Democrats cry foul over "President Richard Nixon's decision to pursue a 'southern strategy' (based, in part, on seeing the strength of segregationist Governor George Wallace's third-party presidential bid in 1968 in which he garnered 46 electoral votes and about 13% of the popular vote)," the strategy "meant to drive a wedge right into the greatest of all New Deal Democratic Party contradictions -- the long-lived, increasingly uneasy alliance of the northern liberal and southern white conservative wings of the Party" (Engelhardt, November 14, 2004).
("Free States vs. Slave States ~ Oh How Far We've Come. . . ," Sensory Overload, November 04, 2004)
The "southern strategy," however, has worked only because both the Republican and Democratic Parties, alike controlled by the ruling class, chose to crush poor farmers' and workers' attempts to overcome white supremacy and advance their class interests -- from Black Reconstruction to Populism to Operation Dixie.
As Nathan Newman and J. J. Gass note, "The ultimate bulwark of white supremacy was violence" (emphasis added, "A New Birth of Freedom: The Forgotten History of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments," 2004, p. 16). Had the North had the political will to do so, it would have refused to demobilize the Union Army ("The Union Army is quickly demobilized. From a troop strength of one million on May 1, only 152,000 Union soldiers remain in the South by the end of 1865" ["Reconstruction Timeline: 1863-1866"]), placed the South under the Union Army's military dictatorship for a decade or so, confiscated all land of the big Confederate land owners, and redistributed it to Blacks and poor whites in the South to break the economic base of white terror that would later culminate in the Colfax massacre and other atrocities.
Some white Radical Republicans knew that expropriation of Confederate landlords was what it would take to truly reconstruct the South, though they were a minority among the party elite, according to Eric Foner:
The idea of remaking Southern society led a few Radicals to propose that the federal government overturn the plantation system and provide the former slaves with homesteads. In a speech to Pennsylvania's Republican convention in September 1865, [Thaddeus] Stevens called for the seizure of the 400 million acres belonging to the wealthiest ten percent of Southerners:Freedmen and -women wanted land, correctly believing that's the necessary condition for their freedom and autonomy:The whole fabric of southern society must be changed, and never can it be done if this opportunity is lost. . . . How can republican institutions, free schools, free churches, free social intercourse exist in a mingled community of nabobs and serfs? If the South is ever to be made a safe republic let her lands be cultivated by the toil of the owners.Confiscation, Stevens believed, would break the power of the South's traditional ruling class, transform the Southern social structure, and create a triumphant Southern Republican party composed of black and white yeomen and Northern purchasers of planter land.
Even among the Radicals, however, only a handful stressed the land question as uncompromisingly as did Stevens. (Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863-1877, Harper Perennial, 1990, p. 107)
As A. Warren Kelsey, a representative of Northern cotton manufacturer shrewdly observed:What prevented the Republican Party from heeding the Black and white Radical Republicans' call for land reforms? Foner explains: "Blacks' quest for economic independence not only threatened the foundations of the Southern political economy, it put the freedmen at odds with both former owners seeking to restore plantation labor discipline and Northerners committed to reinvigorating staple crop production" (p. 48).
The sole ambition of the freedman at the present time appears to be to become the owner of a little piece of land, there to erect a humble home, and to dwell in peace and security at his own free will and pleasure. If he wishes, to cultivate the ground in cotton on his own account, to be able to do so without anyone to dictate to him hours or system of labor, if he wishes instead to plant corn or sweet potatoes -- to be able to do that free from any outside control. . . . That is their idea, their desire and their hope.
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Most of the land occupied by blacks in the summer and fall of 1865 lay within the "Sherman reservation." To [Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner Oliver Otis] Howard fell the melancholy task of informing the freedmen that the land would be restored to their former owners and that they must either agree to work for the planters or be evicted. . . .
Howard requested the assembled freedmen to appoint a three-man committee to consider the fairest way of restoring the planters to ownership. The committee's eloquent response did not augur well for a tranquil settlement:General, we want Homesteads, we were promised Homesteads by the government. If it does not carry out the promises its agents made to us, if the government haveing concluded to befriend its late enemies and to neglect to observe the principles of common faith between its self and us its allies in the war you said was over, now takes away from them all right to the soil they stand upon save such as they can get by again working for your late and their all time enemies . . . we are left in a more unpleasant condition than our former. . . . You will see this is not the condition of really freemen.In these words, the committee expressed with simple dignity the conviction of all freedmen that land was the foundation of freedom, the evils of slavery could not be quickly forgotten, and the interests of former master and former slave were fundamentally irreconcilable. (Foner, pp. 48, 72-3)
You ask us to forgive the land owners of our island. . . . The man who tied me to a tree and gave me 39 lashes and who stripped and flogged my mother and my sister and who will not let me stay in his empty hut except I will do his planting and be satisfied with his price and who combines with others to keep away land from me well knowing I would not have anything to do with them if I had land of my own -- that man, I cannot well forgive. Does it look as if he has forgiven me, seeing how he tries to keep me in a condition of helplessness?
The Northern business elite even feared that Blacks, if allied with poor white farmers and workingmen, would go the way of the Paris Communards!
W. E. B. DuBois called Black Reconstruction "a glorious failure." It was a lost opportunity of world-historic proportions.
- The Death of Reconstruction expands our understanding of the North during the generation following emancipation. Reading broadly in the region's newspapers, magazines, and popular books, Heather Cox Richardson summarizes the story of southern Reconstruction that was available to literate northerners. This popular account, she argues, explains why northern sympathizers deserted the former slaves. These often partisan media initially depicted the freedpeople as good workers who subscribed to free labor principles and a harmony of interest between labor and capital, in this regard comparing favorably with strike-prone laboring Democrats who regarded capital as their natural enemy. Soon, however, observers began to wonder whether universal male suffrage would sustain the free labor vision or instead enfranchise workers who would champion collective entitlements rather than individual liberties. The rise of a "labor interest" among black southerners rattled northern Republicans, who feared that the freedpeople were coming under the sway of demagogues.
Even as the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, reports from Louisiana and South Carolina indicated that politics by ex-slaves challenged property rights and proper government in ways reminiscent of the oft-reported horrors of the Paris Commune. In the context of northern fears of labor unrest, Richardson argues, white northerners even interpreted white supremacist massacres as justifiable defenses of the social order. Efforts to secure national civil rights protections seemed to demand an expanded federal government that would rely on freedpeople's votes while turning them into its subservient wards. The Republicans' resulting fear "that the mass of African Americans hoped to use the national government to attain prosperity," instead of relying on their own hard work, rendered northerners unwilling to rescue their onetime southern allies from Democratic terrorists. Thus the disfranchisement and segregation of black southerners proceeded without substantial northern resistance. (Stephen Kantrowitz, "The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post–Civil War North, 1865–1901. By Heather Cox Richardson" [Book Review], The Journal of American History 89.3, December 2002)
- Why did northerners abandon Reconstruction? After years of pursuing a rough equality for the newly freed slaves, why did they walk away and watch in silence as Jim Crow descended on the South? Historians have offered a number of explanations for this abandonment: partisan politics, racism, war weariness, corruption, class needs of planters. But Heather Cox Richardson argues that these explanations, while compelling, are "disparate aspects" (p. xi) of the northern experience. How, she asks, did they fit together? The answer can be found in northerners' adherence to free labor ideology.
This is a big topic, and to make the job manageable, Richardson focuses almost entirely on northern newspapers and opinion makers: she follows the trajectory of the northern discourse about the nation's political economy between 1865 and 1901. Having fought a war for free labor, Republicans were committed to the South's transformation into a free labor society and were drawn to the newly emancipated slaves as ideal free laborers: workmen who "worked hard and skillfully, lived frugally, saved their money, and planned to rise as individuals through their own efforts" (pp. 7–8). These "good" workers, who believed in the harmony of interests between employees and employers, stood in sharp contrast to bad workers: those who allied with the Democratic Party, believed that "polarizing wealth meant the creation of economic classes locked in inevitable conflict" (p. 8), and looked to the federal government for help in solving their problems.
When recalcitrant southern whites interfered with the South's transition to a free labor society, Republicans concluded that the federal government would have to assume an active role in the process. Republicans passed civil rights legislation and the Fourteenth Amendment and then fought for universal male suffrage, all to ensure the protection of the freedmen's economic rights. But Republicans' commitment to black male suffrage evoked Democratic complaints of corruption and empire building, and the freedmen's political activism, viewed in the context of increasing labor unrest in the North, engendered Republican worries that enfranchising black men would "harness the government to the service of disaffected workers, who hoped to confiscate the wealth of others rather than to work their own way to economic success" (p. 82). In South Carolina, a convention attended by ex-Confederates protested new taxes and accused black legislators of plundering property holders, fueling northern concerns. In 1871, Horace Greeley chided "lazy" blacks (p. 99) who were unwilling to work, drawing a parallel between the Paris Commune and the South Carolina freedmen.
Though not all blacks fit this category -- Republicans praised those blacks who achieved success in an individualistic fashion -- an image of "an uneducated mass of African-American voters pillaging society was one of the most powerful ones of the postwar years" (p. 118). Increasingly, Republicans "read the Northern struggle over political economy into the racial struggles of the South" (p. 94) -- including the campaign for a civil rights bill and the 1879 black exodus -- and the debate over Reconstruction was recast as a debate over state action, individualism, and the American way of life. By the 1890s, it was clear to northerners that their faith in the freedmen as free laborers had been misplaced, and virtually all black activism had come to symbolize the threat that European-style class conflict posed to American individualism. Thus northerners who hoped to preserve traditional American values accepted black disenfranchisement and came to believe that blacks were "bound by race into permanent semi-barbarism" (p. 224). (Melinda Lawson, "Heather Cox Richardson. The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865–1901" [Book Review], American Historical Review 108.5, December 2003)
The same elite opposition to communism, which organized labor was unable to defy, explains the failure to unionize Southern workers, leaving white workers unacquainted with the power of interracial solidarity and vulnerable to racist demagoguery:
One important outcome of the Truman years’ CIO commitment to anti-communism and to the Democratic Party was the defeat of Operation Dixie, launched in 1946 as a major effort to organize the Deep South. Initially launched with 400 organizers and a $1 million budget, “Operation Dixie” was cancelled two years later following pressure from racist, anti-communist Dixiecrat governments and employers. The CIO leaders had to choose between organizing the South and maintaining the labor-Democratic alliance. Art Preis explained their dilemma:That's the legacy of the duopoly of the parties of the ruling class: sacrifice of the interests of Blacks in particular and workers in general, especially in the South.It was impossible to support the Democratic Party and not reinforce its Southern wing, the chief prop of the Jim Crow system and the one-party dictatorship in the South. The CIO leaders refused to wage political war against the Southern ruling class because that would undermine the whole Democratic Party and put an end to the Democratic Party-labor coalition.15Present-day company threats to move to the Sunbelt if workers do not accept concessions and the generally lower wages of workers in the South are the living legacy of this decision. A weakened labor movement was the result.
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. . . [T]he alliance between organized labor and the Democratic Party strengthened throughout the next 20 years while the coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans passed restriction after restriction on labor unions. Following the 1943 passage of the Smith-Connally Act, the Taft-Hartley Act (1947) placed a number of restrictions on union activities, including barring communists from leadership positions, outlawing sympathy strikes, and imposing “cooling-off” periods on strikes. The Communist Control Act (1950) allowed the government to remove elected union leaderships by fiat and to deny collective bargaining rights to “communist” unions. The Landrum-Griffin Act (1959) allowed union leaders to use “trusteeships” against militants and allowed the government to take over unions. (Lance Selfa, The Democratic Party and the Politics of Lesser Evilism, 2004)