Worse Than Slavery:
Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice
David M. Oshinsky
Chapter One: Emancipation
I think God intended the niggers to be slaves. Now since man has deranged God's plan, I think the best we can do is keep 'em as near to a state of bondage as possible. . . . My theory is, feed 'em well, clothe 'em well, and then, if they don't work . . . whip 'em well.
-- A Yazoo Delta planter, 1866
In the tumultuous summer of 1861, a Mississippi planter named William Nugent rode off to war with a regiment from Vicksburg. He did not expect a very long fight, viewing a Southern victory as all but inevitable. Nugent worried instead about his own mortality--about dying on a faraway battlefield without "leaving an heir behind to . . . represent me hereafter in the affairs of men." His early letters home were filled with bluster and pride. "I feel that I would like to shoot a Yankee." he told his young wife. "The North will yet suffer for this fratricidal war she has forced upon us--Her fields win be desolated, her cities laid to waste, and the treasuries of her citizens dissipated in the vain attempt to subjugate a free people."(1)
Nugent was mistaken, of course. By war's end, only the South matched his grim portrait of destruction, and no other state had suffered more than his own. The fields of Mississippi had been "desolated" by fire and flood and simple neglect. The cities had been flattened by Grant's artillery and pillaged by Sherman's roaming troops. Following the seven-month siege of Vicksburg in 1863, Union soldiers had marched through the heart of Mississippi, burning houses, killing livestock, and trampling crops. Writing to his wife in 1864, Nugent described the damage near Jackson, the state capital, which had just been put to the torch: "The largest plantations are . . . grown up in weeds . . . ; fences are pulled down & destroyed; houses burned; negroes run off. . . The prospects are gloomy enough and may be worse. I think the present year will wind it up and. . . see me at home again."(2)
Nugent was among the lucky ones: he came back alive. More than a third of Mississippi's 78,000 soldiers were killed in battle or died from disease. And more than half of the survivors brought home a lasting disability of war. Visitors to the state were astonished by the broken bodies they saw at every gathering, in every town square. Mississippi resembled a giant hospital ward, a land of missing arms and legs. In 1866, one-fifth of the state budget went for the purchase of artificial limbs.(3)
Few could escape the consequences of this war. Mississippi was bankrupt. Its commerce and transportation had collapsed. The railroads and levees lay in ruins. Local governments barely functioned. In Desoto County, just below Memphis, judge James F Trotter portrayed a landscape "enveloped in shadows, clouds and darkness. "Wherever we turn our eyes," he said, "we witness the sad memorials of our misfortunes, melancholy evidence of our sufferings, and of the cruelty and savage ferocity of our late enemies. . . . Our one consolation is the hope that we have reached the bottom."(4)
Desperate planters and farmers struggled simply to survive. Their slaves had been freed; their currency was worthless; their livestock and equipment had been stolen by soldiers from both sides. In the fertile Yazoo Delta, "plows and wagons were as scarce as mules, with no means to buy new ones. The cavalryman fortunate enough to have been paroled with his horse . . . was the envy of his neighbor."(5)
Many of these farms were now tended by women and elderly men, the war having wiped out more than one quarter of the white males in Mississippi over the age of fifteen. In his popular travel account, The Desolate South, author John T. Trowbridge described a visit to Corinth, Mississippi, near the Shiloh battlefield, in the winter of 1866. The "bruised and battered" town was fined with "lonely white women." he wrote, "crouched shivering over the hearth." In Natchez, reformer Carl Schurz found an old gentleman--"delicate hands; clothes shabby"--cutting down "a splendid shade tree" on the grounds of his once magnificent home. When Schurz asked him why, the man replied, "I must live. My sons fell in the war. An my servants have left me. I sell firewood to the steamboats passing by"(6)
Even Schurz, who despised the slaveholding class, was moved by the suffering of its members. Their cause had been morally indefensible, he believed, but their "heroic self-sacrifice" had been very real indeed. Schurz returned to the North "troubled with great anxiety." He worried most about the rising tide of white anger he saw in places like Natchez and Vicksburg--an anger directed mainly against blacks, the traditional victims of violence and exploitation in the South.
There were reasons for concern. With slavery abolished, Mississippi was moving toward a formal--and violent--separation of the races. Deeply rooted customs were now being written into law. The state legislature had just passed the South's first Jim Crow ordinance, prohibiting Negroes from riding in railroad coaches set aside for whites. Following suit, the city of Natchez had segregated its river walkways in order to keep black men and white women apart--the right bluff for use "of the whites, for ladies and children and nurses; the central bluff for bachelors and the colored population; and the lower promenade for whites."(7)
Blacks who challenged these rules faced arrest, humiliation, and sometimes worse. On a steamboat ride down the Mississippi River, Trowbridge noticed "a fashionably dressed couple" come on board near Vicksburg.
Terrible was the captain's wrath. "God damn your soul," he said, "get off this boat." The gentleman and lady were colored, and they had been guilty of unpardonable impudence in asking for a stateroom.
"Kick the nigger!" "He ought to have his neck broke!" "He ought to be hung!" said the indignant passangers, by whom the captain's prompt action was strongly commended.
The unwelcome couple went quietly ashore and one of the hands pitched their trunk after them. They were in a dilemma: their clothes were too fine for deck passage and their skins were too dark for cabin passage. So they sat down on the shore to wait for the next steamer.
"They won't find a boat that'll take 'em." said the grim captain.
"Anyhow, they can't force their damned nigger equality on to met" Afterwards I heard the virtuous passengers talking over the affair.
"How would you feel." said one with solemn emphasis, "to know that your wife was sleeping in the next room to a nigger and his wife?"(8)
This hatred had many sources. The ex-slave had become a scapegoat for the South's humiliating defeat. John E H. Claiborne, Mississippi's most prominent historian, blamed him for causing the war and for helping the North to prevail. Others saw the freedman as a living symbol, a dally reminder, of all that had changed. For the planter, emancipation meant the loss of human property and the disruption of his labor supply. For the poor white farmer, it meant even more. Emancipation had not only crushed his passionate dreams of slaveholding; it had also erased one of the two "great distinctions" between himself and the Negro. The farmer was white and free; the Negro was black--but also free. How best to preserve the remaining distinction--white supremacy--would become an obsession in the post-civil War South.(9)
Throughout Mississippi, these tensions seemed particularly severe. That, at least, was the opinion of northerners who visited the South, or were stationed there, after the war. Whitelaw Reid of the New york Tribune was struck by the enormous hostility he found in the Magnolia State, where blacks greatly outnumbered whites and where a free Negro majority created unique possibilities for political and economic change. "More or less, the same feeling had been apparent in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana," he wrote in 1866, "but it was in Mississippi that I found its fullest expression. However these man may have regarded the negro slave, they hated the negro freeman. However kind they may have been to negro property, they were virulently vindictive against a property that had escaped from their control."(10)
By the time of the Confederate surrender in April 1865, more than half of Mississippi's 400,000 blacks were already free. Some of them had fled to Union lines from their poorly guarded plantations; others had been abandoned by their owners as the enemy approached. "The arrival among us of these hordes was like the oncoming of cities. . .," wrote a chaplain in Grant's army. "There were men, women, and children in every stage of disease and decrepitude, often nearly naked, with flesh torn by the terrible experiences of their escapes." Those who survived were put to work as paid laborers, loading supplies, clearing land, and chopping wood. They lived in awful squalor, the chaplain reported, their "ignorance" causing "a veritable moral chaos" in the camps.(11)
Emancipation came late, often grudgingly, to other parts of the state. Former slaves sketched a memorable scene--a kind of ritual--in which the master lined them up, told them they were no longer his Property, and asked (or demanded) that they stay on to help with the crop. "My white folks talked plain to me," recalled a freedman from Adams County, south of Natchez. "They said real sad like: 'Charlie, you is bin a dependence but now you kin go effen you is so desirous. But effen you wants to stay wid us . . . dare is a house fur you, en wood to keep you warm. . . . Do jist ez you please'"(12)
But others described a different reality, filled with false promises from the master. An ex-slave from Amite County, on the Louisiana border, remembered the day that "Marse Bin blowed dat big horn an' all de slaves cum right ter de big house an' he tole dem dat dey was free now, but dat he wanted dem ter stay wid him till de crop wus made an' he wud pay dem fur it." At year's end, however, the field hands received no wages because Marse Bill had charged them dearly for rent and supplies. "All dey made de boss tuk it, and 'iffen you moved to er nudder plantashunm yo' had to go wid nuffin."(13)
Some slaves were not even told they were free. Their masters, believing emancipation to be illegal or immoral, refused to spread the word. This caused particular problems in the deep interior counties of Mississippi, where towns were scattered, plantations were isolated, and news could be tightly controlled. "I heered it talked about . . . but I wuz kinda skeered to ask . . .," said an ex-slave from the Yazoo Delta. "I did one day tho when I asked Ole Miss, 'Miss dey tells me de niggers is free, is dey?' She say, 'No! and you'd better come on and go to work 'fore you gits tored up.' Dey did free us tho about three or fo months after dis."(14)
These planters sought a way to control black labor now that slavery had expired. This would not be easy because the freedmen had interests of their own. They were determined to explore the countryside, to experience the novelties of town life, and to feel freedom under their feet. Mobility was both a precious right and a liberating force for ex-slaves. It permitted them to leave a hated master, to bargain for better conditions, to search for loved ones who had been cruelly sold away. "We have not one of our old hands on the plantation this year," a Mississippian reported in 1867. "They are scattered to the four winds."(15)
Emancipation Provided legal relief from the pace and discipline of slavery, and it allowed blacks to protest old grievances by simply moving on. A freedwoman from Simpson County, south of Jackson, could not forget the flogging of her grandmother, "wid her clothes stripped down to her waist, her hands tied 'hind her to a tree . . . it just made a 'pression on my childest mind." An ex-slave from South Mississippi could still hear the crack of the whip and the futile pleadings of her mother: "O, marse, I is neber gwine to run 'way ergin. O, please, I is gwine to stay here." And a freedmen from the Yazoo Delta could not forgive the brutal beatings of his father: "My pa an' ma wasn't owned by de same masters. . . . At night pa would slip over to see us an' ole Marse wuz mos' always on de look out fer everything. When he would ketch him he would beat him so hard 'till we could tell which way he went by de blood. But pa, he would keep a comin' to see us an' takin' de beatins."(16)
The extent of this mobility is difficult to gauge. Among the hundreds of ex-slaves interviewed in the 1930s, about 40 percent claimed to have moved during the war itself or in the months immediately following emancipation. But most remained where they were, living as tenants or field hands on the same land they had worked all along. And those who did leave often went a very short distance--to a neighboring plantation, perhaps, or the nearest crossroads town. The exhilaration of moving was tempered by feelings of insecurity and fear. "We wanted to be free at times, den we would get scart an' want to stay slaves." a freedman recalled. "We was tol all kinds of things but didn't know jes what to believe " Some returned to their home plantations. " [We] was jes' lak cows an' hogs"' said an ex-slave from central Mississippi. "We would stray off an' didn't know whar to go an' fus thing would go right back to Ole Marse."(17)
Southern whites took a different point of view. Emancipation had ended slavery but had not destroyed the assumptions upon which slavery was based. The fact that many blacks abandoned their plantations in 1865 simply reinforced the image of the lazy, indolent field hand, shuffling aimlessly through life. In white eyes, the Negro viewed his freedom in typically primitive terms--as a license to roam the countryside in search of pleasure and trouble.
By most accounts, the Negro found both. Newspapers reported that "idle darkies" were clogging the roads, stealing crops and livestock, jostling whites from sidewalks, and fouling the air with "cigar smoke and profanity." The white response left no doubt that rough times lay ahead. "The infernal sassy niggers had better look out, or they'll get their throat cut"' warned one Mississippian. "Let a nigger come into my office without tipping his hat, and he'll get a club over it." said another. In Natchez, a local editor predicted an an-out race war unless the Negro acknowledged his permanent inferiority to whites. "One must be superior--one must be dominant." he wrote. "If the negro should be the master, the whites must either abandon the territory, or there will be another civil war in the South . . . and [it will] be a war of extermination."(18)
Others simply wanted the stealing to stop. A woman from the Delta complained that the "poor deluded negro," equating freedom with license, had stripped the region bare. "Not even a cabbage head in the garden or a chicken on its roost is safe, and I guess (I am not a Yankee) it is the same throughout the South."(19)
In fact, some Yankees thought much the same thing. Northern officials in Mississippi were often appalled by the freedman's "lawless" behavior. But unlike Southerners, these officials were more likely to view him as a victim of circumstance, not as a congenital thief To be free and black in Mississippi "is first to beg, then to steal, and then to starve' " a Union officer observed. "That is their reality." A colonel from Illinois took the longer view: "Slavery has made them what they are; if they are ignorant and stupid, don't expect much of them; and give them at least time to [improve] before judging them by the highest standards."(20)
Such views were anathema in the white South, where slavery had long been viewed as a civilizing influence upon an inferior race. Bondage had been good for the Negro, it was argued, because the system kept his primitive instincts in check. And freedom would be bad for the Negro because those checks had been removed. Southerners "understood" such things. They knew that slavery had been a response to the African's inferiority, and not its cause. They knew that the freedman needed constant attention--and a whip at his back. "The negro is [their] sacred animal," said a Mississippi planter. "The Yankees are about negroes like the Egyptians were about cats."(21)
Some whites talked about leaving Mississippi--moving west to Texas and California, where they would not have to mingle with Negroes or compete with them for work. "We ain't made to live together under this new style of things," said a migrating farmer. "Free niggers and me couldn't agree." There also was talk about "colonizing" the blacks in Mexico or some other distant place. But this notion had little support in a state so utterly dependent upon Negro sweat and toil. As one editor put it: "Every white man would be glad to have the entire race deported--except his own laborers."(22)
Many believed that blacks would perish in freedom, like fish on the land. The Negro's "incompetence," after all, had been essential to the understanding--and defense--of slavery itself. "Where shall Othello go?" a planter asked in 1865. "Poor elk--poor buffaloe--poor Indian--poor Nigger--this is indeed a white man's country." One newspaper predicted that the freedman would be extinct within a hundred years. Another gave him less time than that. "The child is already born who will behold the last negro in the State of Mississippi, mused the Natchez Democrat. "With no one to provide for the aged and the young . . . and brought unprepared into competition with the superior intelligence, tact, and muscle of free white labor, they must surely and speedily perish."(23)
In the fall of 1865, Governor Benjamin G. Humphreys addressed the "negro problem" before a special session of the Mississippi legislature. A planter by profession and a general during the war, Humphreys had campaigned for office in a "thrice-perforated" army coat shot through with Yankee lead. Like other leading Confederates, he had at first been excluded from participating in the South's postwar political affairs. But President Andrew Johnson had pardoned the general, and hundreds like him, in remarkably short order. Humphreys received his pardon on October 5, 1865, just three days after winning the governor's race in a landslide.(24)
His speech about the Negro was a major event, the first of its kind by a Southern governor since the Confederate defeat. "Under the pressure of federal bayonets." Humphreys began, ". . . the people of Mississippi have abolished the institution of slavery." That decision was final; there could be no turning back. "The Negro is free, whether we like it or not; we must realize that fact now and forever."(25)
But freedom had its limits, Humphreys continued. It protected the Negro's person and property but did not guarantee him political or social equality with whites. Indeed the "purity and progress" of both races required a strict caste system, with blacks accepting their place in the lower order of things. And that place--literally--was the cotton field of the south. Since economic recovery depended on a ready supply of Negro labor, the new system, like the old one, must reward the faithful field hand and punish the loafer. Such was the rule of the plantation, said Humphreys, and the "law of God."
In the following days, the legislature passed a series of acts known collectively as the Black Codes. Their aim was to control the labor supply, to protect the freedman from his own "vices," and to ensure the superior position of whites in southern life. "While some of [these acts] may seem rigid and stringent to sickly modern humanitarians," the legislators declared, "the wicked and improvident, the vagabond and meddler, must be smarted [and] reformed." Others agreed. The Mississippi Black Codes were copied, sometimes word for word, by legislators in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas.(26)
The Black Codes listed specific crimes for the "free negro" alone: "mischief," "insulting gestures" "cruel treatment to animals," and the "vending of spiritous or intoxicating liquors." Free blacks were also prohibited from keeping firearms and from cohabiting with whites. The penalty for intermarriage, the ultimate taboo, was "confinement in the State penitentiary for life."
At the heart of these codes were the vagrancy and enticement laws, designed to drive ex-slaves back to their home plantations. The Vagrancy Act provided that "all free negroes and mulattoes over the age of eighteen" must have written proof of a job at the beginning of every year. Those found "with no lawful employment . . . shall be deemed vagrants, and on conviction . . . fined a sum not exceeding . . . fifty dollars." The Enticement Act made it illegal to lure a worker away from his employer by offering him inducements of any kind. Its purpose, of course, was to restrict the flow (and price) of labor by forcing plantation owners to stop "stealing" each other's Negroes.
Given the huge number of cases, the vagrant could not expect a normal trial. Town officials were put in charge of these proceedings, with the sheriff usually meting out justice by himself If the vagrant did not have fifty dollars to pay his fine--a safe bet--he could be hired out to any white man willing to pay it for him. Naturally, a preference would be given to the vagrant's old master, who was allowed "to deduct and retain the amount so paid from the wages of such freedman."
These codes were vigorously enforced. Hundreds of blacks were arrested and auctioned off to local planters. Others were made to scrub horses, sweep sidewalks, and haul away trash. When news of this crackdown reached the North, a storm of protest arose that there had been little change in the South, despite the sacrifice of 300,000 Yankee lives. "We tell the white men in Mississippi," warned the Chicago Tribune, "that the men of the North will convert [their] state into a frog pond before they will allow such laws to disgrace one foot of soil in which the bones of our soldiers sleep and over which the flag of freedom waves."(27)
These were not just empty words. In the winter of 1867, the US. Congress passed a sweeping Reconstruction Act over President Johnson's angry veto. The act divided the South into five military districts; required the individual states to write new constitutions providing for black manhood suffrage; and compelled their legislatures to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment before applying for readmission to the Union.(*)
In Mississippi, this act created a new political majority almost overnight. More than 80,000 black voters were registered by federal officials, as opposed to fewer than 60,000 whites. Not surprisingly, these freedmen joined the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. By 1870, black Republicans in Mississippi were serving as sheriffs, mayors, and state legislators. "Local newspapers routinely described them as "ranting niggers" and "stinking scoundrels.") Their ranks included John R. Lynch, the first black Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, and Hiram B. Revels, the first Negro to serve in the US. Senate. Revels would make history--some called it "historic revenge"--by completing the unexpired term of Jefferson Davis, the state's most famous son.
Reconstruction in Mississippi has sometimes been portrayed as an orgy of waste and corruption, led by Northern profiteers ("carpetbaggers"), Southern opportunists ("scalawags"), and ignorant blacks. In reality, the Reconstruction governments were more compassionate and democratic than any the state had known before. Money was raised to build hospitals, expand state asylums, and repair public works devastated by war. The remaining Black Codes were repealed, and racial distinctions were wiped from the statute books. In 1870, the legislature passed Mississippi's first public education law, guaranteeing four months of free schooling each year to all children, regardless of race. It appeared as if real change were coming to a culture-frozen in time.(28)
The appearance was deceiving. As Reconstruction unfolded in Mississippi, black hopes and white fears collided with murderous force. Violence was central to the South's code of personal behavior, its compulsion to settle private matters outside the law. It had always been so in Mississippi--from the gentleman's code duello to the common man's head-splitting brawls, from the festive public hangings to the dutiful whipping of slaves. After completing an extensive tour of the South during Reconstruction, a prominent journalist noted that the "respectable people of Mississippi are astonishingly tolerant of acts which would arouse a Northern community to the utmost." There was, he added, a "willingness to see men take the law into their own hands; and what is still worse, to let them openly defy the laws, without losing . . . the respect of the community."(29)
Much of this violence owed nothing to race. Mississippi had a well-deserved reputation as America's most dangerous state. When travelers described its primitive river ports and inland hamlets as the 14 worst spots" in the nation, local residents did not normally disagree. In 1866, the mayor of Jackson resigned after failing to mobilize public opinion against brawling and lawlessness in his town. Among Jackson's worst offenders were the white lawmakers who battle each other with pistols, knives, and fists. On a May afternoon in 1870, three separate fights erupted in the capital chamber and spilled out into the streets. In one of them, Representative M. J. Manning landed "a good right-hand" on "the fly-trap" of Senator J. C. Shoup, "splitting his lip considerably." In another, Senator J. H. Pierce, the "Panola Giant," defeated Representative J. S. B. Coggeshall, the "Street Car Conductor," by "planting his right 'digit' in the conductor's left 'peeper' and gouging out the eye./Pierce was
declared the winner and "champion of the Mississippi Legislature."(30)
In 1871, Governor James Lusk Alcorn claimed that the "suppression of the pistol and the knife will do as much in Mississippi as the suppression of the sword did in England for asserting the sanctity of human life." Some Englishmen thought so, too. A visitor from London, one of Europe's more raucous cities, was amazed at the speed with which chance encounters and trivial slights escalated into grisly homicides. Even dinner conversations in Mississippi, he wrote, had a "smack of manslaughter about them."(31)
Outsiders could never quite fathom the casual nature of these assaults. Killing seemed easy in Mississippi, and natural to all classes of "The heart is sickened . . . with the frequency of life taken suddenly and by violence," a Northerner lamented. "Two neighbors, life-long friends, perhaps members of the same church, have a slight difference; high words pass; instead of giving reason sway, or referring the subject to the courts, or to friends, one rushes for his pistol or shot gun." A presidential emissary offered this observation to Andrew Johnson after traveling through the South on an inspection tour in 1865: Mississippians have been shooting and cutting each other . . . to a greater extent than in all the other states of the Union put together."(32)
With emancipation, the focus clearly changed. Violence--and vigilante. action--took on a distinctly racial air. The ex-slaves could no longer count on the "protection" that went along with being the master's valuable property. And their new rights and freedoms made them natural targets for angry, fearful whites. A federal official noted that blacks of Mississippi were now more vulnerable than mules, because the "breaking of the neck of the free negro is nobody's loss." A Southern editor put it crudely but well: "When detected in his frequent delinquencies, Sambo will have no 'maussa' to step in between him and danger."(33)
Now danger was everywhere. Northern senators charged that "two or three black men" were being lynched in Mississippi every day. The true numbers will never be known, because local authorities did not bother to investigate "nigger killings." and the newspapers carefully played them down. The only evidence came from federal authorities in Mississippi and from the intended victims themselves. One Union officer wrote to his superiors that freedmen in his area were being whipped and murdered for offenses more imagined than real. A suspected horse thief, he said, "was beheaded, skinned, and nailed to the barn." In Vicksburg, a group of "colored citizens" begged the governor for help. "The rebels are turbulent," they wrote, "and are arming themselves . . . to murder poor negroes. Gov., ain't there no pertiction?"(34)
The answer, increasingly, was no. There were never enough soldiers to prevent race violence in Mississippi, and the mobs grew bolder as federal troops were cut back over time. Besides, Northern officers did not always oppose vigilante action, particularly when 16 sexual" crimes were said to be involved. In one instance a general told mob leaders that they "had done right" to lynch a Negro charged with insulting a white woman. In another, a captain allowed a freedman accused of rape to be run to death by"hounds.(35)
Much of this violence was the work of local rifle clubs like White Rose, Seventy-six, and Sons of the South. But the biggest group by far was the "invisible empire: known as the Ku Klux Klan, comprising white men from all classes and regions of Mississippi. Its local anthem went like this:
Niggers and [Republicans], get out of the way. We're born of the night and we vanish by day. No rations have we, but the flesh of man-- And love niggers best--the Ku Klux Klan. We catch 'em alive and roast 'em whole. And hand 'em around with a sharpened pole.(36)
Klan violence was often random, spontaneous, and poorly planned, but it spread quickly and took every imaginable form. There were attacks on freedmen who voted, ran for office, sat on juries, and testified against whites. In hard-scrabble Monroe County, a Klan mob made "fried nigger meat" of a Republican leader by disemboweling him in front of his wife. In the fertile cotton lands, Klansmen enforced plantation discipline by whipping "lazy" workers and detaining ex-slaves who tried to move on. A freedman from Marion County recalled his "old massa" telling him, "Now you show up t'morrer an' get your-self behind a mule or I'll land you in de chain gang for stealin,' or set the Klu Klux on you." The freedman added: "That's how come I ain't stole f'om dat day to this un."(37)
Among the Klan's favorite targets were Northern white teachers who had traveled south to instruct black children about the rights and responsibilities of freedom. Local white opinion of these teachers was very harsh. The historian of Oktibbeha County described them as "obnoxious agitators" who "Incited the darkeys against their old friends, the Southern whites." How? By teaching blacks that freedom meant thinking for themselves.(38)
For the most part, native whites viewed the very idea of black education as a contradiction in terms. Why confuse the Negro by raising false hopes about his naturally humble station in life? "These country niggers are like monkeys"' a white woman explained to a local teacher. "You can't learn them to come in when it rains."(39)
Most Klan attacks took place in the poor hill country, where white farmers were struggling with crop failures, fears of black competition, and the numbing losses of war. It was here that teachers were threatened, beaten, and sometimes killed. "The violence centered on the schools of the Negroes . . .," wrote one historian. "By the summer of 1871, in a number of counties, not a school remained in operation."(40)
The worst Klan violence occurred in Meridian, near the Alabama line. Badly damaged by Sherman's troops in 1863, Meridian, a railroad center, had become a magnet for ex-slaves fleeing the cotton fields in search of better jobs and simple adventure. This influx had led white residents to form vigilante groups for "self-protection," with mixed results. One mob action in 1865 was triggered by the disappearance of a planter named William Wilkinson. Local whites, assuming that Wilkinson had been robbed and murdered by his own field hands, formed a posse to round up the suspects. The mob surrounded Wilkinson's plantation, roughed up several freedmen, and was preparing to lynch them when federal troops intervened. The next morning, a lonely soldier came upon Wilkinson in a Meridian brothel, "quite alive, though somewhat disheveled by the two days he had spent celebrating his cotton sale."(41)
As Meridian's black population expanded in the late 1860s, tensions increased between local Republicans, who ran the town government, and local vigilantes, who vowed to bring it down. Both groups formed their own militias; both held emotional rallies and parades. In 1870, two black county supervisors were assassinated. An explosion seemed inevitable.
It came in the spring of 1871, at the trial of three blacks charged with inciting arson in the town. Almost everyone came to the courtroom well armed, as Mississippians had been doing for years. This time shots rang out, killing the white Republican judge and several black spectators. The crowd surged forward, chasing down one defendant, whose body they riddled with bullets, and hurling another from the roof. ("When this failed to kill him," a witness reported, "his throat was cut.") For the next three days, local Klansmen rampaged through Meridian, murdering "all the leading colored men of the town with one or two exceptions." Despite frantic pleas for help, federal troops in Mississippi did not arrive in time. When the slaughter finally ended, more than twenty-five blacks were dead. So, too, was Republican rule in this hill country town.(42)
The Meridian riot demonstrated that the black community--poorly armed, economically dependent, and new to freedom--could not effectively resist white violence without federal help. And it showed that such help might be lacking at the very moment it was needed most. By 1871, Northern sympathy for the freedman's troubles had begun to wane. Military occupation was simply not working in the South; even General Sherman, the US. Army commander, despaired of propping up weak and provocative state governments with more federal troops. As black Meridian buried its dead that spring, the failure of Reconstruction was clear. The freedman stood dangerously alone.(43)
Meridian set the stage for a full-blown epidemic of racial violence in the South. And Mississippi, with its vigilante tradition and vulnerable black majority, would lead the region in every imaginable kind of mob atrocity: most lynchings, most multiple lynchings, most lynchings of women, most lynchings without an arrest, most lynchings of a victim in police custody, and most public support for the process itself. Widely defended as the only effective deterrent against the murder and rape of white women by Negro men, mob violence would be directed at burglars, arsonists, horse thieves, grave robbers, peeping toms, and "trouble-makers"--virtually all of them black.(44)
For the victims of mob violence, there was no hope of redress. The traditional protections of slavery were gone. In a perverse way, emancipation had made the black population more vulnerable than before. It now faced threats from two directions: white mobs and white courts. Like the Ku Klux Klan, the criminal justice system would also become a dragnet for the Negro. The local jails and state prisons would grow darker by the year. And a new American gulag, known as convict leasing, would soon disgrace Mississippi, and the larger South, for decades to come.
© 1996 David Oshinsky
This book rocks socks.
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