During the 1880s, one could argue that the political and economic structures of the "Old South" had reemerged. After Reconstruction ended in 1877, Democratic redeemers, who had tried to reestablish southern state governments under the Democratic Party during Reconstruction, enacted measures that rolled back social welfare and racial equality initiatives undertaken by Republican-led state governments.
EXAMPLEAfter 1877, Democrat-led state legislatures across the South cut property taxes to benefit wealthy, white landowners. They also cut funding for public schools, public works, and other racial equality and infrastructure development efforts that had been undertaken by southern Republicans during Reconstruction.
A number of planters, merchants, and businessmen benefited from the actions of Democratic officials at the state level, while many African Americans and poor whites struggled. Poor black and white farmers had few economic opportunities. They paid rent on the land they farmed, using the crops they grew, in an arrangement known as sharecropping.
Most sharecroppers paid their rent and other debts with cotton. This was a dead-end occupation that trapped farmers in a cycle of debt. It also maintained cotton as the South’s most valuable export after Reconstruction, as it had been before the Civil War.
Backed by the investments of northern capitalists, cotton production continued, along with economic development and diversification in parts of the South. The expansion of railroads into the South contributed to development, as it became easier to move raw materials and finished goods throughout the region.
With the extension of railroad lines, new industries began to emerge in the South, most of which were based on the region’s agricultural resources. Textile mills processed the cotton produced by thousands of sharecroppers. Tobacco cultivation contributed to the emergence of cigarette manufacturing in several southern cities.
An eager, young newspaper editor from Atlanta, Georgia named Henry Grady observed this growth and, when speaking before northern audiences, proclaimed the arrival of a “New South.”
When speaking to a group of businessmen and investors in New York City in 1886, Grady proclaimed that southerners “have established thrift in city and country” and “have fallen in love with work”. He expressed optimism that southerners were eliminating racial tensions to the satisfaction of whites and blacks alike. He ended his speech by describing the New South, as follows:
The new South is enamored of her new work. Her soul is stirred with the breath of a new life. The light of a grander day is falling fair on her face. She is thrilling with the consciousness of growing power and prosperity. As she stands upright, full-statured and equal among the people of the earth, breathing the keen air and looking out upon the expanded horizon, she understands that her emancipation came because through the inscrutable wisdom of God her honest purpose was crossed, and her brave armies were beaten.”
Grady’s proclamation of the “New South” as a region “of growing power and prosperity” lacked substance. Economically, new industries associated with textiles, tobacco, or other southern products contributed little to development. They required cheap, unskilled labor and northern capital to survive. More importantly, Grady’s words rang hollow when it came to race.
Black political participation declined dramatically in the South after 1877. As white Democrats regained control of state and local governments during and immediately after Reconstruction, they worked steadily to destroy black political coalitions and to disenfranchise African-American voters. They had several strategies for accomplishing these goals. One was the use of terror and violence.
White supremacist groups including the Ku Klux Klan clandestinely — and openly — threatened, intimidated, and killed African Americans who challenged the economic or political order of the “New South". Even more alarming was the rise of public, racially-motivated attacks on black men by white mobs known as lynchings.
In 1892, the Christian Recorder, a Philadelphia black newspaper, reported that lynchings and other forms of racial violence were occurring in Arkansas:
In addition to threats of violence, southern state legislatures enacted voter restriction strategies to circumvent the Fifteenth Amendment, adopted during Reconstruction, which prohibited states from denying men the right to vote based on race. The strategies included the following:
A poll tax was a fee that every citizen had to pay for the right to vote. This tax virtually guaranteed that only those who had the money to pay the fee (like planters, businessmen, and merchants) would vote.
These tests required prospective voters to read and, in some cases, interpret a passage from the state constitution before a voting registrar.
A “grandfather clause” exempted anyone descended from persons who had been eligible to vote before the Civil War from poll taxes, literacy tests, or any other voting requirement. African Americans did not qualify for this exemption, since only white men could vote in the South prior to the Civil War.
Southern legislators argued that voting restrictions were color-blind: they could affect black and white voters equally. In practice, this was not the case.
EXAMPLEUnder the “understanding” clause, it was up to the voting registrar (who was white) to decide whether one’s interpretation of a constitutional passage was satisfactory. Tests were often written to enable barely-literate white men to pass, while highly-educated black men struggled to demonstrate their understanding of the state constitution.
White southern politicians were supported in their efforts to marginalize African Americans economically, terrorize and subjugate them socially, and disfranchise them politically, by Supreme Court decisions that narrowly interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees citizenship to all persons born in the United States, and bars states from making or enforcing laws "which shall abridge the privileges or immunities" of citizens, "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law," or "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws". Passed in 1868 at the height of Congressional Reconstruction, this amendment was designed to protect the rights of freed slaves and support black equality.
Congress sought to further support black equality by enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which forbade segregation in restaurants, hotels, and other places of public accommodation. However, this Act was the last gasp of Reconstruction legislation, as the Supreme Court was already rolling back the Fourteenth Amendment, and would continue to do so throughout the late 19th century in a series of prominent cases.
Butchers from Louisiana claimed that their exclusion from a state-sponsored monopoly violated the “equal protection” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court disagreed, arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment should be understood narrowly as protecting citizens from state actions that violated their "federal rights," but that states could otherwise discriminate as they saw fit.
Following an event known as the Colfax Massacre, in which whites affiliated with the Democratic Party killed approximately 150 former slaves in Colfax, Louisiana after a close gubernatorial election, a federal court convicted several of the individuals responsible for the attack. In 1876, however, the Supreme Court threw out most of the convictions, based on a narrow interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment. It argued that obligation to enforce "equal protection" of Constitutional rights (such as the right to assembly) rested with the states, not the federal government.
The Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional on the grounds that it infringed upon the rights of private businesses. According to the court’s ruling, state entities were bound to the Fourteenth Amendment’s “equal protection” clause, but private businesses were not.
The Supreme Court’s weakening of the Fourteenth Amendment and its striking down of the Civil Rights Act, along with efforts to intimidate or disenfranchise black voters at the state level, enabled the passage of laws throughout the South that allowed separate facilities on the grounds of race: a system known as Jim Crow.
In addition to public accommodations such as hotels, restaurants, and schools, Jim Crow laws covered public transportation, including railroads. Henry Grady referred to railroads and other forms of modern infrastructure as symbols of a “New South,” but it was clear that racism persisted throughout the region as African Americans were denied equal access to first-class passenger cars.
Demands for equal access provided the context for the most significant Supreme Court case related to segregation: Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).
The case involved a black man, Homer Adolph Plessy, who boarded a Louisiana train and refused to leave the first-class car for a designated “colored” section, as required by Louisiana state law. Plessy’s case reached the Supreme Court, where his lawyer, Albion W. Tourgée, argued that segregated rail cars violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.
In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the Louisiana law. The decision cited the Slaughterhouse Cases and other rulings in which the Fourteenth Amendment had been narrowly interpreted. It referred to the Louisiana statute as a “reasonable regulation” because it conformed to “established usages, customs and traditions of the people” and preserved “the public peace and good order.” The ruling also indicated the court’s support of other measures at the state and federal level that had established separate facilities for blacks and whites.
The Plessy v. Ferguson case was a landmark decision that legitimized racial segregation and black disfranchisement efforts that were taking place in the "New South". African Americans challenged these efforts, but most Americans were unwilling or uninterested in protecting black civil rights in the late 19th century.
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: Henry Grady Sells the "New South". (1886). Retrieved March 14, 2017, from http://bit.ly/2njZSzk, The Body Count: Lynching in Arkansas. (1892). Retrieved March 14, 2017, from http://bit.ly/2n6cEBn, Separate But Equal: The Plessy v. Ferguson Case. (1896). Retrieved March 14, 2017, from http://bit.ly/2mG0oEL, Derived from Openstax tutorial 28.5 http://bit.ly/2jZPqfv, 16.4 http://bit.ly/2koFgTW and 19.2 http://bit.ly/2kEPjmC. Some sections edited or removed for brevity.