In October of 2020, 12 white militia members were arrested for a plot to kidnap the Governor of Michigan. These white men were planning to ambush the duly-elected head of government for a US state since, in their opinion, she had violated their rights. The media spun with tales of how shocking this event was—that an unregulated group would conspire to overthrow a state government in the United States. What was missing from this coverage was the fact that political violence by white supremacist aligned groups has been a feature of American politics for at least 150 years. If anything, the most recent case in Michigan continues a line of political violence which began in Reconstruction. Indeed, the reactionary basis was as much racial as it was political and economic.
Given the similarity in racial relations between Jim Crow and the antebellum era and the relative lack of labor mobility until the Great Migration, many scholars have not studied the effects of Reconstruction as the birth of American racialized political violence. Reconstruction, as noted by Foner (2014), Du Bois (1992), Franklin (1961), Williamson (1965), however, was not a brief aberration from antebellum institutions, but a dramatic change in political, economic, and social relations in the South. The movement back to those antebellum norms required violent force over several years. The relationship between violence and Black political progress was a key element. Another missing feature was that most of this violence was centered on public goods (schools) and Black wealth creation (land redistribution).
Black politicians at the local level, elected after the first Reconstruction Act, sought to democratize public education in the South. Several historians now credit black political leaders with the creation of a broad pubic education system in the South. The required a system of taxation was not instituted by whites during Presidential Reconstruction, the period immediately following the Civil War when Southern states, without black enfranchisement, sought readmission to the Union. Indeed, Presidential Reconstruction continued the antebellum practice of low property taxes and high poll taxes, which prohibited the establishment of schooling (Franklin 1961, Foner 2014). The initial public schools established in Presidential Reconstruction were whites-only (Franklin 1961).
Du Bois (1992) argues that the creation of a public education system caused drastic change in the state and local tax systems. Southern property owners complained about the progressive nature of the taxes, in particular since public schools, which primarily educated poor children, were being funded by property taxes which were paid disproportionately by wealthy landowners. North Carolina’s case typified the situation. Public schools were ended during Presidential Reconstruction by Governor Worth to avoid educating black students. North Carolina did establish local school boards charged with the task of raising funds to support local schools during Congressional Reconstruction. The poll taxes and local levies proved insufficient, due to conservative resistance to local taxation. State funds had to be used for additional revenue.
Black politicians, even more than Republicans generally, were strong advocates for increased taxes on land as an attempt to redistribute wealth. The break up of large plantations through taxes on land or by stipulating that land landholdings be sold in small parcels were the key policies. Even as state constitutions were being created in the South, black delegates were taking the floor to make forceful arguments for aggressive land redistribution. In responding to the argument that land sales would simply redistribute land to other large landholders, Francis Cardozo of South Carolina noted that a group of around 100 “poor colored men” in Charleston had formed the Charleston Land Company to acquire land at a discount. The men subscribed to the company for shares purchased for $10 each, paying in $1 payments each month. In January of 1868 the company purchased 600 acres of land for $6,600, which “would have sold for $25,000 or $50,000 in better times. They would not have been able to buy it had the owner through necessity been compelled to sell. This is only one instance of thousands of others that have occurred in this city and state” (Smith 2013, p. 320). Compelling sales meant not only that land would be redistributed, but that the price of the land sold would make it in reach of poor Freedmen and whites to purchase collectively or individually. The problems of needing collectives to purchase large quantities would not be part of the tax policy. However, the policy of requiring tax sales to be in small parcels became part of the policy for this purpose. Although wide-spread land redistribution did not occur, this policy goal shows that blacks were specifically strong advocates for aggressive land taxation.
These two policies were key to the politically racialized violence in white reactions to Reconstruction. Foner (2014) notes that the Panic of 1873, the longest downturn in economic activity seen in the United States at the time, served as an impetus for white resistance to Reconstruction. As Northern interest turned inward to economic concerns, Southerners exploited depressed output to push for lower taxes and an end to racial progress. Indeed, the two were seen as intimately related, and even today the link between public goods and racial equality is exploited by those who would like to restrict and lower public investment. A key part of this turn was the belief that state-initiated efforts, such as railroad construction, would not modernize the South. This was politically disastrous for Republicans as such policies were routinely used to secure white votes. Republicans did not do themselves any favors with voters when they were involved in scandals concerning railroad finance. Indeed, Democrats were able to brand Republicans as both corrupt via their financing of corporate interests in railroads and wasteful for the expenditures of public education for blacks.
Local and grassroots white resistance to Reconstruction-era public finance was common during Redemption. The Charleston Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution in 1871 to encourage local businesses to simply stop paying all taxes, and withholding of taxes became a means to overthrow local black political leaders (Current 1988, Bellesiles 2010). Duncan (1986) outlines the general restrictions on local public finance during Redemption, and Rabinowitz (1982) shows how whites systematically removed black politicians from offices that controlled public finance during Redemption. For example, Foner (2014) documents the abolition of several state boards of education during Redemption. In 1875 there was a tax limit for public schools placed into the Alabama state constitution by landowners (Bond 1938). In Vicksburg, criticism of taxes was used as a justification for racial violence (Gillette 1982). Conservatives also hoped that the Supreme Court would invalidate the provisions of the Civil Rights Bills that provided for equal access to public education (Gillette 1982). In Texas, Governor Roberts vetoed appropriations for public schools as a matter of fiscal conservatism (Woodward 1971).
The violent turn at the ballot box was more instructive. One salient example can be found in the Colfax Massacre of 1873, which eventually provided legal cover for black voter intimidation. The contested 1872 elections in Grant Parish, Louisiana, resulted in blacks being seated in the offices of judge and sheriff. Blacks seized control of the courthouse to take office and were attacked by whites on Easter Sunday, April 13, 1873. Even after the blacks in the courthouse raised a white flag of surrender, whites continued cannon and rifle fire. After the courthouse was seized by whites, it was burned with blacks still inside and many remaining survivors were led off two by two to be shot dead. The death toll is believed to be somewhere above 100 slain in the massacre. Attempts to prosecute the perpetrators under the Enforcement Act led to the United States v. Cruikshank decision of 1876 which disallowed federal prosecution of conspiracy charges under the Enforcement Acts. This left gangs of armed whites essentially immune from prosecution, and the decision emboldened whites in Southern states to re-double their efforts to intimidate black voters (Rable 2007, Valelly 2004, Foner2014). Even before the Supreme Court decision, however, the die had been cast in Louisiana– whites seized control of counties and forced black officials to resign from their elected offices. Rable (2007) notes that as much as one third of the murders in Louisiana during that time period are thought to be politically motivated.
The strategy of use for violence for political aims followed the 1874 “Alabama Plan” described by Rable (2007). Democrats in Alabama abandoned any hope of securing black votes and instead labeled themselves a “white man’s party” while publicly issuing a call to end violence as a means to attract moderate white support. Sympathetic white newspapers filled with stories of blacks being trained to take up arms, with little evidence that any of this occurred. In the Alabama black belt, for example, the tactics ranged from preventing Republicans from assembling (Eutaw county), murder of locally prominent politicians (Sumter county), intimidation of black voters in the form of forcing them to vote for Democrats or lose their jobs (Barbour county), forcing blacks to leave polling stations without voting (Mobile county), having whites cross the border from neighboring states to cast ballots, and preventing Republicans who won their elections from raising their bonds and therefore allowing defeated Democrats into those offices by default. The general strategy was not to incite total violence, which would increase the prospects of Congressional or military intervention, but to intimidate black voters to alter election outcomes. Even with this, the Attorney General in Alabama publicly stated that anyone could murder a Republican for political intimidation without fear of punishment (Bellesiles 2010).
This activity was illegal under the Enforcement Acts, but by the mid-1870s Congressional will to root out voter intimidation and racial violence had largely ended. Congressional investigations into the 1874 elections in Alabama determined that “Democrats had used force to overturn the state’s Republican majority” (Rable 2007, p. 118), but did not act on the issue. The state of Alabama itself did not move to investigate independently nor act on the results of the Congressional investigation. Ultimately, a strategy of voter intimidation and political violence against blacks in the 1874 Alabama elections was not deterred by law enforcement nor Congress. The political strategy of Redemption now had a successful template. This plan was adopted by Mississippi in 1875, when terroristic attacks by Redshirts, a paramilitary arm of the Democratic party, and widespread voter intimidation brought Democrats to a significant majority. In that election cycle, activists and were specifically targeted to decrease black voter turnout, and high-profile individuals were targeted to serve as a warning for others of the dangers of being politically active. By the time of the United States v. Cruikshank ruling in 1876 the use of violence and intimidation was a de facto policy throughout the South. The elections of 1876 featured rampant “fraud, intimidation, and terrorism in the South that returned the region to conservative control and restored blacks to a condition more resembling serfdom than freedom” (Rable 2007, p. 185).
Contemporary research confirms that this racialized political violence achieved its anti-democratic ends. Logan (2019) finds that violence against black politicians was related to those who oversaw the most aggressive tax policies. Cook, Logan, and Parman (2018) find that lynching in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is related to political threats posed by Blacks at the time. Finally, Williams (2020) finds that historical lynching activity is related to lower levels of Black political participation today. Overall, the racialized violence over politics continues to influence American society.
After the end of Reconstruction and the widespread disenfranchisement of blacks, the South returned to its norms of relatively low levels of public goods and segregated public goods. The rapid decline in the Reconstruction-era tax policy, especially in the counties with the largest taxes per capita, shows that what we take as a regional phenomena actually featured a great deal of heterogeneity that was related to political violence. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know how political and public goods policy would have been different if the policies enacted during Reconstruction had persisted. Nevertheless, it is important to note the role of political violence in the development of public finance in the South after the Civil War. That violence has traveled North and West in the United States in the 20th and 21st centuries, and its violent rhetoric should worry us all today.