RECONSTRUCTION IN TENNESSEE
Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan.
Reconstruction, during the
first two years after the Civil War (1861-1865), was called "presidential
Reconstruction," simply because Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, who
served as vice president when President Lincoln was killed, was in charge.
Lincoln had been a Republican; Johnson was a Democrat who owned slaves.
However, Johnson had backed Lincoln and decided to stick with the Union
when the Southern states seceded. This act took courage, as he seemed
to be the perfect person to bring South and North together.
Reconstruction, at its beginning, seemed
to go well. Congress had created a Freedmen's Bureau to help the newly
freed men and women. The bureau distributed food, clothing, and shelter
to black people all across the South. Schools were soon opened for the
former slaves. During the years of slavery, every southern state except
Tennessee had made it a crime to teach slaves to read and write. So
the former slaves were starved for knowledge. Parents often sat in classrooms
with their children. As soon as they could read and write, the new learners
The southern farms were in terrible shape,
which made it hard to learn if you were hungry. The cotton crop failed
in 1865, and little increase was experienced the following year. The
Freedman's Bureau kept most people from starving. Neighbors helped neighbors.
A former house slave found a job and brought five dollars to his old
mistress each week. Northern soldiers kept order, but just gazing at
those blue uniforms upset many Southerners. And some whites couldn't
accept the idea of a society where people were equal.
On December 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment
was ratified. It said, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude
... shall exist within the United States." But Andrew Johnson was
already working against it. The President's plan of Reconstruction put
power back into the hands of the South's old white leaders, and therefore
gave African-Americans no civil or political rights.
Soon every southern state passed laws
that discriminated against blacks. The laws were called Black Codes.
They made it a crime for any black person to refuse to sign a contract
to labor on white plantations. And they gave African-Americans no voice
in government. Soon outbreaks of violence against blacks were taking
place. At a riot in New Orleans, thirty-four blacks and three whites
that stood with them were killed. Some whites put masks over their faces
and began terrorizing and killing black people. They were members of
a newly formed hate organization, the Ku Klux Klan, and they didn't
have the courage to show their faces. It turned out that President Andrew
Johnson shared some of their beliefs. In letter after letter he exposed
his prejudices. In one he wrote, "This is a country for white men,
and by God, as long as I am president, it shall be a government for
(The Ku Klux Klan was organized at Pulaski,
Tenn., in May 1866. A general organization of the local Klans was effected
in Apr., 1867, at Nashville, Tenn. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the
famous Confederate cavalry leader, was made Grand Wizard of the Empire
and was assisted by ten Genii.
The war had been fought to end slavery.
But the black codes were there to do the same old thing: to keep blacks
as a secondary labor force. So, in 1866, Republicans in Congress, both
radical and moderate, united to pass the Civil Rights Act. It was designed
to nullify the Black Codes. President Johnson vetoed the act. After
a veto, two-thirds of Congress must vote for a bill to have it become
a law. Two-thirds did. It was the first time in American history that
an important piece of legislation was passed over the president's veto.
Andrew Johnson was furious. He was also stubborn and un-compromising.
"I am right. I know I am right. And I am damned if I do not adhere
to it," he declared.
The next thing the Congressional Republicans
did was to write the Fourteenth Amendment. It was an authoritative amendment
meant to change the Constitution as it was. It said: "No State
shall deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process
of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection
of the laws."
The Amendment declares that the states
must provide equal protection of the law to all their citizens. The
South had fought for states' rights. Many Southerners thought each state
should be free to make its own decisions. If a state wanted an upper-class
society with layers of privilege and unfairness--well, if that was what
the greater part of its people wanted, the solution was simple. This
was what one famous judge, Oliver Wendell Holmes had to say about that:
"The history of most countries has been that of majorities--mounted
majorities, clad in iron, armed with death--treading down the tenfold
more numerous minorities."
The Constitution makers had realized that
majorities are sometimes dictatorial. The Bill of Rights was intended
to protect minorities from mistreatment by the majority. But it only
enclosed federal laws. The Fourteenth Amendment protected citizens from
dictatorship by the states. Unfair laws by the states can be overridden
by the U.S. Government, a direct reference to the Fourteenth Amendment.
It took power from the states and gave power to the federal government.