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Digital History ID 3107

 

More than any other southern city, New Orleans, La., tested the boundaries of possibility during Reconstruction. With the largest black population of any city in the nation, New Orleans was the first city in the South to integrate its police force and to experiment with school integration. At least 240 blacks in New Orleans were active in Reconstruction politics, and three served as Louisiana's lieutenant governor and one served briefly as acting governor.

Resentful whites in Louisiana organized the White League to terrorize African Americans. Read one call for supporters:

Can you bear it longer, that negro [sic] ignorance, solidified in opposition to white intelligence, and led by carpet-bag and scalawag impudence and villainy, shall continue to hold the State, your fortunes and your honor by the throat, while they perpetuate upon you indignities and crimes unparalleled?

The White League, made up largely of former Confederate soldiers and the white business elite, was dedicated to the reestablishment of white supremacy. In September 1874, the League overwhelmed the state militia seized control of state government offices. The attack left 27 Republican supporters of Reconstruction dead, including 24 African Americans and three whites. President Ulysses S. Grant had to order a squadron of six warships and federal troops in order to force the White League to surrender.

Reconstruction was overthrown by a political movement known as Redemption, which reestablished white supremacy in the South. Some upper class white southern conservatives, such as Wade Hampton, a wealthy South Carolinian, attempted to draw black voters away from the Republican Party. In 1876, when he ran for governor, he told African American voters:

We want your votes; we don't want you to be deprived of them.... if we are elected...we will observe, protect, and defend the rights of the colored man as quickly as any man in South Carolina.

But the main strategy used to overthrow Reconstruction was economic intimidation and physical violence. Secret organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, founded in Tennessee in 1866, and the Knights of the White Camellia were dedicated to ending Republican rule and preventing blacks from voting. Members of these organizations included judges, lawyers, and clergymen as well as yeomen farmers and poor whites.

The Redeemers had no scruples about fraud or terror. "Every Democrat," said a South Carolina Redeemer, "must feel honor bound to control the vote of at least one negro by intimidation, purchase...or as each individual will determine." Hundreds of blacks were beaten and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan and other white terrorist groups.

In 1870 and 1871, Congress passed the Force Act and the Ku Klux Klan Act which gave the president the power to use federal troops to prevent the denial of voting rights. Activities of groups like the Ku Klux Klan declined, but the campaign of intimidation was successful in keeping many African Americans from the polls. By 1876, Republican governments had been toppled in all but three states.

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