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Reconstruction policies proved to be the seeds of failure in American race relations in the 19th century. Reconstruction demanded the Negroes freedom, their civil rights, the opportunity for economic freedom, education and the right to vote. This idea of Negro equality was the most controversial aspect of radical reconstruction, and violence was one of the means used to undermine Reconstruction. Racism and violence have proved to be interrelated factors in American society. In the words of W.E.B. Du Bois The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.
The Southern whites ideology expressed certain propositions about the black man in society. The abolition of slavery ended the institution but not the system of beliefs, assumptions, and values they held concerning the Negro. Within the context of this white supremacist ideology, racism flourished. The black man was viewed as being part of a caste system where they were relegated to the bottom of the social classes with no legal status.
In the movie The Birth of A Nation the director, D.W. Griffith, interprets the social reality and justifying policies of the Southern white in the 19th century. The tone of the movie infers that blacks are inherently inferior and are incapable of appreciating the freedom given to them. We are introduced to images of the contented slave working complacently in the field, to the freedman who has been corrupted by the Scallywags and Carpetbaggers, to the comic Negro in his clownish clothes, dancing and performing and to the vicious Negro renegade who attacks a white woman. The contrast between the Negro and the Southern white is established not only by characterization but also by southern attitudes and mannerisms. Griffith is re-creating the southern ideal of what it meant to be part of a higher civilization with values and an outlook that shaped the souths history. He pictures the well-dressed southern gentleman and lady, with their genteel manners and refined airs, as having the innate ability to appreciate the cotton flower in contrast to the downtrodden Negro worker in his shabby attire. There are other racist images throughout the movie as we view a changed south, that now has Negro judges and juries and white defendants. We are shown state assemblies in which the black men have control and authority but they are portrayed as drunken, shoeless, ignorant buffoons. It is here that we come to understand that new laws will be created to ensure the advancement and equality of the black race. It is suggested that the black man would dare to pass laws that allow intermarriage between whites and blacks. We learn that the Southern girl, Elsie, is outraged when Silas Lynch, a mulatto, dares to propose marriage. Silas Lynch becomes a symbol of his mulatto race. To underscore such absurdity, her father, a black sympathizer, becomes angered when he learns of the proposal thus emphasizing the hypocrisy of the northern views. Racism is again reinforced when Cameron meets Lynch for the first time and Cameron refuses to shake Lynchs hand because Lynch dares to consider himself an equal. There is also a confrontation on the street when a black man refuses to step aside for the white men to pass. Even the old Colonel is arrested and paraded before his former slaves who spit and taunt him. All these images project a South humiliated and degraded by Reconstruction. The Southerner feels degradation over the new order and the new rebellion of the South begins.
Within the context of the South, beaten in war, where murder, disorganization and military rule is the new order, violence becomes the answer. Violence was the direct result of the Souths racist attitude and it was an integral part of the Southern landscape. Sympathy is elicited for the Southern white when Piedmont, South Carolina is under attack by a band of Negro militia and northern whites. We see the Negro raiding and burning homes, shooting whites and destroying the town without any just cause. Self-preservation becomes the key to saving themselves and violence becomes the means to their salvation. At the center of the resort to violence was a secret organization which served as a kind of guerrilla force to restore white supremacy. It was known as the Ku Klux Klan or
The Invisible Empire of the South. A social circle or kuklos of men organized the group in Pulaski, Tennessee with the explicit purpose of terrorizing the blacks. This group was the strongest and most visible of any of the racial organizations. They wanted to maintain white supremacy at any cost. They lynched a total of 3,224 people and 2,522 of them were black.(Gary in-class) In the words of Eric Foner, a leading historian of Reconstruction, the Klan and similar organizations sought to destroy the Republican Partys infrastructure, undermine the Reconstruction state, reestablish control over the black labor force, and restore racial subordination in every aspect of Southern life. (Foner, p 184) There were other violent organizations known as The Knights of the White Camellia in Louisiana, The Knights of the Rising Sun in Texas and The White Line in Mississippi. These organizations fanned the flames of racism for they were against black power which included the vote, holding office and acting as an equal. Anyone who participated in radical Reconstruction -Carpetbaggers and Scallywags – met with murder. Violence was also directed at local leaders who were forced to flee their homes after brutal beatings. The black man was raised to be afraid of white men and, now, the Klans hooded disguises were meant to play on the Negroes superstitions and fears. The black man was beaten, and tortured and his home, church and schools burned to the ground. Another target was the Freedmans Bureau which aided the newly freed black man. As Foner states the Klan paraded coffins through the streets with the names of those who worked for the Bureau and labeled them dead, damned and delivered. (Foner,p76)
History has recorded other violent acts as a direct result of racism. The Colfax Massacre is the bloodies single instance of racial carnage in the Reconstruction era. (Foner, p 189) In the county seat of Colfax in Grant Parish blacks took control but were overpowered by white armed gangs, carrying guns and cannons, and massacred 50 blacks after the blacks had surrendered under a white flag.
Griffiths movie confirms the existence of the Ku Klux Klan but portrays them as redeemers whose cause is to avenge the wrongs perpetrated by the radical reconstructionists and the Negro. Its interesting to note the movie shows the birth of the Klan as the idea of one man and by the end of the movie we see legions of disguised riders saving the south from looting Negroes.
The pattern of racism and violence continued into the early 20th century. By the 1900s the black mans civil rights were in name only. As W.E.B. Du Bois said, The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line. (p168). With the Democratic recapture of the southern states government, white supremacy had become the official credo of the South. Racism seemed to gain vigor and one of the most sensational violent attacks occurred in the city of Atlanta, Georgia in 1906 when a race riot broke out. Whites attacked unarmed blacks in retaliation for a dozen rapes by black men against white women. Whites began to attack every black person they saw and when the blacks defended themselves the whites set out upon a general destruction of Negro property and lives. President Roosevelts hands off approach to the riot only reconfirmed the growing view that the door of opportunity which being shut in the black face.
One of the most far-reaching consequences of Reconstruction was the recurrence of a strong sense of southern pride. Once again southerners looked upon themselves as the guardians of civilized society. It was inconceivable to the southerner that he and the Negro could co-exist with equal status. An outraged and indignant south launched the final challenge to the racial system of the New South. The views of D.W. Griffith were shaped by his confederate background and his movie was meant to move people emotionally. As it negatively depicts black Americans, it perpetuates the white supremacist attitude of the South. In the end, we are left with a sense that the Negro, scallywags and carpetbaggers deserved the violence. The Ku Klux Klan looks proud as they ride together, crusaders on a mission to save their Aryan birthright. Even the music sounds triumphant when the Klan is riding. The parade of the Klan encourages us to think that good has triumphed over evil. The horrors of Reconstruction only served to preserve the souths opposition to social change.
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