Reconstruction: the insurgency that followed the war
This is the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction, an ugly but historically important period in which the Union, having won a long and ghastly Civil War, lost the peace to the same set of antagonists.
That realization arrived in different places at different times.
Newly liberated slaves quickly learned, in the eighteen months after the war closed, that southern whites not only had no intention of sharing sidewalks with them, but were determined to keep them bound to the land, in servitude to the self-anointed master race.
A pair of relatively mild examples from the North Carolina code:
If an apprentice was cheated by his master, a court could “remove and bind him to some other suitable person.”
A contract with any “person of color” was void “unless the same be put in writing and signed by the vendors or debtors, and witnessed by a white person who can read and write.”
The overt tyranny of these “black codes” briefly yielded to northern outrage. But in time the outrage dissipated and the more determined faction cruised to victory, dashing all hopes.
Under the new regime African Americans had the right to vote, but exercising it was another matter, involving lies, tricks and defrauded and intimidated voters. They had the right to be compensated for their labor, but their work, if not that of an indentured servant, was a latter-day serfdom or, worse, peonage – a return to forced, unpaid labor and harsh, even lethal, abuse. What little they owned could be taken from them with ease through deceit, bullying, and legal gimmickry.
The law was the new regime’s instrument, or at the least provided cover for what was done and shelter for those who did it. And any cracks in that system were carefully chinked by lynch mobs, assassins and night-riding terrorists.
Officially, Reconstruction ended in 1877. Because so many of its elements remained in place through the Jim Crow era, some say it ended with the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But with so many overt acts and so many unapologetic expressions of undisguised race hatred evident, this sesquicentennial provides an opening for an unsettling question: Does full reconstruction of our Union lie in the past, or in our future?