logo Click BACK to return to basecamp
Lost Teachers
Search Info
White beveled edge

Neda Dispatch

Meet Neda

Neda Archive

Cool Links
Post-Civil War History



Unbuilding Reconstruction

We picked this dispatch as today's "Best."
Click here to have future picks e-mailed to you!


Professor Ownby provides some insight
Charles Caldwell's last words were: "Never say you killed a coward." Seconds later, his body crumpled as assassins opened fired and pumped his flesh with bullets. It is said that Caldwell had to die. He had to die because he was a Republican, because he was a leader, and above all -- because he was black.

Caldwell was born into slavery near the town of Clinton, Mississippi. He was a self-educated man and worked as a blacksmith until the end of the Civil War. The emancipation proclamation granted him freedom and opportunity, and he seized them both. In 1868, he was elected to the Constitutional Convention in Jackson, where he helped draft the new state constitution. Soon, Caldwell became a Mississippi State Senator.

Neda frolics in Clinton, Mississippi
Although Caldwell was a remarkable fellow, he was not the only African-American in government during this time. According to Ted Ownby, Professor of History at the University of Mississippi, the Reconstruction period after the Civil War was unlike any other time in Mississippi politics. African-Americans formed the largest group of Southern Republicans and thousands voted in the elections to form a new government with Republicans in power. (Back then, Republicans were seen as pro-black and Democrats as pro-white). There were substantial numbers of African-Americans in the legislature and although they never had a majority, they did make an enormous impact.

Caldwell was in good company in Mississippi. There was Hiram Revels, the first African-American in the U.S. Senate. There was Blanche Bruce, another Senator and one of Frederick Douglass' closest friends. There was Alexander Davis, the lieutenant governor. In all, 30 black Republicans served in the state legislature, and several others held the important offices of secretary of state, education superintendent and Speaker of the House. Conservative whites were not happy. In 1875, they introduced the Mississippi Plan, which allowed Democrats to regain power in that year's state elections. This "plan" involved many underhanded tactics such as stuffing the ballot box with Democratic votes, destroying Republican ballots, and miscounting ballots. It also involved intimidating and scaring away African-American voters.

Riots and an assassination-not the best of news
This was a tense time and inevitably led to an outbreak of violence. In September, a Republican rally in Clinton was disrupted by gunfire. Mass confusion ensued, and when it was over, several people lay dead. In the days following the "Clinton Riot," bands of armed white men terrorized Republicans in the county, both black and white. One of these bands told Caldwell's wife that they were going to kill her husband "if it [takes] two years, or one year, or six; no difference; we are going to kill him anyhow… because he belongs to this Republican Party, and sticks up for these Negroes."

It happened, of all nights, on Christmas. Caldwell was lured into a store for a "friendly" Christmas drink. But there was no eggnog waiting for him. Instead, there was an ambush, and a shot in the back. His coat soaked with blood, he was carried outside to the street where a crowd of armed white men had gathered. It was here that Caldwell spoke his defiant last words, telling the cowards around him that they were killing a "gentleman and a brave man." That night, the south lost one of its most courageous and talented leaders.

No kidding?
There were more losses to come. One way or another, every last African-American congressman and senator who had been elected during Reconstruction was driven from office by 1896. Although, not all were carried out through assassination, the white conservatives found many other ways to set back the progress that African-Americans had made in politics. For instance, in 1890, a new state constitution was created to ban blacks from voting or holding office in order to "purify" Mississippi politics. Taking away the right to vote (or disfranchisement) was definitely a big way to keep African-Americans out of politics. In fact, it was so major, that I wrote a whole other dispatch about it!


Dancing Queen - My feet are very happy with me...

Even when minorities were allowed to vote, there were strategies used to prevent their vote from counting. One method involved a salamander. Now what in the world does a cute little green amphibian have to do with all of this? Well, actually, it is not so much the salamander that has been making such a difference, but the gerrymander. The gerrymander unfortunately is not little and is not green. And it definitely is not cute. A gerrymander is an election district that has been divided in a way that gives a special advantage to a certain group. The first one was created in 1812 by a Massachusetts governor named Elbridge Gerry who created a district that looked like a salamander. Gerrymanders are often drawn along political or racial lines. The purpose is either to dilute a vote (i.e. spread all the African-Americans out so that they can't win any seats) or to pack a vote (i.e. concentrate all African-Americans into one district so that whites will gain control of the rest of the districts). Gerrymanders do not have to have the form of an animal… but they do tend to come in all types of fun shapes and sizes!

MS map
A classic case was the city of Tuskegee, Alabama, which redrew its city limits from a square into a "strangely irregular twenty-eight-sided figure." The result was that all but four or five of the city's black voters were removed without removing a single white voter or resident.

Since African-Americans could not concentrate their power, it was difficult for them to be elected into office. In fact, there were no African-Americans in Congress for the next 30 years, until Oscar De Priest became an Illinois Representative in 1928. And once blacks returned to the political arena, harassment was quick to follow. Segregation during this time was so bad that one black representative had to eat his lunch in the bathroom rather than the congressional lunchroom with everyone else.

And gerrymandering is not just a thing of the past. A few weeks ago, a case involving a long, skinny district in North Carolina was brought in front of the Supreme Court for the fourth time in the past decade! We'll probably start hearing more about it once state legislatures start redistricting, as they do every decade after the census.

Is there a silver lining to all of this? Well, the good thing is that steps have been taken to eliminate voter fraud and gerrymandering. African-Americans formed a Congressional Black Caucus in 1971, which serves to eliminate the remaining barriers to equal opportunity and justice. At present, only 37 of the 435 members of the House of Representatives are black. It's more than zero, but of course, we still have a long way to go. This is another reason why it is so important for all Americans - in particular minority Americans - to get out and vote!


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephanie - Segregation and how the South kept its evil ways
Teddy - Impeach the President! Andrew Johnson, that is
Nick - You're crazy! You can't do that!!!
Making A Difference - Getting mad about hate groups
Neda - This is America. We all have the right to vote…or do we?