A summer of change, a long winter of resistance
As hopes and honeysuckle bloomed, a century and a half ago, forces were massing to ensure that the dreams of newly liberated slaves and their white supporters would never take root.
At the federal level, slavery had been abolished by constitutional amendment. But Raleigh-born Andrew Johnson was doing his presidential best to preserve a nurturing environment for the white supremacist traditions of the late Confederacy.
In North Carolina the General Assembly had enacted “black codes” to keep newly freed slaves bound to the land of white masters and to make the death sentence mandatory for any attempt “to commit rape upon the body of a white female” by any “person of color.” The codes were strangely silent regarding women of color raped by white men.
Outside the law, the year-old Ku Klux Klan threw its weight behind the effort to uproot Reconstruction and negate the advances bought with the blood of 700,000 Americans in four years of civil war. In the words of “How North Carolina grew,” a chronology compiled by writers for the Work Projects Administration, the Klan organized “to combat secret organization of Northerners who came into the State since ‘the Surrender,’ to regain white political control, and to ‘protect Southern womanhood.’”
The state codes were in danger of being swept away by federal law and a pair of soon-to-be-ratified constitutional amendments that would recognize ex-slaves as citizens with equal rights under law. Those included the all-important right to vote, which the state had denied both free blacks and Indians in 1835. These amendments threatened almost everything the old order held dear. Clearly, the Klan reasoned, the old order was going to need some extra-legal operatives to help frustrate and impede the agenda of that clandestine band of “Northerners.”
Not so clearly, really. In fact, the thing was shot through with nonsense.
It was no crime to be Northern-born, or for a Northerner to pack a carpet bag and move South to live and do business. It was no crime for them to form, secretly or not, political alliances with freed blacks and southern-born “scalawag” Republicans. It was no crime to organize or join a political party. It was no crime to advocate compliance with federal law, or to opine that it should be made stronger. All of those were protected under the United States Constitution and its sundry amendments. So by what logic did domestic terrorism become the necessary response to politics?
The answer: White supremacist Democrats, soon to be outnumbered, were no more willing to lose elections than they had been to share status with newly emancipated slaves after the war’s end.
As for the matter of rape, there is no evidence that Northern-born provocateurs ever advocated having North Carolina decriminalize an offense that had been punishable by death since before the republic’s founding. History does record a number of executions of slaves for rape (without, in most instances, disclosing the victims’ race). But Section 1 of the black codes, enacted at a time when state law barred “persons of color” from voting, is telling:
Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina that negroes and their issue, even where one ancestor in each succeeding generation to the fourth inclusive is white, shall be deemed persons of color.
It could hardly have been made plainer. The act’s authors were less concerned with the flower of (white) Southern womanhood than with their fear that the franchise would be extended to thousands of light-skinned descendants of slaves who had been raped and impregnated by their white masters.
Unfortunately, politics and government are not a simple exercise in acquainting people with facts and waiting for them to change. You may know the truth and the truth may set you free, but those are two separate things, each a matter of choice. In 1867, the old order chose to apply itself to the work of discouraging blacks from exercising the rights of American citizenship.
North Carolina’s white supremacists refused to lose and, ultimately, they did not. The ground on which a better future of freedom and equality was to be built is still in dispute, and stained red.