Riots in Memphis and New Orleans in 1866
Bill Long 1/2/07
A Discordant Beginning to "Equal Protection of the Laws"
Each riot has received treatment by scholars, with the New Orleans riot even receiving book-length attention. It isn't my purpose to say how things got started or who shot whom. The Freedman's Bureau report on the Memphis Riot is here. The report speaks about "remote" and "immediate" causes to the riot. So that you get a flavor of the language, the "remote" causes are listed as follows:
"The remote cause of the riot as it appears to us is a bitterness of feeling which has always existed between the low whites & blacks, both of whom have long advanced rival claims for superiority, both being as degraded as human beings can possibly be.
In addition to this general feeling of hostility there was an especial hatred among the city police for the Colored Soldiers, who were stationed here for a long time and had recently been discharged from the service of the U. S., which was most cordially reciprocated by the soldiers.
This has frequently resulted in minor affrays not considered worthy of notice by the authorities. These causes combined produced a state of feeling between whites and blacks, which would require only the slightest provocation to bring about an open rupture."
That rupture occurred on April 30, when White police and unarmed Black soldiers had a street altercation. Tennessee was supposed to have been a "model" Southern State, the home state of the President of the US. It had been under control of Andrew Johnson as Provisional Governor from 1862 until he took office as Vice-President in 1865. Readmission thus went forward, out of respect for the new President in July 1866 despite the riot in April-May 1866. Thought the May 11 report says that it was impossible to tell how many "Negroes" were killed in the riots, it estimates around 30. Property damage was $98,319.55. I marvel at the precision, even though the report says that final damage was likely to be in the $120,000 range. One factor that may have fueled the negative feelings toward Black residents of Memphis was the fact that their number had quintupled from about 4,000 to 20,000 from 1860-66. Their very visibility enhanced their vulnerability.
Finishing with Louisiana*
[*An entire essay on issues immediately prior to the July 30 riot in New Orleans is here.]
Louisiana's situation was different from TN. Slavery had not officially ended with the Emancipation Proclamation for about a dozen parishes under Union control since 1862. An 1864 Constitutional convention produced a document ending slavery in the State and demoting the planters from their previous positions of economic authority. It would be interesting (and helpful) for me to learn exactly what this means. Did the planters lose only the economic value of their slaves, or were their estates also broken up? In any case, on July 30, 1866 the Constitutional convention was to meet again (as provided for in the 1864 document) in order to discuss the enfranchisement of Blacks. At the time there was probably no subject that was more taboo than that. Even four northern states, which had the issue on their ballot earlier in the year, firmly trounced the idea of African-American suffrage. Only a handful (25) of White delegates met in New Orleans (Mechanics Hall) on July 30, but they were encouraged and supported by a few hundred African-Americans. However, a riot soon broke out, with city officials participating in it. It later came out that President Johnson himself did nothing to quell the racial animus of the riots but suggested that any exercise of the civil authority in suppressing "illegal or unlawful assemblies" was legitimate. For Johnson it was the convention delegates, rather than the white mob, which was the instigator of lawlessness.
The significance of this latter riot, or massacre (34 African-Americans and 3 Whites were killed), has recently been assessed by historian James G. Hollandsworth. He argues that the New Orleans riot marked the beginning of white counterattack against the notion of black equality. Though the military governments in the South (put into place in 1867) would make sure that constitutions supporting Black suffrage were in place from 1868 or 1870 to 1876, the symbolism of the "official" New Orleans attacks on African-Americans is even stronger. The South would not have room for the notion of political rights for African Americans for a good long time to come.
These last words contain bittersweet irony, because the language of the 14th Amendment, passed between 1866-68 in the States, has some of the most uncompromising language on racial/legal equality in the US Constitution/Amendments. The first section of that Amendment, which is the most commented upon section of the US Constitution in our day, provides as follows:
" All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
The first words were suggested by US Rep. John A. Bingham (R-OH) because there was no legal definition in 1866 of what constituted a citizen of the US. The rest of the section emphasizes the concepts of "privileges and immunities," "due process of law," and "equal protection of law." The "spirit of 66" was that the laws of the United States would somehow reach deeply into the public lives of Blacks and Whites in America. Though nothing is said expressly here about equal access to public accommodations or housing or travel, the notion of equal protection should have included them from the beginning.
But the harsh reality of America in 1866 or 1868 was that the country had been terribly ravished by Civil War and was simply not able to muster the political will to live out its creed. Those who were 3/5 of a person in the 1787 Constitution were now assured "equal protection of the laws," but it would be nearly another century until the last legal vestiges of racial discrimination were eliminated. Even today we live with practical problems of racial equality in America and, in fact, we may never get to a "colorblind" society. But the struggles of 1866 have made me appreicate just how deeply divided we were as a nation in that fateful year. The noble experiment, begun by the Europeans on these shores in the 17th century, almost burned out in the mid-19th.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long