According to historian Rayford Logan, the nadir of American race relations was the period in the history of the Southern United States from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 through the early 20th century, when racism in the country was worse than in any other period after the American Civil War. During this period, African Americans lost many civil rights gains made during Reconstruction. Anti-black violence, lynchings, segregation, legal racial discrimination, and expressions of white supremacy increased.
Logan coined the phrase in his 1954 book The Negro in American Life and Thought: The Nadir, 1877-1901. Logan tried to determine the year when "the Negro's status in American society" reached its lowest point. He argued for 1901, suggesting that relations improved after then. Others, such as John Hope Franklin and Henry Arthur Callis, argued for dates as late as 1923.
The term continues to be used, most notably in the books of James Loewen, but also by other scholars. Loewen chooses later dates, arguing that the post-Reconstruction era was in fact one of widespread hope for racial equity due to idealistic Northern support for civil rights. In Loewen's view the true nadir began only when Northern Republicans ceased supporting Southern blacks' rights around 1890, and lasted until the Second World War. This period followed the financial Panic of 1873 and a continuing decline in cotton prices. It overlapped with both the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, and was characterized by the nationwide sundown town phenomenon.
Logan's focus was exclusively African-American and principally the American South. But the time period he identified also represents the worst period of anti-Chinese discrimination, harassment, and violence on the west coast of the U.S. (and Canada), particularly after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
In the early part of the 20th century, some white historians put forth the concept of Reconstruction as a tragic period, when Republicans motivated by revenge and profit used troops to force Southerners to accept corrupt governments run by unscrupulous Northerners and unqualified blacks. Such scholars generally dismissed the idea that blacks could ever be capable of governing.
Notable proponents of this view were referred to as the Dunning School, named after influential Columbia historian William Archibald Dunning. Another Columbia professor, John Burgess, famously wrote that "black skin means membership in a race of men which has never of itself... created any civilization of any kind."
The Dunning School's view of Reconstruction held sway for years. It was represented in D. W. Griffith's popular movie The Birth of a Nation (1915) and to some extent in Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone with the Wind (1934). More recent historians of the period have rejected many of the Dunning School's conclusions, and offer a different assessment.
Today's consensus regards Reconstruction as a time of idealism and hope, with some practical achievements. The Radical Republicans who passed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were, for the most part, motivated by a desire to help freedmen.African-American historian W. E. B. Du Bois put this view forward in 1910, and later historians Kenneth Stampp and Eric Foner expanded it. The Republican Reconstruction governments had their share of corruption, but they benefited many whites, and were no more corrupt than Democratic governments or, indeed, Northern Republican governments.
Furthermore, the Reconstruction governments established public education and social welfare institutions for the first time, improving education for both blacks and whites, and tried to improve social conditions for the many left in poverty after the long war. No Reconstruction state government was dominated by blacks; in fact, blacks did not attain a level of representation equal to their population in any state.
For several years after the war, the federal government, pushed by Northern opinion, showed itself willing to intervene to protect the rights of black Americans. There were limits, however, to Republican efforts on behalf of blacks: in Washington, a proposal of land reform made by the Freedmen's Bureau which would have granted blacks plots on the plantation land they worked never came to pass. In the South, many former Confederates were stripped of the right to vote, but they resisted Reconstruction with violence and intimidation. James Loewen notes that between 1865 and 1867, when white Democrats controlled the government, whites murdered an average of one black person every day in Hinds County, Mississippi. Black schools were especially targeted: school buildings were frequently burned and teachers were flogged and occasionally murdered. The postwar terrorist group the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) acted with significant local support, attacking freedmen and their white allies; the group was largely suppressed by federal efforts under the Enforcement Acts of 1870-71, but did not disappear and had a resurgence in the early twentieth century.
Despite these failures, however, blacks continued to vote and attend schools. Literacy soared, and many African-Americans were elected to local and statewide offices, with several serving in Congress. Because of the black community's commitment to education, the majority of blacks were literate by 1900.
Continued violence in the South, especially heated around electoral campaigns, sapped Northern intentions. More significantly, after the long years and losses of the Civil War, Northerners had lost heart for the massive commitment of money and arms that would have been required to stifle the white insurgency. The financial panic of 1873 disrupted the economy nationwide, causing more difficulties. The white insurgency took on new life ten years after the war. Conservative white Democrats waged an increasingly violent campaign, with the Colfax and Coushatta Massacres in Louisiana in 1873 as signs. The next year saw the formation of paramilitary groups, such as the White League in Louisiana (1874) and Red Shirts in Mississippi and the Carolinas, that worked openly to turn Republicans out of office, disrupt black organizing, and intimidate and suppress black voting. They invited press coverage. One historian described them as "the military arm of the Democratic Party."
In 1874, in a continuation of the disputed gubernatorial election of 1872, thousands of White League militiamen fought against New Orleans police and Louisiana state militia and won. They turned out the Republican governor and installed the Democrat Samuel D. McEnery, took over the capitol, state house and armory for a few days, and then retreated in the face of Federal troops. This was known as the "Battle of Liberty Place".
Northerners waffled and finally capitulated to the South, giving up on being able to control election violence. Abolitionist leaders like Horace Greeley began to ally themselves with Democrats in attacking Reconstruction governments. By 1875, there was a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. President Ulysses S. Grant, who as a general had led the Union to victory in the Civil War, initially refused to send troops to Mississippi in 1875 when the governor of the state asked him to. Violence surrounded the presidential election of 1876 in many areas, beginning a trend. After Grant, it would be many years before any President would do anything to extend the protection of the law to black people.
As noted above, white paramilitary forces contributed to whites' taking over power in the late 1870s. A brief coalition of populists took over in some states, but conservative Democrats had returned to power after the 1880s. From 1890 to 1908, they proceeded to pass legislation and constitutional amendments to disfranchise most blacks and many poor whites, with Mississippi and Louisiana creating new state constitutions in 1890 and 1895 respectively, to disenfranchise African Americans. Democrats used a combination of restrictions on voter registration and voting methods, such as poll taxes, literacy and residency requirements, and ballot box changes. The main push came from elite Democrats in the Black Belt, where blacks were a majority of voters. The elite Democrats also acted to disfranchise poor whites. African Americans were an absolute majority of the population in Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina, and represented more than 40% of the population in four other former Confederate states. Accordingly, many whites perceived African Americans as a major political threat, because in free and fair elections, they would hold the balance of power in a majority of the South.South Carolina U.S. Senator Ben Tillman proudly proclaimed in 1900, "We have done our level best [to prevent blacks from voting]... we have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it."
Conservative white Democratic governments passed Jim Crow legislation, creating a system of legal racial segregation in public and private facilities. Blacks were separated in schools and the few hospitals, were restricted in seating on trains, and had to use separate sections in some restaurants and public transportation systems. They were often barred from some stores, or forbidden to use lunchrooms, restrooms and fitting rooms. Because they could not vote, they could not serve on juries, which meant they had little if any legal recourse in the system. Between 1889 and 1922, as political disfranchisement and segregation were being established, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) calculates lynchings reached their worst level in history. Almost 3,500 people fell victim to lynching, almost all of them black men.
Historian James Loewen notes that lynching emphasized the helplessness of blacks: "the defining characteristic of a lynching is that the murder takes place in public, so everyone knows who did it, yet the crime goes unpunished." Ostensibly prompted by black attacks or threats to white women, scholars and journalists have shown that lynchings arose out of economic competition and desire by competing whites for social control. African American civil rights activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett conducted one of the first systematic studies of the subject. She found blacks were "lynched for anything or nothing" - for wife-beating, stealing hogs, being "saucy to white people", sleeping with a consenting white woman - for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was a system of social terrorism.
Blacks who were economically successful faced reprisals or sanctions. When Richard Wright tried to train to become an optometrist and lens-grinder, the other men in the shop threatened him until he was forced to leave. In 1911 blacks were barred from participating in the Kentucky Derby because African Americans won more than half of the first twenty-eight races. Through violence and legal restrictions, whites often prevented blacks from working as common laborers, much less as skilled artisans or in the professions. Under such conditions, even the most ambitious and talented black people found it extremely difficult to advance.
This situation called into question the views of Booker T. Washington, the most prominent black leader during the early part of the nadir. He had argued that black people could better themselves by hard work and thrift. He believed they had to master basic work before going on to college careers and professional aspirations. Washington believed his programs trained blacks for the lives they were likely to lead and the jobs they could get in the South.
However, as W. E. B. Du Bois pointed out,
it is utterly impossible, under modern competitive methods, for working men and property-owners to defend their rights and exist without the right of suffrage.
Washington had always (though often clandestinely) supported the right of black suffrage, and had fought against disfranchisement laws in Georgia, Louisiana, and other Southern states. This included secretive funding of litigation resulting in Giles v. Harris, 189 U.S. 475 (1903), which lost due to Supreme Court reluctance to interfere with states' rights.
Many blacks voted with their feet and left the South to seek better conditions. In 1879, Logan notes, "some 40,000 Negroes virtually stampeded from Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia for the Midwest." More significantly, beginning about 1915, many blacks moved to Northern cities in what became known as the Great Migration. Through the 1930s, more than 1.5 million blacks would leave the South for lives in the North, seeking work and the chance to escape lynchings and legal segregation. While they faced difficulties, overall they had better chances there. They had to make great cultural changes, as most went from rural areas to major industrial cities, and had to adjust from being rural workers to being urban workers. In the South, alarmed whites, worried that their labor force was leaving, often tried to block black migration.
During the nadir, Northern areas struggled with upheaval and hostility. In the Midwest and West, many towns posted "sundown" warnings, threatening to kill African Americans who remained overnight. These "Sundown" towns also expelled African-Americans who had settled in those towns during Reconstruction and before. Monuments to Confederate War dead were erected across the nation - in Montana, for example. As an example, in its years of expansion, the Pennsylvania Railroad recruited tens of thousands of workers from the South.
Black housing was often segregated in the North. There was competition for jobs and housing, as blacks entered cities which were also the destination of millions of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. As more blacks moved north, they encountered racism where they had to battle over territory, often against ethnic Irish, who were defending their power base. In some regions, blacks could not serve on juries. Blackface shows, in which whites dressed as blacks portrayed African Americans as ignorant clowns, were popular in North and South. The Supreme Court reflected conservative tendencies and did not overrule southern constitutional changes resulting in disfranchisement. In 1896, the Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that "separate but equal" facilities for blacks were constitutional; the Court was made up almost entirely of Northerners.
While there were critics in the scientific community such as Franz Boas, eugenics and scientific racism were promoted in academia by scientists Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant, who argued "scientific evidence" for the racial superiority of whites and thereby worked to justify racial segregation and second-class citizenship for blacks.
Numerous blacks had voted for Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 election, based on his promise to work for them. Instead, he introduced the re-segregation of government workplaces and employment in some agencies. The first feature length-film, The Birth of a Nation (1915), which celebrated the rise of the first Ku Klux Klan, was viewed by President Wilson at the White House.
The Birth of a Nation helped popularize the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan, which gained its greatest power and influence in the mid-1920s. In 1924, the Klan had four million members. It also controlled the governorship and a majority of the state legislature in Indiana, and exerted a powerful political influence in Arkansas, Oklahoma, California, Georgia, Oregon, and Texas.
In the years during and after World War I, there were great social tensions in the nation, not only because of the effects of the Great Migration and European immigration, but because of demobilization and the attempts of veterans to get jobs. Mass attacks on blacks that developed out of strikes and economic competition occurred in Houston, Philadelphia and in East St. Louis in 1917.
In 1919 there were riots in several major cities, resulting in the Red Summer. The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 erupted into mob violence for several days. It left 15 whites and 23 blacks dead, over 500 injured and more than 1,000 homeless. An investigation found that ethnic Irish, who had established their own power base earlier on the South Side, were heavily implicated in the riots. The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma was even more deadly; white mobs invaded and burned the Greenwood district of Tulsa; 1,256 homes were destroyed and 39 people (26 black, 13 white) were confirmed killed, although recent investigations suggest that the number of black deaths could be considerably higher.
Black literacy levels, which rose during Reconstruction, continued to increase through this period. The NAACP was established in 1909, and by 1920 the group won a few important anti-discrimination lawsuits. African Americans, such as Du Bois and Wells-Barnett, continued the tradition of advocacy, organizing, and journalism which helped spur abolitionism, and also developed new tactics that helped to spur the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The Harlem Renaissance and the popularity of jazz music during the early part of the 20th century made many Americans more aware of black culture and more accepting of black celebrities.
Overall, however, the nadir was a disaster, certainly for black people and arguably for whites as well. Foner points out:
...by the early twentieth century [racism] had become more deeply embedded in the nation's culture and politics than at any time since the beginning of the antislavery crusade and perhaps in our nation's entire history.
Similarly, Loewen argues that the family instability and crime which many sociologists have found in black communities can be traced, not to slavery, but to the nadir and its aftermath.
Foner noted that "none of Reconstruction's black officials created a family political dynasty" and concluded that the nadir "aborted the development of the South's black political leadership."
Additional Resources