This year, Juneteenth (June 19), marks the 157th anniversary of the final action for the emancipation of enslaved people, when U.S. troops arrived in Galveston, Texas. Juneteenth is now a national holiday, a gain that was won from the George Floyd upsurge, but a holiday is not enough. Much more must be won as part of the Black freedom struggle in the U.S.
By Steven Xavier
First published on Workers’ Voice
The post-Civil War era of Reconstruction offered hope to the formerly enslaved that they would achieve social, economic, and political equality in the United States. Indeed, the end of the Civil War unleashed social and political ferment among broad layers of U.S. society, with workers forming unions, women demanding the right to vote and equality, and the freed former slaves fighting for schools, land reform, the right to vote, and other democratic rights.
Reconstruction is generally divided into three stages: Wartime Reconstruction, Presidential Reconstruction, and Radical Reconstruction, which ended with the “Compromise of 1877” and the withdrawal of federal troops from the South. The first attempt at Reconstruction began during the Civil War with Lincoln’s offer of a general amnesty, the restoration of property (except for formerly enslaved people), and a path to reintegration into the union. But Radical Republicans in Congress rejected this plan as too lenient on the rebellious Confederate states.
Early in 1865, General William T. Sherman issued Field Order No. 15, which redistributed roughly 400,000 acres of confiscated land, divided into 40-acre plots, in coastal Georgia and South Carolina to newly freed Black families. After Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson reversed Sherman’s confiscation of land, returning most of it to former slaveholders. Johnson, a Southerner and former slave owner, also gave Southern states the right to form governments. In turn, these new governments enacted “Black codes” designed to subjugate the formerly enslaved and enforce their second-class status.
“One of the tragic things that happens in that period is toward the end of 1865, the very same Union army that had distributed land to some of these former slaves now comes back and tells them, look, you got to get off the land now. President Johnson has restored it to the former owners. You can stick around if you want, but you have to acknowledge the former owners own the land, and you have to sign a labor contract to work as a laborer on the land. But it’s not your land anymore. And people who refused to accept that were evicted from the land by the Union army” (Historian Eric Foner On The ‘Unresolved Legacy Of Reconstruction,’ National Public Radio, June 5, 2020).
Radical Reconstruction began with the passage of the Reconstruction Act of 1867. The law set criteria for readmission of Southern states to the union, which included ratification of the 13th and 14th Amendments, the protection of the rights of the formerly enslaved, and divided the South into military districts. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, except “as a punishment for a crime,” while the 14th extended citizenship to all people “born or naturalized in the United States.” This included the newly freed Blacks. The 14th Amendment also has provisions for “equal protection under the laws” and the protection of citizens’ right to vote.
Freed Blacks made many important gains during Reconstruction in land ownership and education, and in participation in politics for the first time. During Reconstruction, 16 African Americans were elected to Congress, including a U.S. Senator from Mississippi, and more than 600 were elected to state legislatures. However, the much-needed land reform never happened.
Although freed Blacks engaged in enormous struggles for democratic and economic rights, their white Republican allies had to balance the demands coming from below with the pressure applied by Northern industrial capitalists. The Radical Republicans, who ultimately served the interests of Northern industrial capitalism, limited the revolutionary potential of Reconstruction by protecting the rights of private property. For this wing of the Republican Party, keeping control of governmental power was a central task.
Reconstruction was “expected to assure pro-Republican governments in the South, based on assumed support for the Republicans from the Black population. It was calculated that if even a small percentage of whites joined with the Blacks, majority governments favorable to industrial capitalist interests could be established in almost all the states. Thus ‘Radical Reconstruction’ was aimed at guaranteeing the industrial capitalists not only hegemony in the federal government but control of the state governments in the South” (Peter Camejo in “Racism, Revolution, Reaction 1861-1877, The Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction,” p. 87, Pathfinder Press, 1976).
During Reconstruction, white terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan aimed to drive occupying federal troops from the South and terrorized freed Black people. Although violence against the Freedmen’s Bureau, Black families, and individuals associated with Reconstruction governments reached a fever pitch, the federal government did little to stem the tide of reaction. White resistance to Reconstruction fostered an environment of terror and lawlessness, with mass violence, murder, church burnings, and lynchings used against freed slaves.
Ultimately, Reconstruction was betrayed for political gain. The election of 1876 had no clear winner. President Rutherford B. Hayes used the withdrawal of federal troops from the South as a bargaining chip with the Democrats. Democrats supported Hayes’s certification as president, and the South returned to the political control of the class of former slaveholders. “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again towards slavery” (WEB DuBois, “Black Reconstruction,” p. 30, Free Press).
The betrayal of Reconstruction brought a violent counterrevolution to the South. Jim Crow segregation laws were put in place restricting the rights of the Black population. The cause of Black liberation was betrayed as segregation, race laws, and armed terror by the KKK and lynch mobs brought Black people back to a situation nearly as bad as under their previous enslaved status. After Reconstruction ended, Black people were robbed of the right to vote, and police-state conditions were enforced against Blacks.
Slavery and the formation of U.S. capitalism
The special oppression of Black people in the U.S. is historically rooted in the development of capitalism in this country. Along with the exploitation of Northern labor, the capital accumulation necessary for the growth of U.S. capitalism was largely based on the free labor of enslaved Africans and the systematic dispossession and genocide of the Indigenous population.
“In the pre-Civil War United States, a stronger case can be made that slavery played a critical role in economic development. One crop, slave-grown cotton, provided over half of all U.S. export earnings. By 1840, the South grew 60 percent of the world’s cotton and provided some 70 percent of the cotton consumed by the British textile industry. Thus slavery paid for a substantial share of the capital, iron, and manufactured goods that laid the basis for American economic growth. In addition, precisely because the South specialized in cotton production, the North developed a variety of businesses that provided services for the slave South, including textile factories, a meat processing industry, insurance companies, shippers, and cotton brokers” (Historical Context: Was Slavery the Engine of American Economic Growth?).
Slavery required an ideological justification, and the separation of people into “races” by skin color was born. The planter class and other slaveholders invented the “white race” and racial classifications to justify their superior position.
The American Revolution gave hope to some enslaved people with the colonists’ rhetoric about freedom and equality, but these hopes were short-lived. The new republic enshrined slavery and inequality into the Constitution. Of course, the enslaved did not meekly accept their position. As the movement for abolition grew and slaves began to free themselves by running away and carrying out rebellions, more legal barriers to Black freedom were enacted (i.e., the Fugitive Slave Act).
With the fall of Reconstruction and subsequently, the U.S. capitalist class has shown itself to be completely incapable of fulfilling key democratic tasks of the bourgeois revolution—especially regarding the Black population. In fact, the Northern industrial capitalists, having shed any revolutionary dynamism they might have carried over from the early revolutionary republic, more and more took on the role of an outright oppressor of Black people, enforcing variations of apartheid-like policies both North and South. The capitalists used and continue to use racism to divide the working class and hobble its resistance.
“Since the betrayal of Reconstruction, which gave the reins of power in the South back to the former slave owners, there has been no reason whatever to expect anything progressive from the capitalists” (George Breitman, The Bomb-Murder of Harry T. Moore, Fourth International, January 1952).
Some of the gains of the Reconstruction era remained, even if they were not observed or enforced—the 13th and 14th Amendments, for example. The inability of the Radical Republicans to go further in making a social revolution, including thorough land reform, was rooted in their own subservience to the capitalist class. Indeed, the gains made during the Civil Rights movement in terms of voting rights, equal opportunity in employment, and housing discrimination are under increasing attack today. Despite the mass uprising after the murder of George Floyd, racist policing and mass incarceration remain.
The capitalists’ destruction of Reconstruction has had lasting implications for U.S. politics as a whole. Low wages, super-exploitation, and so-called right-to-work laws in the South are a knife to the throat of the entire U.S. working class. The South remains as the cradle of political conservatism and white supremacy in the U.S. Organizing the South is an urgent task in our fight to break the back of reaction.
Going forward, we must build a mass movement to regain lost ground in democratic rights and to demand social, economic, and political equality for the oppressed. This will require building independent mass organizations of oppressed nationalities and a revolutionary workers’ party capable of advancing the struggles of the oppressed and exploited. The Democratic Party and capitalist courts are not an avenue for progressive change. History has shown that every gain made by workers and oppressed people has come through struggle. The coming U.S. revolution must combine the completion of the tasks abandoned during Reconstruction with the fight for workers’ power and socialism.
Illustration: “The First Vote.”