Friday, October 06, 2006

Race Terror: From the Fort Pillow Massacre to the So-called Memphis Riot of 1866

In The Court of Judge Lynch: The Post-Civil War South

By Abayomi Azikiwe

After the conclusion of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the defeated Confederate soldiers intensified their efforts in forming para-military terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan in order to prevent the enfranchisement and political empowerment of the African population in the South. Debates arose over what to do with the 4.5 million Africans during the course of the Civil War. Efforts aimed at deportation and colonization of free Africans dated back to the early 19th century with the formation of the American Colonization Society in 1816. Radical Republicans saw the opportunity of utilizing the newly freed slaves as appendages of their political designs for the reconstruction of the rebel southern states under northern economic and governmental control.

An alliance formed between the African-American politicians and the northern based Radicals (Republicans). In opposition the Democrats or Conservatives advanced the positions of the former slave-owning class which had suffered tremendous economic and political losses over the duration of the Civil War. Numerous African-Americans were elected to state and federal legislative positions and began to sponsor bills that would provide public education for the former slaves or Freedmen, and to re-correct the legal de-humanization of African people in the United States. During the same period, the Union Leagues were formed as political organizations consisting of black and white pro-Radical consituents who attempted to promote the expansion of Republican Party affiliations in the former Confederate states. After the repealof the suffrage for former rebel soldiers and their supporters, during the late 1860s, the expansion of African-American political influence rose to an appreciable level. However, the Ku Klux Klan and similar secret socieities based among the former soldiers of the Confederacy began a reign of terror desinged to reverse all the legal and social rights guaranteed to Africans through the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Consitution.

One tragic and violent series of events took place in south-west Tennessee in what has become known as the Memphis Riot of 1866. In actuality the overwhelming thrust of the disturbances centered around the wanton white mob assaults, pillage, rape, arson and murder against the African community of the city in the aftermath of the War. Although Tennessee was the last state to leave the Union for the Confederacy and the first to return to the Republic under the military governorship of Andrew Johnson, the rebel forces had considerable support among the planters class in the western cotton producing counties of Fayette, Haywood, Tipton and Shelby. The state was also the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, which was formed in Pulaski, located in Bedford County, by Nathan Bedford Forrest, the former Confederate General who ordered the massacre at Fort Pillow and was widely known during slavery as a trader in human flesh. In relationship to the so-called Memphis Riot, it is said that the presence of state militias consisting of African and European units stationed in the city during the immediate post-War period, inflamed white racist passions and the potential for violent conflict and reprisals.

Historian Gerda Lerner points out that in connection to the Memphis incident, the state militias "became a symbol of 'black rule' even though these militia units functioned everywhere under the orders and in defense of white-dominated state legislatures. Conflicts between black militia and white police forces have to be understood in this context. In Memphis, Tennessee, a jostling incident between black militia and white policemen became the excuse for a white mob attack on the entire black community. Rioting lasted for three days and was ended only by the intervention of federal forces. During the mob action 46 Negro men, women and children were killed, and more than 80 wounded. One white man was injured. Four Negro churches, twelve schools and innumerable homes were burned to the ground. The House of Representatives appointed a three-man investigating committee...." (Taken from Black Women in White America: A Documentary History 1972, p. 4 ).

These violations of the safety and security of the African population in Memphis at the time established a trend of lawless violence aimed at the suppression of political activity among the Freedmen. Mob activity intensified during the 1870s when groups such as the Ku Klux Klan evaded federal prosecution for their organized terrorist campaigns designed to overturn the laws passed in support of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. After 1876, with the withdrawal of federal troops from the South and the institution of the "black codes", the terrorists groups aimed at the total disenfranchisement of African people went largely unpunished for their criminal activities. Lynchings of African people escalated durng the 1880s coinciding with the major thrust to force the remaining African-Americans from public offices held in the southern states.

Brutal acts of carnage and brutality took on a public character when thousands of people would travel to witness the horrible spectacle of a mutilation murder of one or more individuals. The majority of these lynchings occured in the South, accounting for 82 percent of all such killings during the 1880s; and by the 1920s, more than 95 percent of these murders took place in the former Confederate states. Between 1880 and 1930, there were 3,220 African-Americans reportedly lynched in the southern region of the United States. These numbers are reflective of those individuals who are officially cited as lynch victims by the white press and other reporting agencies. However, when one compares and collates the data provided through sources such as African-American newspaper archives, against those provided by organizational reports and papers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching and the Tuskegee Institute Research Center, the critical examiner will understand that the criteria for defining a lynching does not totally capture the degree of societal sanctioned terror against African-Americans characteristic of the time period in question.

At this historical juncture the overwhelming majority of Africans still resided in the former slave-holding states of the South. In the aftermath of the disenfranchisement of the majority of this section of the population, people still attempted to organize through the churches, the formation of a National Afro-American Council, and a proliferation of newspapers and journals that spoke against the rise of racial violence. The United States Government turned a deaf ear to the race terror perpetrated by organized white hate groups consisting of tens of thousands of members throughout the South as well as in northern regions of the country. It would require the intervention of Africans themselves to draw real attention to the critical situation prevailing during the late 19th century.

Abayomi Azikiwe is the editor of the Pan-African News Wire. The above article originally appeared in Pambana Journal during the winter of 1998 as a section of a monograph entitled: "Race Terror: African Resistance and Genocidal Violence, From Slavery to the Great Depression". Pambana Journal was published at the time by the Pan-African Research and Documentation Project at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.

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