Stuff You Never Study in School: Reconstruction and the Freedman’s Bureau

Reconstruction Plans - Reconstruction Era

Episode 17: Reconstruction and the Freedmen’s Bureau

A New History of the American South

Dr Edward Ayers (2018)

Film Review

As I never studied Reconstruction in school, I found this lecture particularly valuable.

After the 1864 election, Republicans controlled the House and Senate by large majorities. Although most northerners wanted to bring Union troops home, Republicans considered ongoing military occupation essential to protect former slaves and to prevent former secessionists from resuming power.[1] Following the ceasefire that officially ended the Civil War, riots occurred in Memphis, New Orleans and other cities in which police and other whites (in some cases led by the Ku Klux Klan [2]) brutally assaulted and killed former slaves and burned their homes.

Ayers credits the Freedmen’s Bureau (1865-1872) for the most significant benefits of Reconstruction. During its operation it started 3,000 public schools, as well as assisting both landowners and former slaves in negotiating contracts enabling the latter to work for wages as free laborers.

During the 1866 midterm elections, Democratic President Andrew Johnson undertook an extremely controversial campaign tour in which he (as a former slave owner) boasted about his vetoes of civil rights legislation, mass pardons of former Confederate officials and their return to high level offices in state and federal government. This strategy backfired, resulting in a ferocious popular backlash, as well as Republican gains in Congress, as well Republican victories in all governors races and Republican control of all state legislatures.

The 1866 Civil Rights Act was the first law to define US citizenship and to guarantee equal protection under the law for all citizens. Johnson vetoed it, and Congress overturned his veto for the first time in US history. In the same year, both houses of Congress also approved the 14th Amendment (ratified by states in July 1868). In addition to granting automatic citizenship to all US-born persons, it also granted equal protection to all citizens and voting rights to all male[3] citizens. This amendment also provided for states abridging these voting rights to experience a decrease in congressional representation.

In 1867, Congress passed the Military Reconstruction Act, which placed the states of the former Confederacy under military rule (except for Tennessee, the only southern state to ratify the 14th Amendment and be readmitted to the Union). To be reaccepted into the Union, the other former Confederate states had to rewrite their constitutions accepting the 14th Amendment.

Congress also gave itself the power to convene special sessions,[4] as well as passing the Tenure of Office Act. This law made it illegal for the president to fire federal officers confirmed by the Senate. In 1868, after Johnson fired the Secretary of War, he became the first president to be impeached (followed by his acquittal in the Senate).

Despite their new legal rights, the majority of former slaves struggled to make a living in the Reconstruction South. In 1870 the final four states (Virginia, Mississippi, Texas and Georgia) were readmitted to the Union. Troops remained in the South until 1876.

In 1869, Congress approved the 15th Amendment (ratified in 1870) which  prohibits the federal government and each state from denying or abridging a citizen’s right to vote “on account of race color or previous condition of servitude.” According to Ayers, the primary rationale for the amendment was the large number of northern voters who didn’t agree with Black suffrage.

[1] Democrat Andrew Johnson granted pardons to most former Confederate leaders.

[2] The KKK was founded in 1863.

[3] Suffragettes who had campaigned tirelessly for abolition were extremely angry when the 14th Amendment essentially denied them the right to vote.

[4] To avoid a recurrence of the power vacuum occurring after Lincoln’s assassination when they were in recess for seven months.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

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How Corporate America Uses Immigration Policy to Hold Down Wages

Watch Promise. Episode 6 of Season 1.

Amend: The Fight for America Episode 6

Netflix (2021)

Film Review

Episode 6 looks at the ongoing struggle of foreign immigrants seeking equal protection and due process guarantees of the 14th amendment. Following several court rulings extending 14th Amendment protections to non-citizens (including due process rights for immigrants entering the US illegally), President Clinton signed the Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. This law makes it legal to jail immigrants seeking asylum, as well as to deport people without a due process hearing.

The major weakness of this final episode is its failure to emphasize the historic role US corporations have played in promoting mass immigration to hold down wages.

The first example of this was the massive import of Chinese immigrant laborers in the mid-19th century to built the Trans-Atlantic Railroad. Once the tracks were completed in 1869, Chinese immigrants were less welcome. The 1871 Chinese Massacre in Los Angeles was one of the largest mass lynchings (with 19 killed) in US history.

Competition for scarce jobs grew during the 1880 economic depression only increased anti-Chinese sentiment. In 1882, Congress pass the first US immigration law, the Chinese Exclusion Act.* In the 1924 Immigration Act, Congress also established strict national origin quotas for immigrants from countries outside of Western Europe.

With the major industrial boom the US experienced in the early 20th century, US employers looked to roughly one million Mexican immigrants to fill labor shortages. When the bubble burst in 1929 (with the start of the Great Depression). the US deported upwards of 400,000 Mexican-Americans, even though 60% were US citizens. Following the recession of 1953, thousands more were deported under Operation Wetback.

*Which remained in force until 1943.

The Pivotal Role of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in Enforcing the 14th Amendment

Watch Wait. Episode 3 of Season 1.

Amend: The Fight for America Episode 3

Netflix (2021)

Film Review

Episode 3 focuses mainly on the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs The Board of Education, the1960s civil rights movement and President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Civil Rights Act.

This episode begins by exploring the role of Thurgood Marshall (eventually appointed to the Supreme Court) and other black lawyers in championing a number of “separate but equal” court challenges. Their work would culminate in the 1954 SCOTUS decision that “separate but equal” Black schools violated the 14th Amendment.

The film then looks at the large Black vote that helped John Kennedy win a narrow victory against Richard Nixon in 1960. As with Barack Obama, this was followed by years of backpedaling on civil rights issues. In 1962, Martin Luther King drafted a second Emancipation Proclamation outlawing segregation for Kennedy to sign as an executive order. When the president refused, King launched a nonviolent protest campaign in Birmingham Alabama, a city with the most brutally racist police force in the US. He hoped the crisis and media attention it garnered would force Kennedy’s hand.

After writing Kennedy from Birmingham jail, King launched the Children’s Crusade, which involved children as young as seven. When newspapers all over the world carried front page photos of children being sprayed with fire hoses and attacked by dogs, Kennedy finally ordered the Alabama National Guard to escort two Black students seeking to register at the University of Alabama.

After Kennedy was assassinated, it fell to Johnson to introduce the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The latter specifically acknowledged (for the first time) the federal government’s role in forcing states to uphold the 14th amendment (guaranteeing African Americans equal protection under the law).

The Netflix Version of Reconstruction and the Great Northward Migration

The Fight for America Episode 2

Netflix (2021)

Film Review

Episode 2 briefly covers Civil War Reconstruction, and the immense progress freed slaves made when federal troops occupied the South. This included the construction of a large number of public schools. The latter served both Black and white students, in many cases the first time poor Southern whites enjoyed access to pubic education. It also saw the election of a large number of African Americans to local and national office.

Once federal troops withdrew, white Southerners restored former slaves to a state of servitude via Black Codes, Jim Crow laws and Ku Klux Klan terrorism (ie lynching, firebombing, extrajudicial assassination, etc).

Moreover the Supreme Court ruled against Southern Blacks who sued for their right to equal protection (against arbitrary loss of life, liberty or property) under the 14th Amendment.

In the 1873 Slaughterhouse case, the SCOTUS ruled US citizens had to look to state governments for the privileges and protections guaranteed under the 14th Amendment.

In the 1876 Cruikshank case, the SCOTUS ruled the 14th Amendment doesn’t protect US citizens from violence inflicted by private citizens (eg lynching).

In the 1883 Civil Rights case, the SCOTUS ruled the 14th Amendment doesn’t protect US citizens from discrimination by private businesses.

In the 1896 Plessy vs Fergueson case, the SCOTUS ruled state segregation laws constitutional so long as Black citizens were offered “separate but equal” facilities.

KKK terrorism, combined with increasing northern industrialization would lead to a mass migration of southern Blacks to norther cities seeking factory jobs. In many cities, they found that mob violence against African Americans was just as dangerous as in the South.

In 1909 journalist and educator Ida Wells founded the NAACP as part of her tireless campaign to end lynching and white mob violence.

In this episode, filmmakers also examine the origins of southern Lost Cause ideology, which holds the South won a noble victory by “defeating” federal Reconstruction efforts. According to filmmakers, this ideology is celebrated in the 1915 film Birth of a Nation, the 1939 film Gone with the Wind and a host of highly controversial Confederate monuments in all the confederate states.

The Netflix Version of the 14th Amendment

Amend: The Fight for America Episode 1

Netflix (2021)

Film Review

This Netflix series provides good information about the 14th Amendment to the conception and it’s role in defining the qualification for being a US citizen and in stating explicitly that a US citizen can’t be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law. However I’m not convinced there is sufficient educational content to justify dragging it out to six episodes.

I was also troubled to see the heavy reliance on the Supreme Court (a legal process only open to people who can afford to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees) required for many Americans to enjoy basic rights supposedly guaranteed under the Constitution. This narrow focus on reform by court decree also fails to address the more important question: why no one looks to Congress to enact social justice legislation. The answer, in my view, is that members of the House and Senate are so tightly controlled by corporate lobbies (who fund their election campaigns) that they can’t.

Episode One focuses mostly on the work of Frederick Douglass in campaigning first to end slavery and then to have African Americans recognized as citizens via the 14th Amendment. The latter was ratified in three years after the Civil War ended in 1868.

The most interesting part of this episode concerns a meeting Douglass and other Black leaders had with Lincoln during the Civil War. At this meeting President Lincoln asserted that Blacks would never be the equal of Whites and tried to persuade Douglass to start a colony in Central America.

The 14th Amendment would overturn the Supreme Court’s 1856 Dred Scott decision. In it, the SCOTUS declared that the Constitution never intended either freed or enslaved Africans to be US citizens.