Race Riots of 1866
Bill Long 1/2/07
Memphis (April 30-May 3); New Orleans (July 30)
Sometimes when I look at America in 2007 and wonder if we can survive as a society into the future, I take heart by examining a time from our deep past, directly after the conclusion of the Civil War, when survival as a country seemed even more bleak. The purpose of these essays is to try to make alive some of the feelings and events of Spring 1866 in America, culminating in these two bloody race riots (where a total of nearly 100 Blacks, and about half dozen Whites) were killed. First, let's set the stage by understanding a few historical events.
During the War
After 11 Southern States had seceeded during the Winter of 1860-61 and Spring of 1861, the Civil War commenced. Andrew Johnson of Tenn., who became President after Abraham Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, was the only Southern Senator who remained at his desk after the start of hostilities because he believed that it was illegal for the states to secede from the Union. After crucial Union victories in Tenn. in 1862, Johnson was appointed by Lincoln as the Provisional Governor of Tennessee--readying that state for eventual readmission to the Union. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation late in the Summer of 1862, to take effect on Jan. 1, 1863, but by its terms it only freed slaves in states in rebellion to the Union. Thus, as will be related below with respect to Louisiana, the Proclamation had no effect in about a dozen parishes in LA because the Union had taken New Orleans and vicinity in 1862. Hence, several sections of that state were no longer officially in rebellion to the Union (though it would not be readmitted as a state until 1868). As we can see by this, the issues of secession, provisional government, military government (1867 and after), readmission, elimination of slavery, political rights for African-Americans etc. were extremely complex and, in fact, need to be studied on a state-by-state basis.
Well, in December 1863, Lincoln issued his "10 Percent Plan"--officially known as his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, whereby states would be readmitted if 10 percent of its 1860 voting population voted to form a new pro-Union government. Congress tried to overturn this in July 1864, but Lincoln pocket-vetoed the bill. Yet, his death in April 1865 ended the hopes of quick readmission for several Southern states. The new President, Andrew Johnson, developed a liberal reconstruction plan, where the only requisites for state admission were that a state renounce slavery and confederate debt and not permit former confederate leaders to be leaders in the new state governments. Yet, this plan, too, foundered--Congress never approved it when it came into session in December 1865.
1866--The Fateful Year
Perhaps no year in American history is quite as significant as 1866. It was events during this year which would set the nation on an irreversible path of conflict between the Executive (Johnson) who wanted lenient terms of admission for Southern states and the Radical Republicans (who pushed for immediate Negro enfranchisement--at least most of them did--and stricter prohibitions against confederate readmission). In the course of the first seven months of 1866, the following took place:
1. Meeting of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, out of which came the 14th Amendment--eventually ratified by enough States in 1868 to become an Amendment. The debates in this committee have been extensively studied, most recently by Prof. Garrett Epps in Democracy Reborn.
2. Veto of the Freedman's Bureau Bill of 1866--which was concerned with securing civil and economic rights for the freed slaves. (Veto upheld).
3. Veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1866--guaranteeing basic rights to hold property, sue and be sued, etc. to newly-freed Negroes (Veto overridden).
4. Johnson's foolish and damaging Feb. 22, 1866 speech naming his enemies as traitors to the Union.
5. Race riots in Memphis beginning April 30 and continuing for three days.
6. Race riots/massacre in New Orleans on July 30. Most historians say that the former were more "spontaneous" while the latter were "approved" by local authorities, but the net result was that Blacks were given a "signal" that their newfound gains in the 13th Amendment were not to be taken very seriously.
7. Passage of Black Codes (mostly in late 1865), which strictly limited types of work and rights open to the newly-freed slaves. In other words, Southern states in 1865 endorsed the 13th Amendment, ending slavery (Johnson said that had to do so to be readmitted to the Union), but they then turned around and passed the punitive Black Codes, an example of which I have here.
8. Readmission of Tennessee into the Union as the first Southern state so recognized--in July 1866. This occurred despite the Memphis riot of 2 1/2 months earlier.
The next essay describes the two riots.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long