The recently opened Legacy Museum, eight blocks away from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (Lynching museum), is on Coosa Street. Coosa Street is close to the riverfront, and that area of Montgomery enjoying a revival. Someone built a minor league baseball stadium down there, home to the Montgomery Biscuits, an AA Southern League affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays. Lots of trendy places are popping up downtown. In fact, the city of Montgomery has won awards for its downtown development. I suppose it was a good sign that I had a little trouble finding a spot to park the Buick. My only interest was getting inside the Legacy Museum.
The museum, built on the site of a former warehouse where enslaved black people were imprisoned in Montgomery, is halfway between a river dock and train station where Africans were brought to town, and a marketplace where they were auctioned off as slaves. A windowless exterior wall of the museum displays this simple phrase as a mural, taken from a poem written by Maya Angelou.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again
from The Pulse of Morning
The Legacy museum takes on an ambitious task. It attempts to trace our country history from the beginning of slavery, past the Civil War, through the Jim Crow years, to today’s America. Brian Stephenson, the force behind the national memorial for Peace and Justice, cites mass incarceration of blacks in the South, convict leasing, and disproportionate minority confinement in today’s prisons, coupled with the pervasive violence experienced by minority citizens at the hands police in communities across the country today as one long string of racist institutional discrimination still present in America today.
My interest was more limited. I wanted to understand the time period from the Emancipation Proclamation to the day four black girls were killed in an explosion in that church in Birmingham, Alabama. That’s plenty enough for me to wrap my head around.
After the Civil War ended the Emancipation Proclamation was never challenged in court. But to ensure the abolition of slavery across the country Lincoln pushed for passage of a thirteenth amendment to the constitution and insisted Reconstruction plans for Southern states require abolition in new state constitutions. The 13th amendment was ratified by the states on December 6, 1865, ending legal slavery.
Rather than experiencing retaliation by black freedmen at the conclusion of the Civil War, the “horrors of Santo Domingo” as predicted and feared by southern whites, the opposite occurred. In Memphis, between May 1 and May 3, 1866, racial violence was ignited after a shooting altercation between while policemen and black soldiers recently mustered out of the Union Army. Mobs of white civilians and policemen rampaged through black neighborhoods and the houses of freedmen, attacking, raping, and killing black men, women, and children. Federal troops were sent to quell the violence.
Later a congressional committee established that blacks suffered most by far in the altercation. 46 blacks and 2 whites were killed, 75 blacks injured, 100 black persons robbed, 5 black women raped. Property losses included 91 homes, 4 churches, and 8 schools burned in the black community. Many blacks fled the community.
By 1870 the black population in Memphis had fallen by one quarter compared to 1865. Specific causes for the riot suggested competition between white Irish immigrants and blacks for housing, work, and social space contributed greatly. In addition, white planters wanted to drive freedmen out of Memphis and back to plantation to support cotton cultivation with their labor. Such violence was a way to enforce white supremacy after the end of slavery.
A similar event, but more political, occurred in New Orleans on July 30, 1866 the site of a reconvened Louisiana Constitutional Convention. Republicans in Louisiana called for the convention after a Democratically controlled legislature enacted “Black Codes” and refused to give black men the right to vote. Black Codes included prohibiting blacks from voting, bearing arms, gathering in groups for worship, and learning to read and write.
Democrats considered the reconvened convention illegal and a Republican attempt to increase their political power in the state. The violence that ensued was both racial and political, and widely seen as a continuation of the war. More than half the white Democrats were confederate veterans, and nearly half those supporting the Republicans were black veterans of the Union Army.
It is not known which group fired first, but the black marchers were unprepared and many unarmed. The white mob attacked blacks both on the street and within the convention hall. The result was 150 black casualties including 44 deaths. In addition, three white Republicans were killed along with one white protester.
Those deadly events which occurred just before the midterm elections of 1866, along with other reports of widespread violence against black persons throughout the formerly confederate states, sparked national outrage outside the South and mobilized voters to support the Republican Party’s progressive platform advocating expansive rights and protections for African Americans. Republicans won a landslide victory and gained both a veto proof majority ad control of the legislative agenda. The progressive caucus devised and passed a civil rights program broader than anything Congress would attempt for another century.
First, they passed the Civil Rights act of 1866 declaring black Americans full citizens entitled to equal civil rights. Then they passed he Fourteenth Amendment to eliminate any doubt about the constitutionality of civil rights. The 14th Amendment establishes that all persons born in the country, regardless of race, were full citizens of the United States and the states in which they resided entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizenship, due process, and equal protection under the law. It was officially adopted in 1868.
Perhaps most importantly they passed the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 which also granted voting rights to African American men while disenfranchising former Confederates. That legislation dramatically altered the political landscape of the South and ushered in a period of progress. In elections for new state governments, black voter turnout neared 90% in many jurisdictions. Black voters, who comprised a majority in many districts and a statewide majority in Louisiana, elected both white and black leaders.
More than 600 African Americans, most former slaves, were elected as state legislators during that period. Eighteen African Americans served in state executive positions including lieutenant governor, secretary of state, superintendent of education, and treasurer. P.B.S. Pinchback became the first black governor in America (and the last till 1990) when he was elected as governor of Louisiana in 1872.
During that time Reconstruction states sent sixteen black representatives to the U.S. Congress, and Mississippi voters elected the nation’s first black senators; Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce.
Those newly elected racially integrated Reconstruction state governments took bold action. They repealed discriminatory laws, rewrote apprenticeship and vagrancy statues, repealed (even if briefly) corporal punishment, and sharply reduced the number of capital offenses in their justice systems. They organized to elect black sheriffs, chiefs of police, and were empowered to serve on juries.
I had no idea new black citizens achieved so much so quickly after the civil war. Why were those efforts not sustained? How did the South go from such racial progress to the hell of terror lynchings represented in such a short span of years? The answer is found in both politics and the life of southern communities.
I struggled to keep going through the museum to find answers to those questions. As I walked into the past, the years and the history unfolding as I made my way through corridors filled with facts and photos, I tried to simply learn and not reflect. I knew this new knowledge would affect me later, and that I could learn more once I was safely home in the shack. But I couldn’t keep my mind from wandering.
What if instead of a being a white baby born in 1951, smack in the middle of the twentieth century, and becoming politically aware of political and social events around me in the 1960’s, I was instead born a black boy in Alabama a hundred years earlier?
This year would be 1919 and I would be 67, looking back on life begun as a slave in 1851. In theory, on paper, I would have been declared free in 1863 by Abe Lincoln’s proclamation when I was 12. Had I stayed in the South I would have seen that promise, that first blush of advancement, essentially reneged. At 22, in 1873, I would most likely be uneducated and living in poverty.
As a white man in 1973, age 22, with my family’s help and support I graduated from college and teaching English in Ottawa, Illinois. I owned an old car. I was debt free, single, and had my whole life ahead of me. I felt as if anything was in my grasp.
What would my choices have been as a young black man in Alabama? Certainly not college. I would be lucky to be literate. Maybe I would have made my way upstate to Birmingham and found a place in the new black community there. But probably I would have remained in cotton country, the only life my family and those around me knew. What would I have imagined my future to hold as a young black man in Alabama? I doubt I could have foreseen just how bad my life had the potential to be.
I would learn later as one who worked with social workers that empathy can be a cruel two-edged sword. To excel in that field requires a high degree of empathy. But possessing it and applying it to those one is charged to help, whose lives are often shattered by their life experiences, can impact the helper in ways they never dream. As I made my way down the corridors of the Legacy museum in Montgomery, I began to feel the future of African Americans in the postwar South slipping away.
Slowly, the former confederate states began to reorganize and assert themselves into the political life of the union of states they tried so desperately to defeat. Social equality began to divide the Republican Party. Blacks and progressive whites advocated the full eradication of white supremacy, while conservative whites still supported some forms of racial hierarchy and separation. Virtually all black voters were Republican. The party began to take freedmen’s votes for granted and shifted its attention toward courting “moderate” white swing voters.
In the middle of all this change, elected officials struggled to control increasingly violent lawless groups of white supremacists in their state. What began as social clubs of former confederate soldiers morphed into large paramilitary organizations that enlisted thousands of members from all sectors of white society. Collectively, aided by the tacit endorsement and silence of the broader white community, members of those groups launched a bloody reign of terror that would overthrow Reconstruction and sustain generations of white rule.