Freedom And Inequality In The Age Of Reconstruction: Failure Or Success
Our modern day definition of freedom is consistent with the understanding of freedom during reconstruction; however, the difference lies in who is entitled to such freedom. Webster’s dictionary defines freedom in part as “1. the state or quality of being free; especially, a) exemption or liberation from the control of some other person or arbitrary power; liberty; independence.” Government may have awarded freedom to African Americans, but, they were not afforded equal protection from discrimination under the law.
In Mississippi, the Black Codes deemed that African Americans are not permitted to obtain any kind of firearm/weapon, with limited exceptions. However, white people, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in particular, obtain these weapons and use them against the African Americans. A former KKK member on trial, when questioned about the death of an African American, stated, “He said he shot him, and then turned the butt of his gun and sunk the cock in his head.” These African Americans are being hunted by white people with weapons and they have no means to protect themselves. Even though an African American is a “free man”, the concept of freedom during Reconstruction allows for whites to defend and protect themselves, but affords African Americans no such right.
It was not all bad. Former slave, Jourdan Anderson, wrote a letter to his former master in response to his plea to get him to work for him again. Because he was free, Jourdan was able to negotiate wages and hours with his old master. This demonstrates a huge shift in power compared to when African Americans were enslaved. Ultimately, Jourdan’s future was in his own hands, which was a huge step forward for America and the movement towards equality. In a free society you should be able to choose how you want to live your life, including how you earn a living.
Getting back to the inequality, the fourth amendment to the United States Constitution was supposed to guarantee the freedom against illegal search and seizure, but it didn’t quite work out that way for African Americans. White people routinely broke into African American’s homes in an effort to root out their opposers. Often times, they destroyed property and assaulted family members. During her testimony against the KKK, Harriet Postle took the stand to tell her story about when they paid a visit to her home. She described that while she and her family were asleep in the middle of the night, the KKK violently knocked at her door and called for her husband. Eventually, they broke into her home, pointed pistols at her children, and pushed her down despite being pregnant. They cursed at her and put a noose around her neck and then began beating her head against the wall in an effort to scare her into giving up the location of her husband. This example demonstrates that freedom from unlawful entry and search during Reconstruction did not apply equally to African Americans. White People used intimidation and the threat of violence to get African Americans to submit to them.
It is common knowledge today that if you work for an hourly wage, you are entitled to be paid for every hour that you have worked. This was not the case for freed African Americans during Reconstruction. In the Black Codes of Mississippi, the civil rights of freedmen stated in part that “…if the laborer shall quit the service of the employer before the expiration of his term of service, without good cause, he shall forfeit his wages for that year up to the time of quitting.” Basically, an African American could work under a one-year contract and if, for some reason, he must quit, none of the money he made, would be awarded to him. This is just another way for white people to have a hold over African Americans. While they have the right to choose where they work, the whites found a loophole to ensure that they could still exert control. Freedom during reconstruction isn’t true freedom if you are deprived of earned wages. Basically this is just another form of enslavement—let’s call it slavery 2.0.
The constitution guarantees all Americans the right to free speech. This too didn’t apply equally to African Americans. Charley Good was an African American political leader during the Reconstruction era who was killed by the KKK for speaking his mind and fighting for his rights. For African Americans, expressing your rights to free speech and protest could get you killed. It is a basic human right to be able to speak freely without fear of retribution, but the KKK turned a blind eye to that right and killed those who defied their views. Eventually some KKK members were held accountable for their crimes, for many years, they intimidated African Americans and deprived them of their rights.
In conclusion, as demonstrated by these articles, the concept of freedom during the Reconstruction era was not equally applied to African Americans. Their freedom was suppressed by the KKK and the Black Codes. Even though on paper the African Americans had the same inalienable rights, the whites always found a way to intimidate and deny them these rights.
Jourdan Anderson to P.H. Anderson, Aug. 7, 1865,” Reprinted in Lydia Maria Child, The Freedmen’s Book (Boston: Tickenor and Fields, 1865), 265–67.
Laws of the State of Mississippi, Passed at a Regular Session of the Mississippi Legislature, held in Jackson, October, November and December, 1865.
Testimony of Harriet Postle, 42nd Congress, 2nd Session, Senate Report 41, pt. 5 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1872), 1951-1952.
Testimony on Ku Klux Klan in Congressional Hearing (1872), Testimony of Thomas L. Berry.
Testimony of Thomas L. Berry, 42nd Congress, 2nd Session, Senate Report 41, pt. 5 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1872), 1945-1946.
Websters New World Dictionary of the American Language: Deluxe Color Edition: Second College Edition. New York World Publishing. Times Mirror., 1968.
United States Constitution. Amendment IV
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