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Four African-American boys, two holding sticks of sugar cane. Caroline, 1890s The second series of America charts the development of the United States, exploring three key themes: Empire, Liberty and Faith. (In three series)

Monday - Fridays 3.45pm
Omnibus - Friday 9pm
Series 2 - 19 January - 27 February 2009

Week 8 - White & Black

The Passing of the Dead

On 4th March 1865, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated for his second presidential term. On 9th April, the Civil War ended when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. Five days later Lincoln was assassinated in Washington by secessionist John Wilkes Booth. The burden of rebuilding and reunifying the country fell to Vice President Andrew Johnson.

Dead States, New Birth

The Confederates had lost the Civil War and the South's population, landscape and many of its cities were devastated. Congress had formally abolished slavery in March 1865 and the South's four million slaves were enjoying their first taste of freedom, while lacking the means to assert their independence.

The challenges of what Northerners called 'Reconstruction' were huge. President Johnson, like Lincoln, was concerned to bring the South back into the Union as quickly as possible. States could be re-admitted once they repudiated secession and accepted abolition. Johnson left the question of whether blacks could vote to individual states. In reality, Southern states began to pass legal codes keeping blacks subordinate, denying them the right to vote, serve on juries or bear arms.

By the time Congress convened in December 1865, Southern intransigence had radicalised many moderate northerners. Convinced that Johnson had failed, Congress set out more far-reaching plans to put the South under peacetime military rule until it changed its ways. Passions reached such a pitch that, in the spring 1868, the Republicans impeached the President (the only such impeachment until Clinton in 1999). Johnson narrowly escaped, but his Presidency had only a few months to run. By 1868, Congress had cleared the way for the Reconstruction of the South on radical lines.

Reunion but Not Reconstruction

During the 1870s, the imposition of Northern military rule allowed blacks all over the South to play an active part in politics. Many held office in conjunction with 'carpetbaggers', the nickname given by resentful Southerners to Northerners who went South to govern. The new state governments endorsed full citizenship for blacks and also spent money rebuilding infrastructure and creating a system of free public education. Many Southerners saw Reconstruction as a continuation of the war by political means and opposition to Republican rule, and black rights, turned violent with the formation in 1866 of a secret society called the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in Tennessee.

Southern conservatives (Redeemers) also focused on the cost and corruption of Reconstruction. This gained the support of moderate Republicans, poor farmers and even some blacks. Gradually the Southern states began electing members of the Democratic Party into office.

The disputed 1876 presidential election was decided by a Congressional Commission in favour of Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes. Southern acquiescence was bought in exchange for the Republicans agreeing to withdraw federal troops from the South.

Radical Reconstruction was now effectively over. It had been a bold experiment, but it was too radical for many Northerners. Most Americans believed that liberty meant freedom from government intervention, not the use of federal power to help minority groups. By 1877, the South had rejoined the Union and slavery was abolished. That was enough for most Northern whites. It would need a second era of Reconstruction, in the 1960s, to complete the unfinished task.

'New South', Old Ways

Superficially it seemed that there was real progress in the 'New South'. During the 1880s, railroad mileage more than doubled, opening up areas like West Virginia to profitable coal mining. By 1900 Birmingham, Alabama was the South's eleventh largest city, yet it had only been founded in 1871 to exploit mineral deposits for steel making.

Yet much of the South remained set in old ways. The slave plantations had gone, but were replaced by a new system of 'share-cropping'. Most blacks (and many poor whites) were forced to become tenant farmers and were caught in a cycle of poverty binding them to the landowner almost as tightly as if they had been slaves.

Now that northerners had lost interest in Reconstruction, southern blacks had to make their own plans for the future. Two men, Booker T. Washington and Burghardt Du Bois, represented different strategies for dealing with white supremacy in the New South - Washington advocated incremental economic progress within the system, while Du Bois believed in an active political struggle for civil rights.

With the distinction between slave and free abolished, southern conservatives had to draw new lines of segregation. 'Jim Crow' laws now separated black and white in public places, including public transport, schools and restaurants. In 1896, the Supreme Court affirmed that segregation was constitutional as long as the facilities were separate but equal (which they rarely were).

War and Memory

In the two decades after the Civil War, most veterans were keen to forget their experiences. But by the 1880s, nostalgia began to develop and interest in, and commemoration of, the war increased. Membership of the principal Northern veterans association, the Grand Army of the Republic, rose from 30,000 in 1878 to 428,000 by 1890.

In the North, there was a reconciliatory mood but in the South real bitterness remained. Southerners lamented the 'Lost Cause' and the struggle was recast as the southern defence of the rights of states against centralizing government, with slavery conveniently forgotten.

Episode summaries by Victoria Kingston.



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