Mississippi: The Past That Has Not Died

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It was really not Grant’s fault. The country was indeed tired of Reconstruction, and the President was but echoing the national mood. Most people had never been for Negro civil rights in the first place. Freedom, yes; but that didn’t necessarily mean all the privileges of citizenship. At the end of the war only six northern states let Negroes vote, and in 1867 the District of Columbia rejected Negro suffrage 7,337 to 36. Nor did anyone feel the Fourteenth Amendment had much to do with education. In fact, stalwart Union states like New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio all had segregated schools. Congress itself set up a segregated school system in Washington only weeks after approving the Fourteenth Amendment.

These feelings were rising to the surface, now that the initial exhilaration of winning the war was over. Other forces were at work too: the implacable Thaddeus Stevens had died … anti-Grant liberals were happy to attack everything about the Administration, including Reconstruction … northern investors were anxious to resume “normal” relations with the South … the nation’s eyes were turning to fresh, exciting visions in the Far West.

The new mood showed itself in various ways. Congress had indeed passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875 (protecting the Negro in public places like trains and restaurants), but it was the dying gasp of a lame-duck session. Besides, it was a shaky victory. A school integration provision had been defeated; also a “force bill” giving the measure teeth. Even more significant, the Supreme Court was now nibbling away at the earlier Reconstruction Acts. And in the background came a steady chorus from the press, “Let the South solve its own problems.” The President understood and gave the nation its way.

The Silver Cornet Band led the Jackson victory parade to General George’s house on election night, November 2, 1875. The returns were rolling in, and huge Democratic majorities were piling up: Morton, 233 to 17 … Deasonville, 181 to 0 … Yazoo County, 4,052 to 7. In the end the Democrats carried sixty-two of the state’s seventy-four counties. In the time-honored fashion of all political leaders everywhere, General George gave full credit to the rank and file “for the redemption of our common mother, Mississippi.” Governor Ames was a practical man. Exactly 146 days later, in exchange for the withdrawal by Democrats of a set of impeachment charges, he resigned his office, packed his bags, and left the state forever. In the word of the times, Mississippi had been “redeemed.”

To Mississippi’s Negroes redemption meant a loss of power but not the trappings. The men now running the state came from the old cotton-planting gentry, who got along well with their former slaves. Some of these leaders, like Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, were far more interested in corporation law than in eight-cent cotton, but they still had a tradition of noblesse oblige and gave the Negroes considerable leeway—as long as they were “good.”

This arrangement was further cemented by a sort of gentlemen’s agreement with Washington after the presidential election of 1876. The South accepted Hayes’ dubious claims to the Presidency, and in return the Republicans adopted Grant’s hands-off attitude as the new administration line. The last troops were withdrawn, and the old Confederacy was left free to work out its own problems. But at the same time it was always understood that the Negroes would retain at least their surface gains. The redemption leaders happily agreed. In fact, the Jackson Clarion had accepted the obligation on the very morning after the great 1875 victory. Observing that Negroes had helped make the triumph possible, the paper declared that the state must now “carry out in good faith the pledges of equal and even justice to them and theirs in which they placed their confidence.”

So the Negroes continued to vote and often held minor offices. Nor were they barred from most public places. The two races drank at the same bars and ate at the same restaurants, though at separate tables. In Jackson, Angelo’s Hall echoed with Negro laughter one week, white the next. And when life was done, both races could rest together in Greenwood Cemetery.

With the Negro’s role settled, Mississippi’s redemption government launched a massive economy wave. The conservative landowning leaders had been hit hardest by the staggering taxes of Reconstruction, and now they were determined to end all that. State expenditures were slashed from $1,430,000 in 1875 to $518,000 in 1876. Teachers’ salaries alone fell from $55.47 a month in 1875 to $29.19 the following year.

In a way it was all justifiable. Mississippi remained wretchedly poor. In 1877 the state’s per capita wealth was only $286, compared to a $1,086 average in the northern states. Even as late as 1890 there were only forty-six banks in the state, with combined cash assets of but $635,000. The war had wiped out Mississippi, and there just seemed no way to get going again. In those days the idea of federal recovery aid was unknown—between 1865 and 1875 Washington spent 21 million dollars on public works in Massachusetts and New York, only $185,000 in Mississippi and Arkansas.

Still, whatever the justification, Mississippi paid a high price for her sweeping economies. Letting roads disintegrate meant even more stagnant communities. Appropriating merely $5,392 a year for health meant the end of nearly all services. Spending only $2 a head on schoolchildren (against $20 in Massachusetts) meant mounting illiteracy and a new generation utterly untrained to advance in life.