Fables of the reconstruction

by Jordan Green

I have a church friend, a solid Democrat who worked the phones to help Kay Hagan win election to the US Senate, who surprised me once by stating that the Reconstruction era was a terrible time of discord and violence that set back both the black and white races.

His statement was brought on by my naïve suggestion that, to the contrary, Reconstruction represented an ideal of multiracial cooperation, democratic governance and advances in public education.

Of course, today the Democratic Party is aligned with liberal impulses in North Carolina. During Reconstruction and through at least the New Deal it was the party of white supremacy throughout the South. In other words, the Democrats of the past are the Republicans of today, so I found it disconcerting to hear this view of Reconstruction expressed by a Democrat of the 21 st century.

The truth of what occurred in the South during Reconstruction has been thoroughly suppressed by the lies of the victors whose gains were won through violence, intimidation and fraud. The legitimacy of the governments they established depended on their crimes being covered up.

If Reconstruction was a terrible time for blacks in the South, then what followed would logically be much worse because liberation was replaced by subjugation when the forces of white supremacy drove democratically elected black officials and their white allies from elected office through a concerted campaign of murder and vicious beatings. The result was that black people were systematically denied the right to vote and denied the right of equal protection under the law until the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century effectively challenged the racist laws that prevailed across the South.

Another church friend, a white pastor who has spent much of his adult life striving to overcome the white supremacist mythology that enveloped his Georgia upbringing, has enabled my continuing education in the historical facts of race in the South.

Not too many people in YES! Weekly’s readership care one bit about racial conflict. To the extent that a few do, I would wager that the majority resent hearing that white supremacists have been the perpetrator rather than the victim of the crime. Which is exactly why I contend it’s important to write about.

My pastor friend handed me a slightly battered hardback copy of The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox, a historical account by Stephen Budiansky that was published by Viking last year. It’s an exceedingly readable book written for a popular audience as opposed to being a comprehensive account.

Budianski writes of how rather than submit to defeatafter the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, the leadingwhite men of the South organized the secret militias of the Ku KluxKlan and terrorized all those who stood in the way of restoring whitesupremacy after slavery was abolished and the 14 th amendmentestablished once and for all that former slaves and their descendentswere citizens with equal rights under the law. Despite the efforts ofRepublican officials and some US military officers to document andprosecute the crimes, the Klan campaign was so effective and relentlessin preventing witnesses from testifying that justice was thwarted.

The lies propagated to deflect these crimes are especially impressive.

Thebook’s title comes from a phrase, “waving the bloody shirt,” long usedby defenders of white supremacy to heap mockery on adversaries whosupposedly exaggerate and embellish on their offenses for purposes ofpolitical gain. The phrase reflects an actual event that took place inMonroe County, Mississippi in 1871 in which a northern man named AllenP. Huggins was dragged from his bed by a group of robed “men ofcultivation, well educated, a much different class of men than I eversupposed I would meet in a Ku-Klux gang” who had decided to teach him alesson.

Budianskiwrites that “as superintendent of schools for the county, Huggins hadinstituted public schooling, was trying to ‘educate the negroes,’ theysaid. They had stood just as long as they were going to. Now he had tendays to leave — leave the county, leave the state altogether — or bekilled.”

For hisrefusal to accede, Budianski writes that Huggins received 75 lashesfrom a stout leather stirrup “until he was left senseless.”

Thefictional part of the story, according to Budianski’s account, is thata US Army lieutenant recovered the victim’s bloody nightshirt andcarried it to Washington, DC, where a Massachusetts congressman wavedit on the floor of Congress during a speech denouncing Southernoutrages. In fact, Huggins traveled to Washington to testify beforeCongress, but Budianski writes that “the phrase has since entered theAmerican political lexicon as a synonym for any rabble-rousingdemagoguery, any below-the-belt appeal aimed at stirring old enmities.”

Thisrhetorical sleight of hand is particularly audacious. As Budianskiwrites, “That the Southerners who uttered this phrase were sounconcerned about the obvious implications it carried for their owncriminality, however, seems remarkable, for whoever was waving theshirt, there was unavoidably, or so one would think, the matter of justwhose blood it was, and how it had gotten there.”