Radical Republicans and the Supreme Court

American history is full of examples of disagreements with the Supreme Court. Nothing rings more true than the narrow interpretations of the 14th and 15th amendments to the United States Constitution. Separate but equal actually meant separate and inherently unequal.

Reconstruction is the historical period Immediately following the Civil War up until 1877 that allowed African Americans to enjoy a window of opportunity and enfranchisement; that slavery had denied them. Radical Republicans (Liberal Republicans) aggressively promoted the concept of complete emancipation i.e. complete equality with whites in public accommodation,voting rights and entering into legal contracts.

During the time immediately before President Lincoln eventually signed the Emancipation Proclamation there was much discussion of what to do with 4 million newly freed slaves. Initially it was proposed that emancipation be gradual and the former slave holders would receive compensation from the government.

Colonization was proposed to repatriate millions of African-Americans to Liberia, Africa so that they would not live freely among whites. Even President Lincoln himself was in favor of colonization. This was the government sanctioned repatriation of millions of African slaves to Liberia. In the state of Illinois, it was illegal for blacks to set foot inside the state, free, slave or otherwise.

President Lincoln’s thinking on colonization evolved to the point where he felt it was only right that African-Americans who fought for the Union should have full citizenship. He no longer saw colonization as a viable option. Leaving the United States and going to Liberia was only an option if the newly freed slaves wanted to return; and some did.

But as the Civil War became more deadly and complicated, President Lincoln signed into law the Emancipation Proclamation that immediately freed all slaves from bondage and there was no compensation given to former slave holders.

As the Union armies invaded the South and thousands upon thousands of newly freed black men or Freedmen, as they were called either joined or followed the Union army. This obviously was quite the conundrum for the South. Without free labor this was the beginning of the end for the Confederacy.

Upon the conclusion of the Civil War reconstruction was ushered in with the full force of the federal government. Five military districts were established throughout the former Confederacy with a general in charge of each military District. The federal government was there too enforce the 13th 14th and 15th amendments and to set up schools and training for newly freed slaves.

At the time Radical Republicans were completely committed to the prospect of emancipation including full and equal rights for African-Americans. This was the abolitionist wing of the Republican Party. The Democrats were mostly slaveholders who had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo – Often times resorting to violence to resist accepting newly freed slaves.

The Army couldn’t be everywhere at once, African-Americans who lived in rural areas faraway from major cities were at the mercy of resentful Southern whites who pretty much did as they pleased leaving blacks to fend for themselves.

Not much is known about the horrific incident that took place in the small town of Colfax Louisiana on Easter Sunday 1873. A hotly contested gubernatorial race was held with a Republican and a Democrat running against each other. There was rampant fraud on both sides with no clear winner and in the end, the radical Republicans gave the governorship to the Republican candidate.

This set off a storm of controversy and much political blow-back. The radical Republicans had given former slaves in the town full equal rights to those of whites, effectively subjugating the white population who were now the disenfranchised. An angry mob of white men feeling that the federal government had overstepped its bounds formed an armed militia and came into Colfax to extract revenge from the Radical Republicans and African-Americans. African Americans had set up a small barricade to try to defend themselves but were quickly outnumbered and thus surrendered. They gave up their weapons to their white captors and almost immediately, they were summarily executed by the white mob. In total 150 black males were murdered in cold blood on that day.

What ensued was a travesty of justice that involved the Supreme Court. Given that blacks were not allowed to serve on juries and could not vote nor could white men be charged with murder, since murder was a state charge. The white men were charged with disturbing a lawful assembly of African-American men. None of the white men involved were ever punished for their heinous crimes.

Shortly after this incident the civil rights law of 1875 was passed, which in effect forced integration on American society. This was met with violent resistance and extreme outrage on the part of the white population; north and south! This brings up the issue of the 14th amendment, particularly the provision that deals with equal protection under the law. The 15th amendment was just as hated by white Southerners as the 14th amendment. It was feared that having equal protection under the law and being able to vote would make blacks equal to whites. Southern whites were outraged by the passage of these amendments.

The Supreme Court during this period narrowly interpreted the 14th and 15th amendments. Southerners were very quick to manipulate laws and rules in their favor. It was held that a private person could not be held accountable to any violation of the 14th and 15th amendments and that only a government entity could be held liable. So long as the individual or the government did not state that they were intentionally discriminating against blacks then there was no violation of the 14th and 15th amendments.

With the controversy of the civil rights law that was passed in 1875 the thought of forced integration in the North as well as the South was viewed as anathema to the majority of whites in the United States. During this time, social Darwinism was very much in vogue. It was a very convenient excuse to justify white supremacy and racial inferiority of African-Americans. Prominent social Darwinists of the day included Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Social Darwinism worked on the premise that like evolution, only the strong survive. Basically, if you are doing well as most whites were comparatively speaking, then you deserved your station in life. Conversely, if you’re doing poorly, as was the case for most African-Americans at the time, then you are deserving of that station. This effectively justified white supremacy.

The final blow to reconstruction came in the presidential election of 1876. Rutherford B. Hayes beat Samuel Tilden for the presidency. the election however was put to the House of Representatives, and as a compromise, Rutherford B. Hayes was given the presidency in exchange for ending Reconstruction and withdrawing all Union troops from the South. This was known as the compromise of 1877. This had a devastating impact on millions of African-Americans.

Immediately after the end of Reconstruction, every state in the former Confederacy rewrote their state constitutions to render all legally sanctioned protection for African Americans void. African-Americans were sold out wholesale by the Republicans in the compromise of 1877. This ushered in oppressive violence, Jim Crow laws, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist organizations that lasted for decades. The Supreme Court increased it’s narrow interpretation of the 14th and 15th amendments effectively rendering them moot. Not until the Brown vs the Board of Education case of 1954 was there any attempt by the Supreme Court to redress the egregious wrongs perpetuated on the African-American community.

© Recovered – Bruce Young

Share