White Violence Crushed Progressive Change Won During Reconstruction

OOn February 18, 1868 in Charleston, S.C. Radical Republican Solomon George Washington Dill was known as S.G.W. Dill, rose at South Carolina’s Second Constitutional Convention to offer a resolution that would protect sharecroppers and tenant farmers, including formerly enslaved Black people, from gouging by white landowners. The resolution was tabled but when Dill, a white man, was allowed to speak, he said, “I insist on giving the poor man justice and all that truly belongs to him . . . Numbers of them are oppressed; numbers are without homes, without shelter, and cannot obtain it unless they give more than one-half of their physical labor to their landlords for shelter … I am begged to do something for them towards keeping the landlords in check.”

Dill’s life was at stake by taking such a strong stand. He was elected as Kershaw County representative, and he didn’t get the full Columbia term. Dill was assassinated on June 4, 1868 by assailants that were not found. However, many believed they be members of the Ku Klux Klan. Dill’s killing fit the pattern of Klan violence against whites who acted in the interests of the poor against the interests of wealthy landowners.

The Klan was the paramilitary arm for the Southern Democratic Party during Reconstruction. It also served as the agent of landowners of white color. The Klan’s goal was simple: keep the poor, Black and white, from encroaching on the economic power of the wealthy. The Klan’s wealthy white supporters won the day, but it was not without the help of the former enslaved and others who scored major victories which were later overthrown by white violence.

Learn more Reconstruction Didn’t Fail. It was Overthrown

During the Reconstruction period—from 1865 to 1877—thousands of formerly enslaved people across the South were voted into office. They controlled politics from local police departments to state legislatures, and in some instances the governor’s mansion itself. The state legislatures adopted tenancy laws that protected sharecroppers as well as tenant farmers. They also passed bills to make it easier for people with limited credit to get credit. And they created state agencies to look out for the needs of the poor. Many of the Black members of Reconstruction Justices and Juries delivered verdicts for poor black farmers against rich landowners. In the South, large plantations with over a thousand acres were owned by Black Americans, including James T. Rapier from Alabama and Blanche K. Bruce from Mississippi.

In addition, new state constitutions gave state legislatures the responsibility to provide more services for the public in the areas of education and health care. The new public priorities were followed by a revised tax structure. Combining huge State deficits from the Civil War with a collapse of the South’s credit market, the southern states acted aggressively in raising property taxes. Some cases, by as much as a factor 10, compared to pre-war periods. Black-run legislatures thought this could be a market-driven approach to land redistribution. Large landowners with large tracts and plantations would be required to sell their land or forfeit it for not paying taxes. The land could be sold or confiscated by the tax collectors to make it available to the landless and poor.

Although land redistribution through taxation was rare, it saw the country take a path toward democracy on a large scale and racial justice. However, the violence escalated as the white Americans gave in to their fear of the former enslaved and trumped their love of equality.

Plantation owners were furious at the increase in taxation. They used it to move the attack away from racism to taxation, even though taxation was a very important issue. Wealthy whites’ anger led to violent groups such as KKK being supported and to an organized effort to reverse Reconstruction using violence.

Jim Crow became a reality. Lynching became a common form of entertainment for the white race. Black voters were force to vote for white racist Democrats at gunpoint, threatening their voting rights. Blacks were prevented from voting by armed gangs who patrolled the polling stations. The Klan was joined by groups like the Red Shirts and the White League. On Dec. 12, 1874, the white president of the board of supervisors in Vicksburg, Mississippi, received a telegram from white mercenaries in Trinity, Texas offering their services to “kill out your negroes.” Northern newspapers also stepped into the fray, whipping up fears of “Africanization,” the code word used to describe the wide-spread, successful exercise of political power by the formerly enslaved.

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White violence sought the reverse of Black progress. Or, as the motto of Horatio Seymour and Francis Blair—the 1868 Democratic candidates for president and vice president put it on their campaign badges, “This is a white man’s country: Let white men rule.”

In South Carolina, the Second Constitution Convention was held in 1868. This convention saw white hatred and violence directed at Black men. Meeting in Charleston, they passed sweeping reforms in voting rights, civil rights, greater diversity in politics, wealth redistribution, taxation reform, prison reform, universal free education, women’s rights, care for the indigent, expansion of credit, and social safety nets. These are the achievements of the progressive movement in 21st-century, not the work of those formerly enslaved and their support.

Reconstruction was a momentous event. Black Americans were granted a part of the American institutions that created power and wealth. This was the first ever time in America. Many white Americans were shocked to learn that Black Americans survived 250 years of slavery and they proved they are capable of the task. Reconstruction was far from perfect. Its many accomplishments also contained the seeds for its violent end. America was a tentative step towards true democracy for at least ten years, starting in the late 1860s and ending around the 1870s.


This article was adapted from Black Lives and Making White Power and Wealth: Of Blood and Sweat Clyde W. FordAvailable now at Amistad Publishers, an Imprint of HarperCollins PublishersCopyright © 2022 by Clyde W. Ford.

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