African Americans and Southern Racism During Reconstruction Essay

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At the end of the Civil War, America faced the difficult task of uniting not only two separated territories of the United States, but also two races long separated by racism and culture. Devastated and embittered by the damage of the war, the South had a long way to go in order to achieve true equality between the former slave owners and former slaves. The majority of the South remained set in racist behavior, finding post-Civil War legal loopholes to diminish African American rights (Tindall & Shi, 2010, pp. 757-758). Southerners continued to marginalize Blacks in their behavior toward ex-slaves and the later African American generation, continuing the escalation of racial tensions through white terror and discriminatory attitudes (Tindall & Shi, 2010, p. 759). Most subversively, southern newspapers propagated stereotypes against African Americans in their coverage and descriptions of constitutional conventions (Logue, 1979, p. 342). Although Radical Reconstruction offered some progress toward social equality after the Civil War, its success was short-lived as African Americans suffered vast disenfranchisement through racist rulings, attitudes, and media representation in the South at the turn of the century.

Rulings against African Americans

After the Civil War had come to an end, African Americans in the South quickly made use of their new-found political and social rights, employing their right to vote from the Fifteenth Amendment and serving as prominent political figures (Tindall & Shi, 2010, p. 722). However, the formerly fervent commitment to Radical Reconstruction soon dwindled (Tindall & Shi, 2010, p. 739). Many of the advances toward civil equality were soon erased: In 1883, the Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Laws of 1875 unconstitutional, and the political power Blacks had gained, especially in the South where 90% of Blacks lived, was completely undone. Black voter participation dropped from 96% to 26% in South Carolina in just 12 years (1876-1888); in those same 12 years, voter participation of Blacks dropped from 53% to 18% in Georgia (Burris-Kitchen & Burris, 2011, p. 5). Even while African Americans enjoyed an uninhibited freedom to voting rights, many still suffered disenfranchisement at the hands of rampant racial discrimination in the South.

Although discontent Southerners could not impede the Black right to vote, they found ulterior methods to marginalize African Americans. Since the Fifteenth Amendment made it impossible simply to deny African Americans the right to vote, disenfranchisement was accomplished indirectly, through such devices as poll taxes (or head taxes) and literacy tests (Tindall & Shi, 2010, p. 757). Jim Crow laws mandated racial segregation in public areas in the South and were often accompanied by physical abuse and terror to African Americans (Tindall & Shi, 2010, pp. 756-759).

These underhand activities in the South demonstrated that while African Americans were technically free, they continually suffered from unjust rulings and actions. These sprang from the rampantly racist attitudes in the South: Although great strides were made toward political and economic freedom for Blacks following the Civil War, the progress made was quickly squashed by political movements and rhetoric, which implied that Blacks could not handle their newly-found freedom and that the White working class was threatened by Blacks who were trying to take their jobs, their property, and their government away from them (Burris-Kitchen & Burris, 2011, p. 5).

Racist Attitudes

Many Southerners continued to believe and propagate these ideas that African Americans had a subversive agenda to the White working class. These ideas culminated in deep-seated attitudes against African Americans in the South: During the 1890s the attitudes that had permitted moderation in race relations evaporated. A violent Negrophobia swept across the South and much of the nation at the end of the century (Tindall & Shi, 2010, p. 756). However, African Americans at the turn of the century had become weary of disenfranchisement and were ready to stand up against these attitudes: This generation was more assertive and less patient than their parents. We are not the Negro from who the chains of slavery fell a quarter century ago, most assuredly not, a black editor announced (Tindall & Shi, 2010, p. 756). Unfortunately, this may have simply increased a White agenda of racial discrimination, as a growing number of young white adults, however, were equally determined to keep Negroes in their place (Tindall & Shi, 2010, p. 756).

Whether Southerners felt that African Americans imposed a threat to their jobs, their safety, or their rights, the overarching attitude of the South clearly displayed a strong desire to maintain racial dominance of the pre-Civil War era. Part of this attitude motivated a desire to limit education for African Americans: To keep Blacks uneducated meant Whites could boast of their superior intellect; this had been in the arsenal of Whites for hundreds of years prior to Reconstruction and continues to be used over 130 years after Reconstruction. Denial of education for Blacks existed through Reconstruction as a form of White racism and a justification for their inferior political and economic status (Burris-Kitchen & Burris, 2011, p. 6). Any kind of advantage Whites could claim in the South became ammunition in their discriminatory attitudes. These ideas and attitudes fed the propagation of racist stereotypes and bias in southern newspapers.

Prejudiced Media in the South

Perhaps the most subtle yet shocking form of racism in the South during Reconstruction was the biased reporting of many southern newspapers. Whether the ideas and attitudes of many southern Whites influenced these published stereotypes or vice versa, it is clear that southern publications often encouraged and promoted racist attitudes at the end of the century. A publication in Charleston, South Carolina displayed this racist subtext: While promising its readers truth, the Charleston Mercury mocked journalistic license by actually printing racist ridicule. A favorite method was to scorn African-Americans in the convention as a race, exploiting racist attitudes saved by white readers from slavery (Logue, 1979, p. 339). Covering the constitutional convention in Columbia in 1867, white journalists used racist stereotypes in describing the black delegates involvement: Reporters emphasized how blacks would chuckle and grin, thereby exploiting the racist assumption of many whites that blacks were mere fun-loving, animal-like creatures who had to be protected from themselves (Logue, 1979, p. 341).

The Charleston paper encouraged racist attitudes through the ridicule of black speech and pronunciation, mocking ex-slave ignorance rather than reporting important issues discussed at the convention: When blacks debated the issue of changing the title of districts to counties, for example, the only thing the reporters heard was the very awkward sound of deestrict as district is pronounced by some of the delegates. Because of their preoccupation with such factors, reporters seldom informed their readers about issues that were discussed, such as public education, relief from debts, taxes, and so on (Logue, 1979, p. 342). In this manner, the South remained entrapped in a media-fueled suspicion and fear of African Americans, feeding the continued presence of racism and discrimination during the post-Civil War reconstruction.


In conclusion, the progress of Radical Reconstruction largely failed to reform the disenfranchisement of African Americans in the South on a long-term scale. The attitudes of the Southern whites continued to influence the freedom of former slaves as they faced discriminating rulings, racist attitudes, and biased media. While some African Americans from further generations were largely unwilling to bow subserviently to the effects of white terror and discrimination, civil rights equality had a long and arduous path to completion in the South. While many of the racist attitudes of the post-Civil War South seem shocking to a modern-day reader, the influence of the actions and attitudes of white Southerners serves as a reminder of the power of repeated falsehoods, particularly within media subtext and bias.

The disenfranchisement of African Americans during reconstruction displays the extent of deep-seated racial prejudice based on fear, stubbornness, and ignorance. As Burris-Kitchen and Burris point out: Throughout American history, Blacks have been demonized and criminalized, and this history has led us to where we are today. Until we can change the perceptions of Blacks through the media, political and economic arenas they will continue to pay the price for an inherently racist political, economic, educational, and criminal justice system (Burris-Kitchen & Burris, 2011, p. 14).

Burris-Kitchen, D., & Burris, P. (2011). From slavery to prisons: A
historical delineation of the criminalization African Americans. Journal of Global Intelligence & Policy, 4 (5), 1-16. Retrieved from Logue, C. M. (March 1979). Racist reporting during reconstruction. Journal of Black Studies, 9 (3), 335-349. Retrieved from Tindall, G. B.; Shi, D. E. (2010). America: A narrative history (8th ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

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