off economically, socially and politically than his or her white counterpart in the Black Belt South. Thus, it was not a simple question of all whites were better off than all blacks. It was rather a matter of the threads of history, the brutality of economics, the demands of politics that gave shape and substance to the development of racism in the twentieth century, a racism predicated on the concise, yet profound formula articulated by W.E.B DuBois: "Wall Street controls the South and the South controls the nation."

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Last updated 4/27/15