Grant Faces Erupting Racial Violence
Grant, like Lincoln before him, was committed to national reconciliation. His
campaign slogan was "Let Us Have Peace." But even as he campaigned, racial
violence broke out all over the South. The chief instrument of intimidation was
the Ku Klux Klan.
The Klan was founded in Tennessee right after the war, and grew strongest in
areas where blacks were politically active. Blacks and their white political
allies, called Scalawags, if they were from the South, and Carpetbaggers, if
from the North, governed the Reconstruction South, with whites holding most of
the high offices. Although blacks themselves never completely controlled any
Southern state, they held political office all over the South. The Klan went
after these black officeholders, as well as those who voted for them.
Black people were attacked, whipped, and often lynched by armed men dressed in
white hoods and sheets, many of them ex-Confederate soldiers. Grant was
unwilling to wage what he considered a second war against white Southerners.
But reports of mounting Klan terrorism finally forced him to act, with the
encouragement of Congress and his courageous Attorney General, Amos Akerman.
Using federal troops and new federal laws, Grant crushed the Klan.
But he knew that violence would continue, and that the Northern public, more
interested now in economic progress than black progress, wouldn't support
continued federal intervention. So he removed Ackerman and embraced
conciliation. Smelling victory, white supremacists were in no mood to
compromise. On December 21, 1874, there was an outbreak of racial violence at a
place Grant knew well: Vicksburg, Mississippi.
After whites demanded the resignation of a black sheriff, violence erupted
between his black supporters and city officials. Armed bands of the local White
Man's Party, as it was called, roamed the countryside with long rifles,
murdering as many as 300 black people. Grant ordered in troops to restore
Sheriff Peter Crosby. But just as he did, another crisis erupted in Louisiana.
There, Democrats attempted to illegally seize control of the state assembly.
Again Grant sent troops, this time under the command of his old army pal, Phil
Sheridan. Federal soldiers marched into the legislative chambers and removed
the Democratic claimants, members of a group called the White League. The only
way to deal with these white radicals, Sheridan wired Washington, was to
declare them "banditi" and execute them.
The incident unleashed a storm of criticism in the North. Grant was condemned
for his resort to government "by bayonet." "Was this America?" asked a leading
Republican Party critic of Grant. "If this can be done in Louisiana, how long
will it be before it can done in Massachusetts and Ohio?"
Grant defended his actions in a courageous speech, in which he made reference
to a massacre that occurred a few years before, in Colfax, Louisiana. In that
incident, rampaging whites murdered 280 blacks, and none of the whites had been
arrested. "Why is it," Grant asked, "that no way can be found in this boasted
land of civilization and Christianity to punish the perpetuators of this bloody
and monstrous crime?
White Supremacy is Restored in the South
But after this, Grant backed off. On one occasion, he turned down an urgent
plea from the Reconstruction Governor of Mississippi to send troops to protect
black voters against violent intimidation by a local White League. Grant
refused to intervene because it would have hurt his party's chances of
retaining the White House in 1876. So the Democrats swept the Mississippi
election of 1875, using force and fraud.
The Republicans were overthrown, as they would be two years later in every
Southern state. The national Republican Party sat back and watched this
happen. But this was no longer the party of Thaddeus Stevens. The Party was
now controlled by powerful Northern businessmen, and Grant catered to them.
The Reconstruction Governor of Mississippi, Adebert Ames, had it right. "A
revolution has taken place, by force of arms; and a race are disfranchised.
They are to be returned to a condition of serfdom, an era of second slavery."
The South prevailed because the North was not prepared, as Grant, Sherman, and
Lincoln had been prepared during the Civil War, to use radical measures against
an undeclared revolution against constitutional government. These tougher
measures could have included: confiscation and redistribution to black farmers
of the land of former masters; long prison sentences for top Confederate
leaders (Jefferson Davis, for example, got the longest prison sentence, a mere
two years); and a long-term military presence in the South to protect black
people. Why the North didn't take stronger measures is explained, in part, in
a letter William Tecumseh Sherman sent to a fellow officer who believed in
"There is powerful racial prejudice all over America, North as well as South,"
Sherman told him. "If we begin to force the Negro on the South as a voter we
begin," what Sherman called, "a new revolution." Then, Sherman strongly implied
that he might take a different side in this revolution than he had when he was
fighting, during the war, to crush a revolution against constitutional
government. So with Northern compliance, white supremacy was restored in the
South for almost a century, until a black church leader named Martin Luther
King inaugurated a Second Reconstruction.