By Alan Johnstone
February is black history month. With conservatives challenging Critical Race Theory, there’s one thing we must always remember when studying history — it is the victors who write the history. So it is the duty of every socialist to tell it like it was, and is, at every opportunity. In the battle of ideas that we wage against the ruling class, we must not concede them one inch in interpreting the past.
When the American Civil War ended, Lincoln and his successor Andrew Johnson gave the defeated Confederacy generous peace terms. Vengeance upon the slavocracy was to be no part of the reconciliation process. It was to be amnesty for Southern slave-owners but new chains for the former slaves.
The fierce resistance from the plantation owners effectively killed off any protection from the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Freedmen’s Bureau was swiftly dismantled by Andrew Johnson who also tried unsuccessfully to veto the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The 1866 Southern Homestead Act was another toothless project and the later Civil Rights Act of 1875 was never really enforced, to be later declared it unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
For the four million ex-slaves, freed by the Emancipation Act, the promise of 40 acres and a mule never materialized. The new freedmen were refused the material means for economic independence nor guaranteed their democratic rights. The land that could have given ex-slaves security was instead returned to the previous plantation owners. Lacking land, former slaves were forced to return to working on the same plantations where they had toiled for generations. Over 600,000 former slaves stayed with their masters. Others were forced into share-cropping which could be described as a type of farm feudalism when chattel slaves are turned into serfs, trapped by ever-increasing debt into a form of peonage. Despite being formally free, most Southern African-Americans continued to live in poverty, reliant on white benefactors for food, shelter and agricultural supplies in return for their labor. That was the best that many could achieve.
In the Southern states, the Black Codes were enacted. These codes declared that unemployed African-Americans were vagrants, who could be arrested and hired out to the highest bidder and forced to work for that person for a prescribed time. Employers were also given the right to physically punish these workers. These codes also made it illegal for African-Americans to bear arms. Those subsequently led to Jim Crow laws, a system of oppressive laws that perpetuated racism, inequality and brutality, that was to last another 100 years to ensure that the social system of subjection and subjugation of African-Americans continued and all the gains of the ex-slaves could be undone. It took for instance until 1967 for miscegenation laws to be finally repealed. Even to this day several Republican-controlled states are still trying to discourage the Black communities from exercising their vote.
The need to ensure a free supply of labor brought the mass incarceration of blacks and the chain gang. The USA disproportionately jails African-Americans. Following the abolition of enslavement at the finish of the US Civil War, the 13th Amendment ended slavery except for those convicted of a crime, and the adoption of the “Black Codes”, allowed harsh penalties against newly freed African-Americans for minor crimes. Convict leasing and chain-gangs ensured the continuance of “free” labour.
But there was also a political purpose as well as an economic reason for the policy of criminalization.
Governors although reluctantly accepting the 14th Amendment were determined that their states would never accede to African-American suffrage. The solution was to write felony disenfranchisement into their state constitutions. Low-level crimes — vagrancy and petty misdemeanors were turned into felonies.
The Southern whites used whatever measures they felt necessary to suppress the freedoms and rights of African-Americans. The Red Shirts in Mississippi and the Carolinas, the White League and the Knights of the White Camelia, both active in Louisiana, and, of course, the Ku Klux Klan exercised a reign of terror. These white supremacist night-riders spread such fear that they managed to change the course of American history, placing the country on its path towards inequality, prejudice and discrimination under which it still suffers.
More than 2,000 African-Americans were murdered between the end of the civil war in 1865 and 1876 to keep black people enslaved in all but name. Freed slaves were lynched at an average rate of almost one every two days. The Ku Klux Klan Enforcement Acts had been designed to permit the federal government to prosecute vigilantes but a Supreme Court decision held that it only applied to actions of the state, and rendered the law ineffective.
The Exoduster Movement was a mass migration of refugee ex-slaves, fleeing oppression and repression as the South once more fell into the hands of the very men that had held African-Americans as slaves. Of the 147,000 African-Americans eligible to vote in Mississippi, only about 8600 registered under the constitution of 1890. Louisiana had 127,000 African-American voters enrolled in 1896; under the constitution drafted two years later, the registration fell to 5300. For South Carolina in 1900 indicates that only about one African-American out of every hundred adult males of that race took part in elections.
In 1865, Colored People’s Conventions outlined a new Bill of Rights which included repeal of the Black Codes, the right to serve on juries, to vote, to own land, to bear arms, to free public education, etc. By the summer of 1867, about 80% of eligible black male voters had registered in all but one of the former Confederate states. This representation brought some 2,000 African-Americans to the elected office during Reconstruction. At the beginning of 1867, no African-American in the South held political office, but within three or four years about 15% of the officeholders in the South were black which was a larger proportion than in 1990.
In 1870 Hiram Revels from Mississippi took a seat in the US Senate. Jefferson Long, in 1870 became Georgia’s first Black representative in the United States Congress and the first African-American to speak on the House floor when he opposed the Amnesty Act of 1870 which returned full civil rights to ex-Confederate officials, restoring their eligibility to hold public office. Twenty-two African-Americans served in Congress as a result of Reconstruction, and more than 600 African-Americans served in state legislatures throughout the South, mostly from 1868 through 1877. African-Americans also succeeded in holding numerous positions, such as sheriffs, justices of the peace, city aldermen, and county commissioners.
The land in America was first stolen from Native Americans, by force. It was then cleared and made productive for intensive agriculture by the toil of African slaves, who after Emancipation some would come to own some of it. The sheer number of the African-American population meant that many did achieve to secure precarious and tenuous access to some land, driven by what W. E. B. Du Bois called “land hunger” seeking every available and affordable plot of land they could, no matter how marginal. If they didn’t find a sympathetic white landowner who would sell to them, they’d become squatters on unused and unwanted land. The initiative and accomplishments shown by the emancipated ex-slaves, their overcoming of handicaps and achievements under the Reconstruction are seldom acknowledged these days. There were immense improvements in the conditions of the ex-slaves in the aftermath of the Civil War, through self-help mutual aid and reciprocal cooperation.
By 1875, African-Americans had acquired between two million and four million acres of land after the war. By 1880 this was six million, ten years later about eight million. In 1910 this land had increased to nearly twenty million acres, as large as Ireland. (By 1969 this had “shrunk” to 8.7 million acres or 13,000 square miles, an area the size of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island combined.)
120,738 farms owned by African-Americans in 1890 increased to 218,972 in 1910, or 81%. This is despite the disenfranchisement of three-quarters of the black population in this same period. There were already two hundred private schools and colleges managed almost entirely and supported by African-Americans, plus old folks’ homes and orphanages, thirty hospitals and 22,000 small retail businesses and forty banks.
The former slaves did not wait passively to secure their rights, especially in regard to the land and the right to bear arms. In a number of areas, they seized possession of the plantations, divided the land amongst themselves, and set up their own local forms of administration. On the Sea Islands off Georgia and South Carolina, for example, freedmen took land and worked it on their own account. When the former owners came later to claim their plantations, they were resisted and these freedmen survive today, called Gullah or Geechee communities. Similar occupations took place elsewhere.
Freedom Died, Justice Denied
But most African-Americans couldn’t resist white kleptocracy. They were either forcibly dispossessed or “legally” expropriated. Their “rights” abrogated. Through a variety of ploys — sometimes illegal, often coercive, frequently violent — farms owned by African-Americans freed slaves, came back into the ownership of white people.
These cases of dispossession can only be called land-theft powered Jim Crow. 98% of black landowners in America were dispossessed and lost 12 million acres over the past century, leaving millions of families landless.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were 25,000 black farm operators in 1910, an increase of almost 20% from 1900. Black farmland in Mississippi totaled 2.2 million acres in 1910—some 14% of all black-owned agricultural land in the country, and the most of any state. The foothold was never secure. From the beginning, even the most enterprising black landowners found themselves fighting a war of attrition. Mass dispossession did not require a central organizing force or a grand conspiracy. Thousands of individual decisions by white people, enabled or motivated by greed, racism, existing laws, and market forces, all pushed in a single direction.
Around the turn of the century, in Leflore County, Mississippi Oliver Cromwell, organized the Colored Farmers’ Alliance. In September 1889, whites retaliated against what they saw as a threat to their white businesses by black economic independence and self-sufficiency, with a mob murdering as many as 100 black farmers along with women and children.
The black population in Mississippi declined by almost one-fifth from 1950 to 1970, as the white population increased by the exact same percentage. Farmers migrated as laborers to Chicago and Detroit. By the time black people truly gained the ballot in Mississippi, they were a clear minority, held in thrall to a white conservative majority. But some white people undeniably would have organized it this way if they could have. The vast majority of black farmland in the country is no longer in black hands, and black farmers have suffered far more hardships than white farmers have. Between 1920 and 1997, the number of African-Americans who farmed decreased by 98%, while the number of white American farmers declined by 66%. Virtually all of the property lost by black farmers is owned by whites or corporations.
The legacy of slavery and Jim Crow persists despite desperate attempts to deny it. But to deny the legacy of slavery and the subsequent consequences of Jim Crow has a lingering effect is simply hiding from the facts. For sure, blatant segregation and discrimination are illegal but there are more surreptitious ways about it.
FDR’s New Deal established the Farm Security Administration. Although the FSA ostensibly existed to help the country’s small farmers, as happened with much of the rest of the New Deal, white administrators ignored poor black people—denying them loans and giving sharecropping work to white people. In 1961, JFK’s administration created the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, or ASCS, a program that provided loans to farmers. The ASCS was a federal effort and the members of committees doling out money and credit were elected locally, during a time when black people were prohibited from voting.
Homeownership is the key source of wealth for most families. These days three-quarters of white people own their home, but less than half of black families do (44% and falling). The racial wealth gap is primarily based on differences in home appreciation values. Black families historically had homes that did not appreciate and often went down in value.
There have been repeated findings that white families have wealth and income many times more than African-American families. Just before the pandemic, the median white family was 41 times more wealthy than the median African-American family. The disparity has become normalized and rarely challenged by the white population, who rely on the usual stereotypical shame-naming explanations to explain their white privilege.
The large wealth gap between white and black families today exists because of a historic loss. Most wealth is inherited, passed down from past generations to future generations. In the USA, if you start with very little, as the ex-slaves did, then there is nothing much to bestow to your children.
It seems too convenient to forget the actions of the past and their effects on the present. It is no wonder that Critical Race Theory is under such criticism by those who benefited the most from ignoring the history of racial inequality.
Nor should we think it is merely a coincidence that polling laws and voting district realignment are happening once more in red states with the purpose of gerrymandering the electoral outcome. If they cannot outright deny blacks the vote, then they are making it difficult for them to exercise that vote.
It was the foundations built during Reconstruction, in black education, black churches, and black political and community organizations that would continue to provide support and solidarity to African-Americans throughout the long years of Jim Crow, the 1960s Civil Rights movement, and now Black Lives Matter.