Prior to the Civil War, European Americans in the South adhered mainly to the philosophy of paternalism, which was the idea that African-Americans were “childlike” and needed the “parental” guidance of European-Americans.

They believed that Europeans had a moral imperative to care for and discipline African-Americans for their own good.

When enslaved African-Americans were freed, however, the majority of European-Americans viewed the newly freed African-Americans as a threat to their cultural, economic and political dominance of European-Americans, and the paternalism melted into distrust and hate.

Conservative Democrats worked to prevent African-Americans from asserting their freedom and equality in American life by passing “Black Codes,” which were a slight rewording of the pre-Civil War slave codes.

African-Americans who were travelling even a short distance from the plantations on which they had been enslaved found that they were effectively re-enslaved and subject to arrest and were “rented” out to local farmers and business owners by law enforcement officers in Southern communities.

The Mississippi Vagrant Law of 1865 stated “That all rouges and vagabonds, idle and dissipated persons, beggars, jugglers, or person’s practicing unlawful games, or plays, runaways, common drunkards, common night-walkers, pilferers, lewd, wanton, or lascivious persons in speech or behavior, persons who neglect their calling or employment, misspend what they earn, or do not provide for the support of themselves or their families, or dependent…” well the list went on, and to ensure that European-American law enforcement officers had the legal right to arrest African-Americans for “traveling while Black,” the Mississippi Vagrant Law further stated “All freedmen, free negroes, and mulattoes, in this State over the age of 18 years found on the second Monday in January, 1866, or thereafter, with no lawful employment or business…” were subject to being arrested and forced to “work off” their sentence or fines for a European-American farmer or business owner at hard labor, which was a clear effort to ensure that European-Americans remained the dominant force in American life.

Racist Conservative Democrats throughout the South effectively used legal means to extinguish the early sparks of equality that African-Americans gained when Radical Republicans stepped up to work to ensure that the formerly enslaved African-Americans had the opportunity to transition from slavery to freedom and full participation in all aspects of American life.

Conservative Democrats went around, under and through loopholes in Civil Rights laws to work to preserve the overall dominance of racist European-Americans in American life during Reconstruction, and did so successfully. So successfully that though the Confederate States of America lost the military aspect of the Civil War, the former political leaders of the Confederate States of America effectively won the day and regained control of the South during Reconstruction.

Grady Atwater is site administrator of the John Brown Museum and State Historic Site.

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