November 23, 2006


Homegrown Terror: a review of Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War by Nicholas Lemann (Steven Hahn, New Republic)

Colfax, Louisiana was scarcely a town in 1873. It was more a collection of buildings on a plantation owned by William Calhoun. As much as any site in the former Confederate South, however, Colfax came to embody the complex political dynamics of Reconstruction, and the troubling relation of terror and democracy in the history of the United States. [...]

What the white supremacists scorned was the most breathtaking democratic revolution in the nineteenth-century world. In the cauldron of the Civil War, the largest and most powerful slave regime in the Americas was defeated militarily, and slavery was abolished without direct compensation to slaveowners. This alone distinguished the American experience from every other servile society of the time, save for Haiti. Then, responding to the wartime service of black soldiers, the demands of radicals of both races, and the political needs of the Republican Party, the federal government extended civil and political rights to former slaves on the same basis as those rights were enjoyed by whites, and set the stage for the reorganization of politics and government in the former Confederacy.

This revolution is known as Radical Reconstruction. The Republican Party, for the first time, moved into the Southern states. African Americans registered to vote in overwhelming numbers and, through the vehicles of Union Leagues, churches, and Republican Party clubs, mobilized new political communities. State constitutions, which created new civil and political societies and new public sectors, were written and ratified. And elections were held with a dramatically expanded electorate, resulting in Republican governments at the state and local levels. Most of the officeholders were white men who had been on the political margins before the Civil War; but in the Deep South states of South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana and in the plantation districts stretching from Virginia to Texas, African Americans -- many of whom had just been freed from slavery -- came to serve as state representatives and senators, and as magistrates, county commissioners, surveyors, treasurers, and occasionally sheriffs.

Before long, the Republican regimes were rebuilding the economic infrastructures of the South, establishing systems of public education open to blacks and whites (separately, for the most part), setting up new social services, reforming the tax structure (sometimes with a view to making land available to former slaves), and, when possible, attacking various forms of racial discrimination. Equally consequential, in the counties and the parishes, the regimes constructed judicial systems in which blacks could bring suits, testify in courts, and serve on juries, and thus in which black laborers could resist the exploitative practices of their employers through legal means. Never in the history of the United States, and rarely in the history of any other nation, were the balances of power shifted so markedly away from the propertied elite and toward the working class.

Had the former Confederates accepted the new rules of the political game, something amounting to a genuine democracy, involving both races, might have taken root in the South. But instead they regarded the civil enfranchisement and the political empowerment of African Americans as the grossest of illegitimacies and the direst of threats, and they mobilized militarily in opposition. Initially through vigilante bands such as the Ku Klux Klan, and eventually through paramilitary organizations closely tied to the Democratic Party, they sought to destroy blacks' capacity to engage in politics. They broke up Union Leagues, harassed black voters, assassinated black leaders, and, when Republicans won local elections, tried to prevent them from taking office or to drive them out once they began to serve. This was what the white supremacists were up to in Colfax in 1873, and this was how they decided to put an end to Republican rule more generally in Louisiana and Mississippi in what Lemann calls "the last battle of the Civil War."

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 23, 2006 8:31 AM

If you replaced Confederate with Baathist, Klan with Al Queda, blacks with Shia and Kurds, you
have Iraq, circa 2006

Posted by: narciso at November 23, 2006 11:57 AM