Radical Reconstruction: A Lost Era

One cannot be an African American without being conscious of the fact that we have inherited a long and bitter history of frustrated attempts to gain equal rights and a level of material parity in this country, a battle that after having overcome slavery and segregation we have gone a long way towards accomplishing, though the struggle to gain a satisfactory station in society remains incomplete. Given that this is the case however, it is curious to note how few of us are aware of the fact that there was a brief moment in history, just after the Civil War, when it seemed that negro Americans were making fast progress towards such equality; a short but real period in the latter third of the nineteenth century when blacks fresh from bondage developed a relatively significant hold on political power in the south.

There are today, if I’m not mistaken, 35 African-American members of Congress, with zero members serving in the United States Senate (the last one to serve in the Senate, if you do not count the brief and controversial appointment of former Illinois attorney general Roland Burris to replace him, is current president Barack Obama). That is in 2012, and of course now we have a black President in Barack Obama. But from 1867 to 1877 (the general period to which the phrase “Radical Reconstruction” refers) there were 16 black members members of congress (keep in mind that the House of Representatives had more than a 140 fewer members total in those years) with two of those serving in the United States Senate. The first black man elected to Congress, Senator Hiram Revels, was elected to the vacated Senate seat of Jefferson Davis, president of the confederacy, out of Mississippi. P.B.S. Pinchback was the first lieutenant-governor of African-American descent, and then briefly the first non-white (technically, though by blood he was mostly white) governor of any state when the governor of Florida had briefly to resign his office because of impeachment proceedings. 265 black electoral delegates were elected during this period, and blacks held hundreds more offices on the state and local level throughout the south during these years. We wouldn’t see anything like that again (and certainly not in the south) until after the Civil Rights movement.

How were these gains possible so soon after slavery, and why did they disappear so quickly? It’s important to realize that after blacks obtained the right to vote with the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments they virtually owned the Republican party in the south. Given the fact too that for a time former leaders of the confederacy were prohibited from running for federal office, this allowed newly freed blacks (often under the educated leadership of northern free blacks like Hiram Revels who came to organize in the south) an opportunity to band together politically and win elections, with help from the northern Republican party and organizations like the Union League. Naturally there was a great deal of resentment towards the gains made by the newly freed slaves as well as a great antipathy towards the Republican Party. This anger would give rise to the Ku Klux Klan, who would be responsible for the murders of at least 35 black officials during this time period. Blacks also had an enemy in President Andrew Johnson who, despite being Abraham Lincoln’s vice-president and a southern Democrat who opposed secession on the basis of his dislike of elite plantation owners, nevertheless was greatly prejudiced towards black people, and intent on reinstating confederate leaders to their former positions of political power within the federal government while vetoing civil rights legislation proposed by Republicans. Though this was the case, black Americans were fortunate that Andrew Johnson was a deeply unpopular president who was ultimately impeached by congress. He was succeeded by Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln’s head general who led the north to victory in the Civil War. Although Grant, prior to the war, had been ambivalent about the cause of freeing the slaves, he as president was intent upon continuing in Lincoln’s footsteps in an effort to preserve and expand the rights of freed slaves. Grant served as president from 1869 to 1877, the golden age of black progress and political power in our history from then to after the Civil Rights Movement.

What happened? A number of things, chief among them the fall and then the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan picked up momentum and confidence during the Johnson administration, responding to the advancement of Negroes into positions of power with, as noted, violence and even murder. But when Grant took office, he with the political backing of the “Radical Republicans” in congress used the law and at times  force to break the Ku Klux Klan, stopping in it’s tracks their growing intimidation of new black voters and leaders…at least for a time. But while Grant arrived at the White House a popular war hero,  his political fortunes diminished by his second term in the wake of corruption scandals in his administration and a quickly souring economy. So too the economy turned the focus of the American people away from the plight of black Americans and allowed for the resurgence of groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Grant, with his much diminished political influence and a terrible economy could not muster the political muscle to again put down the Klan when they re-arose. So began the long dark of disenfranchisement and unchecked persecution that would be with us for another ninety years.

The “Radical Reconstruction” era is in a sense sad to look back on because it shows us what could have been for our people much sooner, if only certain things had been different. History is full of many sadnesses and missed opportunities as we well know. But when we stop to catalog the inspiring lists of black achievements in American history, we would be remiss to overlook this brief, but bright, period in American and African-American history. We have not just now begun to take our rightful place in the leadership and civic structure of this great country…we have just begun again.

Civil Rights Icon Fred Shuttlesworth Dies

The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the civil rights icon hailed in his native Alabama as a “black Moses,” died Wednesday. He was 89.

Described in a 1961 CBS documentary as “the man most feared by Southern racists,” Shuttlesworth survived bombings, beatings, repeated jailings and other attacks — physical and financial — in his unyielding determination to heal the country’s most enduring, divisive and volatile chasm.

“They were trying to blow me into heaven,” Shuttlesworth, who spent most of his adult life in Cincinnati, said of those who violently opposed him in Birmingham and throughout the South. “But God wanted me on Earth.”

“Daddy lived an incredible life and now he’s at peace,” said Patricia Shuttlesworth Massengill, his eldest daughter. Massengill, along with her sister Ruby Bester and their brother Fred Shuttlesworth Jr., traveled to Birmingham from Cincinnati on Tuesday and spent about three hours “praying and talking to” their father, whose once thundering voice was silenced several years ago by a stroke. Their other sibling, Carolyn Shuttlesworth, visited their father in a Birmingham hospice last week.

“He couldn’t talk to us, but I hope he heard us,” Massengill said. “I know he did.”

Shuttlesworth’s death removes a civil rights giant who remained a potent advocate for the downtrodden and needy of all colors for decades after he helped blacks secure, if not absolutely equal rights, at least more balanced treatment in a country that grudgingly granted those advances.

Before Rosa Parks refused to give up a bus seat in Montgomery, before four little girls were killed by a bomb at their church in Birmingham, before “Bloody Sunday” in Selma and even before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became a household name, there was Shuttlesworth.

Although not as well known as King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy— his compatriots in the civil rights movement’s “Big Three” — Shuttlesworth brought the struggle into the living rooms of white America through a series of combustible showdowns with the Ku Klux Klan, Southern segregationists and Birmingham’s infamous commissioner of public safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor.

“A guest at Bull’s house” — more commonly known as the Birmingham jail — on more than two dozen occasions, Shuttlesworth was viewed by King himself as the person who, because of his confrontational boldness and willingness to put himself in harm’s way, was likely to become the movement’s first major martyr.

“We’re determined to either kill segregation or be killed by it,” Shuttlesworth said in the 1961 CBS program. To achieve the goal, he nearly suffered the consequence, coming close to proving King’s premonition true through numerous narrow escapes from death during the civil rights movement’s most volatile and dangerous years.

He survived two bombings, one on Christmas Day 1956 when dynamite tossed from a passing car destroyed his parsonage beside Bethel Baptist Church, a small, narrow red-brick structure where he helped ignite “a fire you can’t put out” that forever changed life not just in Birmingham and Alabama, but America.

Nine months later, he was savagely beaten by a white mob armed with bicycle chains and baseball bats in September 1957 when he tried to enroll his daughters at segregated Phillips High School. His wife also was stabbed and his daughter Ruby had her ankle crushed in their car door in that horrific attack.

When a bloodied Shuttlesworth was rushed to the hospital, doctors marveled that no bones had been broken and that he had not even sustained a concussion. “The Lord knew I live in a hard town, so he gave me a hard head,” he said at the time.

His fiery personality and utter fearlessness were not diminished when Shuttlesworth moved to Cincinnati in 1961, lured by better pay and improved educational opportunities for his children. For much of the next half century, he essentially maintained dual residency, frequently returning to Alabama to help direct the epochal events unfolding there that were reshaping race relations nationwide.

Shuttlesworth was born Freddie Lee Robinson to Alberta Robinson, a 22-year-old unmarried woman in Mugler, Ala., on March 18, 1922. His father’s name was Vetter Greene. The couple had a second child — a girl named Cleola, Shuttlesworth’s only full-blooded sibling.

While growing up in a strictly segregated community, Shuttlesworth did not have many opportunities to interact with whites and had shown no interest in civil rights activism. But while working at Brookley, one of his black co-workers was threatened with a pay cut. Shuttlesworth protested, marking the beginning of his advocacy for equal treatment. Later, his quest for civil rights would become intertwined with his Gospel ministry.

By the early 1950s, Shuttlesworth was back in Birmingham, serving as pastor of Bethel Baptist and playing a more visible role in the burgeoning civil rights movement. Emboldened by desegregation of buses in Baton Rouge, La., in 1953 and the U.S. Supreme Court‘s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, he pressed his congregants register to vote, pushed the Birmingham City Council to hire more black police officers and traveled to Montgomery to support King’s year-long bus boycott.

But while King was becoming the movement’s national point man, historians and civil rights leaders agree that without Shuttlesworth, the movement’s history might have been far different.

When Alabama’s attorney general teamed up with a judge nicknamed “Injunctionitis Jones” to outlaw the NAACP in the state in 1956, Shuttlesworth founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights — an organization that, by directing the civil rights campaign in Alabama, significantly shaped the movement’s national agenda over the next eight years.

Shuttlesworth, King, Abernathy and Bayard Rustin formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta in 1957 to assist local organizations to work for equality for African-Americans. Shuttlesworth helped coin its non-violent motto: “Not one hair of one head of one person should be harmed.”

In 1960, the Rev. L. Venchael Booth, pastor of Zion Baptist Church in Cincinnati, invited Shuttlesworth to preach at the church. Booth later recommended Shuttlesworth to Revelation Baptist Church in Avondale, which needed a pastor. The congregation promptly elected him to the position, but he initially declined, prompting the congregation to step up its courtship.

With his wife, Ruby, also pressuring him to take the job because of the higher salary and better schools for their children, Shuttlesworth finally accepted the position on the condition that he could maintain his activism and involvement in Birmingham.

In both states, Shuttlesworth worked tirelessly to remove barriers that once made white workers’ employment floor blacks’ ceiling. During Shuttlesworth’s 80th birthday celebration in Birmingham, then-Jefferson County Commissioner Steve Small stressed that “no elected official of color in this city, this nation, would be where they are today” if not for him.

“Fred Shuttlesworth, this great Moses, taught us not to bow,” said the Rev. Abraham Lincoln Woods of Birmingham, who was with him during the vicious 1957 attack at Phillips High.

He was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at its 46th annual convention held in Jacksonville, Fla., in 2001 but he was replaced a year later.

Shuttlesworth’s final years were marked by declining health and intra-family squabbles that produced headlines in Cincinnati and Birmingham, where he returned to and has lived since 2008.

He and his first wife, Ruby, divorced in 1970 and she died of a heart attack the following year. In 2006, one year after having a brain tumor removed, he married, at age 84, a longtime friend, Sephira Bailey, then 49.

Since then, Shuttlesworth’s four children have occasionally clashed with their stepmother over her handling of his affairs.

When she moved Shuttlesworth back to Birmingham in 2008 for rehabilitation following a stroke that left him largely unable to speak, his children complained that they had been led to believe the move would be only a temporary one. There also were rifts over Sephira Shuttlesworth’s solicitation of public contributions for her husband’s medical care and burial spot, requests that the children felt damaged his image by inaccurately implying that he was destitute.

Those issues, however, will not undermine a brightly burning legacy beyond reproach. As Shuttlesworth himself said after surviving the Christmas 1956 bombing: “If God could save me from this, I’m here for the duration.”

And he was.

Source: USA Today


Black Is: The Week In Photos

The week in photos; photos and headlines for the week of Feb 7th -Feb 14th 2011.

Tuskegee Airman Leo Gray signs autographs for students this morning at Fantasy of Flight in Polk City.

Tuskegee Airman Leo Gray signs autographs for students and shares stories of overcoming barriers, at Fantasy of Flight in Polk City, Florida.

Newly created Pac-12 conference and 2pac fan battle for domain rights in web squatter case.

Green Bay Packers fans rejoice in 9 degree temperatures at the Super Bowl XLV Championship celebration at Lambeau Field.

Egyptians celebrate the news of President Hosni Mubarak resignation.

2,012 students compete in a game of dodge ball at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, and set a Guinness World Record.

Former first lady Nancy Reagan attends a birthday celebration held in honor of Ronald Reagan. He would have been 100 years old on Feb 6th.

Jerry Sloan, Phil Johnson

Jerry Sloan(left) resigns as head coach of the NBA Utah Jazz after 23 season.

AOL will be adding Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington to its arsenal.

AOL acquires Huffington Post for $315 million, Arianna Huffington to become media president.

Janet Jackson begins her world tour in Jakarta, Indonesia

Image: Abandoned buildings in New Orleans, La.

an estimated 3,000 homeless find refuge in the vacant and abandoned homes and buildings in New Orleans, that were damaged by hurricane Katrina.

Mississippi  proposes to issue specialty license plates honoring Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

AFRO-American Newspaper has joined forces with Google to digitize its archives, making them available to anyone.

Garcelle Beauvais, Eva Amurri and Taraji P. Henson backstage at Heart Truth’s Red Dress Collection, which raises awareness for heart disease in women, during Fashion Week.

Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Willow Smith, and Lady GaGa were some of the artist in attendance for the 53rd annual Grammy Awards.