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
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