By almost every account, the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan isn’t going well. We will likely get out the Americans stationed there and on active duty. America is working on ways to remove the up to 5,000 US citizens still in the country. The translators and other Afghan citizens who helped America during the twenty years troops were stationed there are at greater risk. It’s alleged the Taliban have access to the names of all those who aided the US, and they will face severe repercussions up to and including death. The Taliban has promised amnesty; however, their word is questionable as they have broken many promises before.
I’m reminded of when America pulled federal troops out of the South after being stationed there to maintain order after the Civil War between 1865 and 1877. Those forces were literally the only thing between the formerly enslaved people and those opposed to them; the Klan, the Democrats, and the new laws (the Black Codes) that often compelled them to return to enslavement.
At best, history only tells us the broad strokes about what happened once the Civil War ended. Most people are aware there was a thing called Jim Crow, and it was bad. Jim Crow wasn’t nearly as bad as the Black Codes, which did their best to replicate enslavement while pretending to comply with the law. State legislatures enacted the Black Codes.
While the federal government, through the Freedmen’s Bureau created by Congress, established schools for the former enslaved and provided them food and medical aid. The states were busy passing laws establishing curfews, restricting movement, requiring proof of employment, suppressing votes, regulating travel, and prohibiting marriage. The penalty for violating these laws that only applied to Black people was to assign them to work, usually without pay, sometimes to the same plantations they were recently freed from—slavery by another name.
A series of Amendments, known as the Reconstruction Amendments, gradually eliminated most of the Black Codes. The 13th ratified in 1865 ended enslavement. The 14th, adopted in 1868, granted citizenship to the formerly enslaved, and the 15th, ratified in 1870, said every citizen, including the Black ones, had the right to vote.
“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Section 1-The Fifteenth Amendment
I earlier mentioned the Klan and the Democrats in the South are often one and the same. The Klan formed shortly after the end of the Civil War. It rapidly spread throughout the nation (note I didn’t say just the South). The Klan targeted white Northern leaders, politically active Black men, white Southern sympathizers, and Black people in general. There are over 2,000 documented lynchings of Black people between 1865–1876. Some of the reasons that qualified for a lynching were attempting to vote, looking at or speaking to a white woman, or being uppity.
Congress then (unlike Congress now) felt the need to respond to white supremacist organizations, lynchings, and voter suppression. They passed Enforcement Acts in 1870 and 1871, which permitted federal troops to quell the violence and wipe out the Ku Klux Klan. The first wave of the Klan was stopped in 1871 (though replaced by Red Shirts, White Leagues, and White Councils), and Black political power became a thing because of the large number of Black men who had previously been unable to vote that now had the right. This opened up the Reconstruction Era, which is often presented as a golden age though it was anything but.
The Reconstruction was not televised (apologies to Gil Scott-Heron). The motivating factor for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was when America watched in horror as Bull Connor and Alabama police and state troopers beat and unleashed dogs on non-violent protesters crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. America wasn’t upset that the Alabama voting rolls were 99% white. It was upset about the images of senseless beatings of Black men and women on television that they had to explain to its children. The Reconstruction was not televised. Also, the Southern newspapers didn’t cover the lynchings, beatings, voter suppression, threats, and disparities in education and income faced by Black people. They feared it would make them look bad.
Because of the Enforcement Acts, enough Black people voted to start electing Black men into office. By 1868 over 700,000 Black men were registered voters, and fourteen were elected to Congress. Many more were elected to state and local offices, and a few were elected statewide in Mississippi and Louisiana. Black men could vote, go to school, own land, legally marry, file lawsuits, and serve on juries. The culture of the South was changing dramatically, and many white people didn’t like it.
Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, their beliefs were intertwined with their religion. The message of hate was spewed from the pulpit. The only thing keeping them from taking back their way of life was the federal troops that held them at bay. The Klan and the Democrats, often one and the same, had their way at night with their cross burnings and lynchings. But during the day, they were forced to submit to the laws they found oppressive, forcing them to cede rights to those they thought unworthy. They hated the presence of the soldiers and worked hard to be rid of them. Think of a large percentage of white Southerners as the American Taliban, and you can appreciate what had been happening and what happened next.
The 2,000 lynchings that took place after the war’s end and during Reconstruction were a reign of terror. Things would have been much worse without the presence of those damned federal troops, and as badly as Black people needed them there, white people wanted them gone. Not that the troops were only a blessing for Black people. During the Civil war, there were hundreds of reported rapes of women (and children), both Black and white. The defense offered up by some soldiers were that Black women cannot be raped and that they must have been either prostitutes or willing:
In Southern estimation, generally, as well as by the laws of North Carolina, a Negress is deemed incapable of an injury of this kind; not allowing any punishment for violating the chastity of her, who, from a general instinct, habit, and a course of promiscuous indulgence, from motives both of lucre and pleasure, is presumed not to have any chastity, or at least no regard for it.
After a Negress has frequently enjoyed the amorous embrace of a white man, she among the Black Diamonds is considered a superior personage, and entitled to the honors of an aristocrat; they resort to stratagem to seduce and seek every opportunity possible to fulfill the measure of their so-called aristocrtic ambition.” Attorney E.W. Carpenter
Though the military, to their credit, established procedures for the reporting of rape which continued during Reconstruction. There was no guarantee of justice, and Black women rarely received it. There is a view perpetuated by many historians that the Civil War was an honorable war characterized by gentlemanly restraint and that Union soldiers were bonded together in combat by a code of honor and brotherly camaraderie. These values supposedly prevented Union soldiers from raping civilian women, including the enslaved. The truth is that rape and brutality occurred so often that the military came up with the Lieber Code, which allowed the prosecution of soldiers committing such acts.
All wanton violence committed against persons in the invaded country, all destruction of property not commanded by the authorized officer, all robbery, all pillage or sacking, even after taking a place by main force, all rape, wounding, maiming, or killing of such inhabitants, are prohibited under the penalty of death, … Lieber Code
The end of the war didn’t end the culture of rape that existed among the soldiers. It did mean that to avoid prosecution, soldiers would select the weakest targets that wouldn’t rile up the white citizenry, who could still make a lot of noise. The former Union soldiers especially targeted the Black laundresses and cooks that served them. Truth be told, no Black woman was safe because of Lieber Code or not; the army wasn’t concerned with the rights of Black women. Black people needed those federal troops during Reconstruction, but they were very much an enemy as well.
It came to a head in 1876. Whatever you think of the 2020 Presidential Election, the 1876 Presidential Election was worse. Four states, South Carolina, Florida, Oregon, and Louisiana, could not declare who won, with Democrats and Republicans both claiming victory. Democrats (then the Klan) had suppressed hundreds of thousands of Black voters while Republicans controlled the “returning boards” that determined the Electoral College winners. Democrats appeared to have the edge, having won the popular vote and with four states undetermined, needed only one more vote in the Electoral Vote to claim the election. The Constitution said the President of the Senate (a Republican) would receive the Electoral Ballots. Republicans (think Donald Trump’s view of Mike Pence) said the Senate President could declare the winner while the Democratic-controlled Congress said they had the right.
The Electoral Commission Act of 1877 created a group empowered to work it out. It was supposed to be an equal mix of Democrats and Republicans with one Independent Supreme Court Justice. The Independent refused to serve, and he was replaced with a Republican. Who won? On March 4, 1877, the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was sworn in due to the Compromise of 1877. A true compromise, both sides got most of what they wanted. Republicans got the Presidency, and Democrats won the promise to remove the federal troops from the South. Hayes removed the troops in 1877 and enacted Posse Comitatus the following year, which ensured those troops could never return except under limited circumstances. Republicans stopped being the Party of Lincoln and started their slide to becoming the Party that would do anything to win elections. Democrats ushered in Jim Crow, which would be the law of the land for almost a hundred years.
We’ve now reached the point in history that compares to the Taliban retaking control of Afghanistan. Like the prelude to an Isaac Hayes song (I recommend the 11-minute version of “I Stand Accused,” if you need context), “I had to tell you all of that, to really say what I’ve got to say.” America, beginning in 1877, needs to be looked at in two parts, the America that turned its back and looked away from the atrocities being committed throughout the South and slightly less frequently in the rest of the country, and the America that reimposed its will to suppress not just voting but a people that had just over a decade earlier been freed from enslavement.
The Reconstruction was not televised, and unfortunately, neither was the aftermath. Democrats in the South had their way, immediately undoing the limited gains from Reconstruction and enacting Jim Crow laws using the Black Codes as a starting point. President Hayes sounded a bit like President Biden in speaking of his continued support for Black people of the South while removing the only means of enforcing said support.
We have got through with the South Carolina and Louisiana problems. At any rate, the troops are ordered away, and I now hope for peace, and what is equally important, security and prosperity for the colored people. The result of my plans to get from those states and by their governors, legislatures, press, and people pledges that the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments shall be faithfully observed; that the colored people shall have equal rights to labor, education, and the privileges of citizenship. I am confident this is a good work. Time will tell… Rutherford B. Hayes
Hayes “hoped” to get pledges to honor the Constitution, like the Taliban, Southern Democrats didn’t negotiate in good faith. I’ll use the example of the first Black state legislators in Georgia to make my point. At the beginning of Reconstruction, 33 Black legislators, most of them ministers, were elected to the Republican-controlled Georgia Assembly; in 1868, they were all expelled because they were Black. Federal law allowed for their election, but no law said they had to be seated. Technically, 29 Black legislators were immediately expelled. There were four mulatto legislators that held on an additional ten days before being kicked out. The federal government reinstated them, but the Klan had other methods. One-quarter of those Black legislators were beaten, threatened, jailed, or killed. Black voters were intimidated and kept from the polls and the voting rolls. In 1870, long before the federal troops were removed, the Democrats took back control of elections and the Georgia legislature. With Jim Crow, voter disenfranchisement became the practice in Georgia, the South, and parts of the entire country. That’s how an Alabama that was 30% Black had 99% white voting rolls. The American Taliban had control.
While Jim Crow laws began almost immediately after the Compromise of 1877 and Democrats taking over Southern state legislatures. When the Supreme Court threw out the Civil Rights Act of 1875 in 1883. It was as if Jim Crow laws were given steroids. Bishop Henry McNeil Turner of the African Methodist Episcopal Church said the following:
The world has never witnessed such barbarous laws entailed upon a free people as have grown out of the decision of the United States Supreme Court, issued October 15, 1883. For that decision alone authorized and now sustains all the unjust discriminations, proscriptions and robberies perpetrated by public carriers upon millions of the nation’s most loyal defenders. It fathers all the ‘Jim-Crow cars’ into which colored people are huddled and compelled to pay as much as the whites, who are given the finest accommodations. It has made the ballot of the black man a parody, his citizenship a nullity and his freedom a burlesque. It has engendered the bitterest feeling between the whites and blacks, and resulted in the deaths of thousands, who would have been living and enjoying life today.
On May 18, 1896, the Supreme Court did more Supreme Courting and gave America “Plessy v. Ferguson,” which not only upheld the Jim Crow laws but said Black people were not citizens and had no rights the court was bound to follow. It enshrined the “Separate but Equal” concept. America did well with the separate, but equal never happened. That decision was 7–1; the lone dissenter, Justice John Marshall Harlan, wrote this:
In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case
There are differences between the American Taliban which ruled the South for a century. The 2021 Taliban is being covered worldwide and has to make concessions even to have hope of being recognized by other nations, establishing trade for products other than heroin, and raising the standard of living for its people. The American Taliban of 1877 had no such concerns; they controlled the government, the media and made the laws. The rest of the nation turned away as they lynched and threatened their way back into total control. It was as if, exactly as if, the guarantees of the Declaration of Independence, life liberty, and the pursuit of happiness didn’t apply to the formerly enslaved.
Modern America claims to be appalled at the fate of the Afghani people once again falling under the control of the Taliban. They bemoan the fate of women who may lose all the rights and gains they accrued during the last twenty years. They fear for what will become of Democracy and the civil rights of the population. There was a time when Black people in America were experiencing all those things, and America looked the other way. I wouldn’t bet against looking away happening again.
This post was previously published on aninjusticemag.com.
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