Issues related to race in America are receiving attention reminiscent of the days of desegregation in the sixties. No news broadcast escapes mention of something related with race, discrimination, or racism.
To understand the phenomenon of racism, a good place to start is George Fredrickson’s book Racism: A Short History. Fredrickson follows the trajectory of racism from its origins in Fifteenth Century Spain, where it was rooted in religious beliefs, through the period of the Enlightenment, to focus on more recent racist ideologies in the American South, Nazi Germany, and South Africa.
Although Fredrickson only devotes a few pages to them, the buildup to the Civil War and the subsequent Reconstruction were of interest to me because I have studied the period so much. Fredrickson notes that during the Reconstruction after the war, the agreement that led to the return of the seceded states to the Union also resulted in the nullification of the Dred Scott decision. Then came a Constitutional amendment declaring all people born in the United States were citizens. However, the efforts to implement the Fourteenth Amendment were slow and weak. Fredrickson wrote, “…the government proved unwilling or unable to commit sufficient resources or apply enough force to overcome the violent white resistance to black the equality that erupted in the South.” He blames this on whites both in the North as well as the South, as neither could contemplate blacks as equals.
My research confirms Fredrickson’s assessment. The federal government was very timid in protecting the rights and very lives of freed blacks after the Civil War. While the Freedman’s Bureau was established to help the emancipated start new lives, and federal troops occupied the Southern states, these efforts were failures. Troops bent over backward not to engage in conflict with white citizens. In one case, an Army officer was reprimanded here in Louisiana for chasing and apprehending a white man who had killed two black freedmen. Whether in fear of a resurgence of violence against the federal government or for perhaps purely political reasons, the troops were to show restraint and leave enforcement against those terrorizing freedmen to local authorities—which almost always sided with the local white citizenry. The occupying army was there for show and bands of white men organized as militias to protect communities from the black man called the army’s bluff. One wonders if more aggressive tactics could have changed the course of history, averted Jim Crow, and led us to a different place today.
What prompted these white citizens to form militias—called the White League in most instances—might be called racism but it was certainly fear. This fear started during the war and grew when the end of slavery was realized. I recently read Linda Barnickel’s engaging account of war in northeast Louisiana, Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory. She mentions several diaries from this period where whites expressed fear that freed slaves would rape the women, steal their possessions, and wreak havoc on the countryside. One might remember the scene from Gone with the Wind where the men go to wipe out a nest of ne’er-do-wells—mostly freed slaves and Confederate deserters—in order to protect their women. I can’t help wonder how much of the conflict we see between races today is rooted in fear.