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.