January ’65

1865

Winter’s onset stalled most major military operations and pushed diplomatic thrusts toward center stage. But from both sides those initiatives were fitful and abortive. Neither chief executive–Abraham Lincoln nor Jefferson Davis–would budge from his fundamental position. Or could.

Davis could not voluntarily agree to the dissolution of the Confederate States of America that had elected him its leader. Lincoln, re-elected two months earlier and sworn for the second time to uphold the Constitution of the United States, could hardly countenance less than the return of Davis’s seceded states to the Union.

Having clung to this doctrine through some of his life’s darkest months, Lincoln now was winning the war. Thus he had no incentive to back away from the complete victory which, with the coming of this new year, seemed virtually in sight. And Davis, having seen his armies’ triumphs of ’61 and ’62 ultimately harvest only blood and ashes, became besieged by doubters across Dixie, increasingly detached from reality, and ill.

His profusion of troubles was such that the New York Times at mid-month reported speculation in Virginia that, owing to his “failing health, his still more rapidly failing popularity,” and Confederate military reverses, “we may infer that Jefferson Davis…may soon voluntarily yield the overwhelming responsibilities of his thankless and dangerous position to (General) Robert E. Lee.”

The Confederate New Year was bereft of hope. On its first day, Confederate War Department clerk John B. Jones mentioned in his diary a widely-held and discouraging view: that Davis “is considered really a man of ability, and eminently qualified to preside over the Confederate States, if independence were attained and we had peace

“But he is probably not equal to the part he is now called upon to play.”

Burdened from the outset with the habit of relying on friendships and personal prejudices in choosing vital personnel, Davis was understandably bitter at his critics. Many were urging localities to evade new Confederate laws that drafted more soldiers and confiscated more crops, animals, and other materials for Dixie’s dwindling armies.

As a longtime U. S. congressman and senator, Davis had championed local autonomy, but as the South’s president he had had to try to override it. And many of his opponents, he complained, had once been Confederate nationalists but now “invoke the cause of State rights to sustain a policy which…must tend to destroy the existence of the States of our Confederacy…”

The irony was supreme. The principle of localism so dear to Davis heroes Thomas Jefferson and John C. Calhoun–and a byword of Confederate dogma–was now, in Davis’s view, killing the Confederate nation.

Whether by states’ rights or fate, the impending death was no metaphor. Desertions from the tattered and hungry armies were wholesale, along with calls for states to make a separate peace. The Confederacy’s energetic and loyal chief of ordnance, Josiah Gorgas, reflected the widening abandonment of hope in his diary entry for Jan. 6:

“Where is this to end? No money in the Treasury, no food to feed Gen. Lee’s army, no troops to oppose (Maj.) Gen. (William T.) Sherman. There is a strong disposition among members of Congress to come to terms with the enemy.”

On that same day, Jan. 6, President Davis wrote to his long-critical vice president, Alexander Stephens, and upbraided Stephens for fomenting lack of popular confidence.

On Jan. 12, longtime U. S. presidential adviser Francis P. Blair arrived in Richmond to talk with Davis. Blair hoped to bring the two countries together by allying them to eject the French from Mexico. Neither Davis nor Lincoln liked the idea, though. After nearly four years of war, the military capacities of both governments were stretched to the limit. But Davis agreed to send a representative to a peace conference in February.

*

There remained an irresolvable sticking point. Lincoln insisted that any negotiation begin by regarding the war as a disagreement between sections of one country, the United States. Davis insisted that the basis had to be two countries.

The underlying contention was hardly new. It had divided American politics since their inception. The Confederacy represented an insular South championing the original Constitution and its sanctioning of slavery. The Union, welcoming streams of immigrants from slavery-hating Europe, was pressing toward a more progressive America.

Now, as the war approached its climax, the on-the-ground differences between these two competing national visions were widening.

The U. S. Senate had already passed a proposed constitutional amendment outlawing slavery, and on Jan. 6 the House–after voting it down in 1864–took it up again. On Jan. 9, a New York Democrat joined Republicans backing the measure. The strongest case cited against it was its complication of prospects for peace, an argument another New York congressman voiced on Jan. 10.

But Northern wheels of social progress by now were rolling beyond just the abolition of slavery.

On Jan. 9 Secretary of War Edwin Stanton turned up in Savannah to talk strategy with Sherman–and, perhaps unwittingly, to push past emancipation. Looking into charges that Sherman had mistreated in “criminal” fashion some 10,000 black refugees who had followed his army across Georgia to the sea, Stanton met with 20 refugee leaders to get their feelings on Sherman as well as how they thought the government could best guarantee their new freedom long-term.

A spokesman for the 20 contradicted the charges that Sherman had mistreated them and went on to say that the refugees wanted to be placed on land that they could farm until they were able to buy it. The spokesman also asked that these lands be separated from those of white people because of the whites’ longstanding extreme racial prejudice against them.

On Jan. 16, Sherman took the extraordinary step of designating all abandoned and confiscated lands along the Georgia coast, including islands, for distribution among the refugees. Black families were to be given temporary titles to not more than 40 acres each.

Then on January’s final day, the House passed–by a vote of 119 to 56–the constitutional amendment ridding the nation of its history’s supreme evil. The abolition measure now went to the states for ratification, with the approval of three-fourths necessary to add it to the Constitution. Republicans contended that the states that had rebelled must be readmitted to the Union before they could participate–which of course, made the new amendment much more likely to pass.

Here again, irony was heavy. Had the South not seceded, an abolition amendment to the Constitution could never have passed Congress. And ratification by three-fourths of the antebellum United States would have been unthinkable.

*

On New Year’s Day Maj. Gen. Ben Butler, who had a penchant for exploding things to no avail, ignited a huge blast of gunpowder on the James River. The aim was to clear the final portion of a canal across a bend and speed passage of vessels up and down.

As had happened a month earlier in a Butler-led attack on Fort Fisher at Wilmington, N.C., the explosion failed to do its job. On Jan. 6 Butler, a militarily inept politician unloved by General-in-Chief U. S. Grant, was relieved of command of the Army of the James as well as of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina.

On Jan. 15, a second sally against Fort Fisher–led this time by Maj. Gen. Alfred Terry–did capture the fort. Terry’s soldiers and some naval sailors attacked it from opposite sides and took huge casualties but prevailed. Meanwhile, more than half of Terry’s 8,000 infantrymen had blocked the possibility of aid to the fort from 6,000 nearby Confederates under General Braxton Bragg. The fort’s fall closed Wilmington, the last major Confederate port.

The most important military activity in January, in terms of future significance, was by Sherman. On the 3rd, he sent some units forward from Savannah to Beaufort, S.C. On the 14th, they began moving farther north while the bulk of the army, delayed by heavy rains, remained near Savannah.

Sherman’s first target was North Carolina and the cutting of one of the last major supply lines left to Lee’s army in Virginia. Sherman hoped to deceive Confederate leaders about his aims, though, so on the 26th he sent a diversionary detachment northeast toward secession’s cradle, Charleston.

The Confederate armies in the west were all but helpless to oppose him. The once-proud Army of Tennessee, long mishandled by General Braxton Bragg and then nearly annihilated under Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood at Franklin and Nashville, arrived in Tupelo, Miss., from Nashville on Jan. 9. On the 12th, President Davis directed that some 4,000 men from the now puny force be sent to oppose Sherman, and most of the rest–totaling fewer than 18,000–were soon to follow.

Many, many Southerners believed they needed a supreme military commander– and not Davis, who had basically acted as such. On Jan. 16 the Confederate Senate passed, 14 to 2, a resolution advising Davis to (1) return the Army of Tennessee to General Joseph E. Johnston; (2) give General P. G. T. Beauregard command over Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina; and (3), most important, name Lee the South’s general-in-chief.

Lee didn’t want the position, which could hardly have been more thankless. From the war’s outset, his focus, interest, and heart had been totally with his native Virginia. But on the 19th, he reluctantly accepted the promotion from an insistent and desperate Davis.

The job’s chances of success had long since progressed from the improbable to the impossible.

[For more see The Civil War Almanac by John S. Boatner, Bison Books 1982; The New York Times Complete Civil War by Harold Holzer and Craig L. Symonds, eds., Black Dog & Leventhal 2010; Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson, Penguin Press 2008; Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour by William C. Davis, HarperCollins 1991; Lee by Clifford Dowdey, Little Brown 1965; and The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001.]

 

1965

As 1965 opened, two of the most controversial African Americans in history were pondering their all-too-probable assassinations.

Malcolm X, dogged by assailants from the Chicago-based Nation of Islam, was found by FBI surveillance to be registering in hotels under a pseudonym, “M. Khalil.” And Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., new winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, was designating a successor to lead the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the event of his death.

*

On the new year’s second day, King was headed from Atlanta to Selma, Ala., one of the South’s hardest-knuckled bastions of bigotry. Fewer than 200 of Dallas County’s 15,000 adult blacks had been allowed to register, and King saw Selma as the starting point for desegregation and registration of blacks throughout Alabama.

Accompanying King was his longtime associate, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. King told Abernathy he had doubted he would survive his previous summer’s trip through Mississippi and was now naming Abernathy to succeed him at his death.

Abernathy objected only weakly. Regarding himself as co-leader of King’s movement, he had sometimes seemed to envy King’s prominence. He said now that he had always expected to be killed alongside King. The two then traded joking eulogies of each other.

Arriving in Selma that same day, they began a long-delayed work. It was meant to be their response to the Birmingham church bombing of September 1963, and it had two goals: (1) to coerce all of Alabama into racial equality and (2) to address egregious local grievances in Selma.

The statewide part of the focus was inspired by a grand plan drafted by the indomitable Diane Nash and her husband, James Bevel. To memorialize the four bomb-slain Birmingham schoolgirls, they envisioned mobilization of a “nonviolent army” that would march to the statehouse in Montgomery, block roads and communications, and paralyze the proudly racist administration of Gov. George C. Wallace.

The local focus, by contrast, was less grand than pitiful. Two employees of a nursing home had been fired for trying to register to vote on a Freedom Day three weeks after the Birmingham bombing. The pair had been photographed so other prospective employers could know who they were and avoid hiring them. And they had been so physically abused that nearly 40 fellow employees walked off $18-a-week jobs in protest.

Local leader Amelia Boynton appealed to the SCLC. She asked its leaders to buy the terminated workers a “high-powered sewing machine” with which they could become self-employed and avoid starvation.

King’s new campaign faced two daunting hurdles. First, Selma’s blacks had to be persuaded to violate a six-month-old injunction forbidding “assembly of three or more persons in a public place” in behalf of civil rights. And local churches were needed to supply assembly areas for the demonstrators.

King and his associates had a bit of luck, though. The brutal Dallas County sheriff, Jim Clark, had gone to the Orange Bowl in Miami to see the University of Alabama play Texas. And the opposition was fragmented. Selma’s city police, under Chief Wilson Baker, preferred a subtler style of resistance less likely to attract national notice.

That first night, Jan. 2, King grandly defied the court injunction with a ringing speech to seven hundred at Brown Chapel AME church.

“Today marks the beginning of a determined, organized, mobilized campaign to get the right to vote everywhere in Alabama,” he announced to cheers. “If we are refused, we will appeal to Gov. George Wallace. If he refuses to listen, we will appeal to the legislature. If they don’t listen, we will appeal to the conscience of the Congress…

“We must be ready to go to jail by the thousands.”

James Bevel started signing up marchers as soon as King left the rostrum.

*

Three days later, the civil rights leader was called home to Atlanta by his wife.

Coretta King had opened some mail routinely sent to their home by the SCLC office. It contained an audio recording that she first thought was just another King speech taped by a fan. Instead, it was a collage of hotel-room sounds purporting to be King parties and sex encounters sent by a fellow African American. Mailed from Miami before the Kings left for Norway for the Nobel ceremony, it said King’s “end is approaching.”

“There is but one way out for you,” it added. “You better take it before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

The package was from the FBI. It was inspired, if not actually brainstormed, by Director J. Edgar Hoover. For years Hoover had lobbied for the Nobel Prize for himself, and he had been outraged that King got it. The senders expected King to open the so-called “suicide package” before he left for Oslo and perhaps be moved to kill himself before receiving the prize.

King did not consider obliging them after the fact. He called a meeting of his closest advisers for the weekend of Jan. 8-10 and quickly divined the identity of the sender. Their hotel rooms had obviously been bugged, and who but the FBI could do that?

“They are out to break me,” King said.

On Monday, Jan. 11, King associates Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy went to the FBI to accuse the Bureau of spreading malicious material to selected officials and reporters. FBI Assistant Director Deke Deloach lied and said no agent would do that. He compounded the lie by saying that the Bureau had no interest in King’s private life.

King did not let it deter him. He was back in Selma on Jan. 14, where his lieutenants had been busy. Night workshops were operating in the city’s five wards, and Diane Nash had made maps of the street addresses of blacks old enough to vote. Two-person teams uniting the SCLC with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the first freedom organization to arrive in Selma in 1962, canvassed the neighborhoods.

King scheduled a new Freedom Day for the following Monday. He told the Thursday meeting that on Monday they would march to Selma’s courthouse to attempt to register. They would send blacks to seek civilian jobs held only by whites. And for the first time they would try to desegregate hotels and restaurants under the new civil rights law. The city’s black youth began demanding to participate. In one ward, 40 young people passed up a high school basketball game to demand roles on Freedom Day.

*

On Monday morning, American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell waited with Sheriff Clark, Clark’s deputies, an auxiliary volunteer “posse,” 60 reporters, and a mob of bystanders as King led some 300 marchers to the courthouse.

Rockwell stepped forward to call King a Communist and challenge him to debate. King offered him 15 minutes to speak at that night’s mass meeting and told him how to get to the First Baptist Church. King then led the testing of eight restaurants and successfully integrated seven. He also successfully became the first African American to sign the register at the historic Hotel Albert.

As the crowd surged around him, a white man asked to see him a minute. When King complied, the man–Jimmie George Robinson, a member of the National States Rights Party–knocked him down with a sucker punch and then kicked him in the groin. A white woman, jumping onto a chair to see better, screamed “Get him! Get him!”

Suddenly SNCC’s legendarily nonviolent chairman John Lewis sprang forward and, in his own words, “put a bear hug on” Robinson.

“It was just a visceral reaction,” Lewis later wrote. “I didn’t strike the man, though I thought about it. I don’t think I’ve ever come as close to hitting someone as I did at that moment. Maybe it was because Dr. King meant so much to me…But that moment pushed me as close as I’ve ever been to the limits of my nonviolent commitments.”

Selma police hauled Robinson off. They also arrested Rockwell but dropped the charges when he agreed to leave Selma the next day.

On Wednesday, Jan. 20, King was reported by the media to be “conspicuously” absent from President Johnson’s inauguration ceremonies. The day before, he had deployed more marchers to the courthouse, and 50–including a teacher and a female third grader–defied police orders to confine themselves to a back alley to await a chance to register to vote. Police herded the 50 to jail with electrified cattle prods but, in the publicity-charged atmosphere, quickly turned them out again. On inauguration day, 200 more demonstrators marched to jail.

As the week went on, a critical corner was turned. Schoolteachers, brandishing toothbrushes signifying their willingness to be jailed, turned out nearly en masse to risk their jobs by taking to the streets with their students. Other professions followed.

On Monday, Jan. 25, King led 250 marchers to the courthouse. They included Annie Lee Cooper, one of the two fired nursing-home workers. When Sheriff Clark twisted her arm, the 235-pound Cooper knocked him down onto the sidewalk with her fists. Three deputies then held her down while Clark hit her with his nightstick–in front of clicking news cameras–before hauling her to jail in two pairs of handcuffs.

Still, nobody was permitted to register to vote

*

Malcolm X, dodging ambushes by members of the Nation of Islam at his New York home and in the streets, said in response to a questioner at one of his lectures that he was “hurt” by seeing on TV the physical attack on King, a fellow black man.

Chased by eager assailants through hotel lobbies and in cars on the streets as he trekked from New York to Los Angeles seeking court assistance against Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, he sat for a televised interview in Chicago. There he criticized Muhammad for committing sexual improprieties with secretaries and for dispatching underlings to injure fellow Muslims.

When the interviewer inquired about his softening of an earlier stance in which he had depicted all whites as “devils,” Malcolm said he had “gotten older.” The interviewer then asked if he wished to apologize for those earlier characterizations. Malcolm said no.

“I don’t think the burden is upon any black man in this society to apologize for any stand that he takes,” he said. “…Most of us are attracted to…extreme(s), primarily because of the extreme negative condition that we live in.”

[For more, see Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1998; An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America by Andrew Young, HarperCollins 1996; Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis with Michael D’Orso, Simon & Schuster 1998; and The Autobiography of Malcolm X with the assistance of Alex Haley, Grove Press 1965.]

 

 

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February ’65

1865

The Confederate States of America and its “peculiar” institution were nearing the bottom of an increasingly slippery slope to extinction. The most telling sign was ratification of a brand-new constitutional amendment, the 13th, by the state of Illinois just a day after its passage by the United States Congress.

It provided that:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to its jurisdiction.”

The next day, Feb. 2, Rhode Island and Michigan joined Illinois, and on the 3rd Maryland, New York, and West Virginia did the same.

The New York Times of Feb. 1 informed readers that the approval of 27 states was required for passage and added:

“It has already been objected to this action that it ought not to be taken while the States most directly interested [i.e., the Confederate ones] are not in condition to vote upon it. They should have a voice, it is urged, in a measure designed to destroy an enormous interest peculiar to themselves. But it is their own fault that they do not vote, and they have no right to profit by their own wrong. Beside, a still more conclusive answer is found in the fact that, failing to vote is really equivalent to voting against the proposed amendment.”

On Feb. 2, President Lincoln left Washington for Hampton Roads, Va. to meet with Secretary of State William Seward and a trio of Confederate peace commissioners named by President Jefferson Davis. The three were Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens, Secretary of State Robert Hunter, and Assistant Secretary of War John Campbell.

Lincoln attended for appearances only. He preferred not to talk to the Confederates at all, not wishing anyone to think he considered the Confederacy a separate nation. But refusing to see them would also send a disadvantageous message.

The meeting occurred on the 3rd and spanned four hours. During it, Seward unsettled the Confederates by letting them know that the 13th Amendment had passed Congress and had begun being ratified by the states. The meeting ultimately accomplished nothing, but it did produce interesting recollections by participants.

The Confederate commissioners and a few other people at the time got the impression that Lincoln, who had been rock-like in his insistence on slavery’s abolition from the time he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, suddenly was changing position and not demanding that it be a condition for states to return to the Union.

It seems likely to have been more a change of emphasis than of position. Like everybody else, Lincoln wanted to shorten the war, and he may well have believed that, although only about 200,000 of the antebellum South’s 4 million slaves had so far been liberated, the freeing of the 200,000 insured that the gate was open and the rest could not be held in slavery’s chains much longer.

He even told the Southern commissioners that he believed many Northerners would favor paying the South as much as $4 million to compensate Southerners for loss of their emancipated human “property” if the Confederates stopped fighting by Apr. 1.

Seward here objected flatly, saying he believed the North had already paid for the abolition of slavery in not just blood but also treasure. Lincoln took a different view, underscoring his sense of fairness. He said both sections, the North and the South, were responsible for this dark blot on the nation’s character.

“If it was wrong in the South to hold slaves,” he said to Seward, “it was wrong in the North to carry on the slave trade and sell them to the South.”

Lincoln returned to Washington and immediately proposed the $4 million idea to his cabinet. He noted that the war had to last only a hundred more days to eat up yet another similar sum from the Union treasury. So paying it now to end the war would save more lives and be a financial bargain as well. But the cabinet members were opposed, some arguing that it would be taken as a sign of desperation. The President reluctantly abandoned the idea.

Meanwhile, the whirlwind ratification process continued. On Feb. 7, Maine and Kansas joined Illinois, Rhode Island, Michigan, Maryland, New York, and West Virginia. The 7th also, however, brought the first holdout, as the Delaware legislature failed to pass the amendment.

To become part of the Constitution, the measure would need ratification by at least two Southern states, and three–Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee–already had fledgling loyalist state governments beginning to operate.

The writing was on the wall and becoming more legible every day.

*

The Confederate government, meanwhile, tried to fend off fate.

On Feb. 6, Jefferson Davis reported the news of the failed Hampton Roads conference to his cabinet. He told its members that Lincoln had refused to accept any of their proposals and offered no avenue to peace but surrender and acceptance of abolition.

Davis then allowed the Confederate commissioners’ report of the meeting to be published in Richmond newspapers. His aim was to try to stiffen the resolve of the populace, and it worked, at least in the short run. Confederate war department clerk James B. Jones told his diary that “now the South will soon be fired up again.”

“There is a more cheerful aspect on the countenances of the people in the streets,” Jones wrote on Feb. 6. “All hope of peace with independence is extinct–and valor alone is relied upon now for salvation.”

Jones wrote that every person he spoke to in the Confederate capital believed the South would re-gather what was left of its military might “and strike such blows as will astonish the world.”

That such blows could be shown to even be possible would have been astonishing. South Carolina was now afire from the torches of the 55,000-man army of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman. Sherman’s Federals were opposed by only 22,500 Confederates, and these were split into two widely separated forces because their commanders did not know which way Sherman was headed. When Confederate cavalry officer Joseph Wheeler protested to Sherman that Union soldiers were destroying private property on an epic scale, the Federal officer replied on Feb. 8 with a verbal shrug.

“I hope you will burn all cotton and save us the trouble,” he wrote Wheeler. “All you don’t burn I will. As to private houses occupied by peaceful families, my orders are not to molest or disturb them, and I think my orders are obeyed. Vacant houses being of no use to anybody, I care little about. I don’t want them destroyed but do not take much care to preserve them.”

A few days later, on Feb. 24, Sherman protested to Confederate Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton that he had had foragers in his army murdered by Confederates. Hampton, reputed to be the largest landholder in the South, had had his own splendid South Carolina mansion burned by Union soldiers a week earlier and was unapologetic. He said he had issued orders that Federal house-burners be shot on sight and added:

“This order shall remain in force as long as you disgrace the profession of arms by allowing your men to destroy private dwellings.”

On Feb. 9, General Robert E. Lee accepted an unwanted promotion to general-in-chief of the Confederate armies. Desperate for manpower, he immediately persuaded Jefferson Davis that a pardon be given all Confederate deserters who returned to their units by Mar. 9.

On the 18th, writing to a Confederate congressman, Lee declared himself in favor of enlisting slaves in the Confederate army and giving freedom to those who became soldiers. On the 20th, the Confederate House of Representatives voted to do that.

But Lee’s needs were not considered by the richest and most powerful Southerners to be sufficient reason to even partially reform the Southern system. On Feb. 21 the Confederate Senate, which most closely represented the South’s largest slaveholders, voted to postpone debate on the measure.

*

Even as the Union war effort appeared poised for victory, fear of an international conflict oppressed minds on both sides of the Atlantic.

The bandit-style Confederate raid from Canada into St. Albans, Vt., in late October had heightened tensions between the U.S. and Britain just as passage of the 13th Amendment further jelled English support for the Union. The U.S. government–furious, its populace terrorized by the brief border invasion–had canceled two trade treaties with Canada and took military precautions along the border. American diplomat Charles Francis Adams on Feb. 9 wrote Secretary of State Seward:

“The insurgent [i.e., Confederate] emissaries and their friends are busy fanning the notion that this is a prelude to war the moment our present difficulties are over.”

With such a threat–as well as America’s attempt to take Canada in the War of 1812–in mind, British officials talked of fortifying Quebec, Montreal, Halifax, and Bermuda. They also had become much concerned over the intended use of a dozen steamships which the Lincoln government had ordered from British shipbuilders. They worried that the vessels were designed for duty not in Dixie but on the Great Lakes.

“There is something mysterious about these [boats],” the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, wrote to the foreign secretary, Lord John Russell, on Feb. 7. “Could they have not got them sooner, more cheaply, and as good in their own dockyards? What they are really meant for one cannot say. Their size is quite enough for carrying guns, and it is probable they are destined to cover the landing of troops on our shores in the Lakes.”

Palmerston’s cabinet authorized the immediate fortifying of Quebec and increasing the British naval budget. On Feb. 12, Queen Victoria was notified by her ministers that her nation was girding for war. The Queen worried, as she told her diary, about “the impossibility of being able to hold onto Canada, but we must try.”

Her private secretary, Lt. Gen. Charles Grey, even advocated striking the United States before it could get its assumed Canadian invasion plan in motion.

Lord Russell then took a deft tack to head off the war he thought he saw coming.

He wrote to the Confederate government protesting its violations of British neutrality and its deliberate attempts to involve England in America’s Civil War.  But after first reading the letter to Charles Francis Adams, he sent it not directly to Richmond but, rather, through Washington–with a request that it be forwarded.

 

[For more, see The Civil War Almanac by John S. Boatner, Bison Books 1982; The New York Times Complete Civil War, 1861-1865 by Harold Holzer and Craig L. Symonds, eds., Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers 2010; Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, Simon & Schuster 1995; Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour by William C. Davis, HarperCollins 1991; and A World On Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman, Random House 2010.]

 

1965

Police-battered demonstrations in Selma, Ala., intensified in February. But the focus of the larger movement, ravaged by wounds in both body and mind, was fracturing under pressure.  Black workers resented white ones, uneducated rural black Southerners resented white Northern student elite, and the nonviolent resented the otherwise.

Before the month ended, blood of assassination spurted and flowed.

*

In Selma, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led about 265 adult demonstrators to the Dallas County courthouse on Monday morning, Feb. 1, in a dramatic renewal of voting rights demands that had been stepped up in January.

Before he led the mass march out of Brown Chapel AME Church, King told the marchers that another 700 were at that moment departing another church in neighboring Perry County for that county’s first Freedom Day–and that in Selma itself, youth too young to vote but “determined to be freed through their parents” had gathered at yet another church to back up the adult march.

King and his long procession, 770 people in all, were quickly arrested. The next day, 520 more entered the Selma jail, and on Feb 3 still another 500 were jailed in nearby Marion, the county seat of Perry. The Marion arrests followed a state trooper’s shout underscoring the strictures of Dixie democracy:

“Sing one more freedom song and you are under arrest.”

Two hundred Perry County parents quickly marched into certain arrest themselves to protest their youngsters’ confinement in pens with nothing but large tubs to drink from.

From Selma, new Los Angeles Times reporter Jack Nelson, a native of Alabama, called in a story quoting Sheriff Jim Clark as saying “get those niggers off the courthouse steps.” An editor protested “you can’t use the word ‘nigger’ in the L.A. Times.”

“You mean that you want me to quote Jim Clark as saying, ‘Get those KNEE-GROES off the courthouse steps?” asked an astounded Nelson.

The editor backed off.

In Selma’s jail, King told aide Andrew Young to ask President Johnson to make a statement in favor of giving Selma blacks the right to vote; to take executive and congressional steps to obtain those rights; and to send a Washington official to emphasize federal interest. Learning that locals wanted Alabama congressmen to investigate, King urged that the probe be widened to include congressmen from other states.

On Feb. 4, the President made the public statement King had asked for. Selma Police Chief Wilson Baker, less brutal than Sheriff Clark, didn’t let King know about the Johnson statement but did inform him that a federal judge had suspended a version of Alabama’s literacy test, commonly used to deny African Americans the vote. The judge also ruled that the Selma registrar had to accept a minimum of 100 voting applications a day and that all received by June 1 must be processed by July 1.

Because of the judge’s ruling and an equally sudden, brief Selma appearance by Malcolm X, there were no marches on the 4th, disappointing King. But the next morning the Rev. C. T. Vivian led a line of 74 more demonstrators–who were promptly arrested for violating a local judge’s decree that, since the county registrar’s office was only open every other Monday, marching on any other day was a public nuisance. A second, larger march by some 450 students was also sent to jail.

Nearly 1,500 marchers had gone behind bars in Selma during February’s first five days, not counting those already arrested in January.

*

The Selma movement could produce so many people willing to go to jail because, contrary to the railings of local officials and local media, many of the “outsiders” were not regarded as such by local demonstrators, and for good reason. Several of them, including Andrew Young and James Bevel and Diane Nash, either were or had been living in the area, and others hailed from it.

Ralph Abernathy, King’s co-leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as well as of the Selma demonstrations, was from Dallas-neighboring Marengo County, and his wife, Juanita, was from Perry County. King and Abernathy had both prominently pastored 50 miles east in Montgomery, and King’s wife, Coretta, was from a much-persecuted Perry County family well-known to the area’s black population.

On money saved from hardscrabble farming, Coretta’s father had built a sawmill, which resentful whites burned down. He started a logging business, only to have his trucks badly damaged by vandals. He then opened a store, which was burned down, too. Nevertheless, with no insurance and no help from the local bank, he rebuilt the store.

Obadiah Scott was justly proud of his daughter, who had risen from the farm fields of Perry County to the prestigious halls of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston–where she met Martin King.

“Cory could pick some cotton,” Obadiah told Andrew Young. “She was the best cotton picker in our family. There was rarely a day when she didn’t pull in 200 pounds of cotton, and I’ve known Cory to pull in 300 pounds when she had to.”

Such were the kind of people Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark and his men meant to keep “in their place” with billy clubs, shotguns, and electric cattle prods.

*

King, a whirling dervish of activity, was almost always afflicted by depression in jail. On the afternoon of Feb. 5 he bonded out, grossly disappointing his New York advisers. They had put together a “letter from Selma” ad in the New York Times quoting him as saying: “…This is Selma, Alabama. There are more Negroes in jail with me than there are on the voting rolls…”

They decided he had to have a reason for bonding out, and they made up one: to go to Washington to confer with President Johnson. They released the story before getting a White House okay, though, and Johnson privately but furiously reacted.

“Where the hell does he get off inviting himself to the White House?”

Nonetheless, on Feb. 6 the White House announced an intention to strongly recommend voting rights legislation by year’s end, but all the President’s current attention was centered on a Vietnam disaster at a Viet Cong-overrun Special Forces base at Pleiku. All any White House aides would promise for Feb. 7 was that King could see Vice President Humphrey, although Johnson might be available for a private secret chat.

While King was gone north, King aide James Bevel led 50 volunteers to the Selma courthouse. There they found a new “appearance book” set up for prospective registrants to sign to schedule chances to try to register when the office opened. Bevel condemned the book as a meaningless artifice, and his wife, Diane Nash, questioned whether it formalized the disfranchisement of the area’s illiterate black farmers who could only sign with an X. The 50 marched past the book without signing.

Sheriff Clark, shouting that Bevel was “making a mockery of justice,” shoved him down the courthouse steps with jabs from a billy club. Clark then hauled the 50 upstairs, and a local judge gave them each five days in jail for bothering his courtroom. The local paper made its first report of physical reprisal against the marchers, saying lawmen had “roughed up” Bevel and jabbed the marchers with cattle prods.

Jailers hosed down Bevel’s unheated cell, and by Feb. 11 he was running a fever. Diane Nash repeatedly telephoned the Justice Department in Washington to do something. Bevel came down with viral pneumonia and was finally transferred to an infirmary, where Nash and SNCC Selma pioneer Bernard LaFayette were shocked to see him shackled to a bed under police guard. Nash’s pestering finally got Sheriff Clark to get rid of the shackles, and on the 12th Clark himself was hospitalized with chest pains. Student demonstrators turned up outside the hospital to kneel in prayer for his recovery.

*

Meanwhile, about 250 SNCC staff members gathered in Atlanta and fought. At stake was control of their vastly important but impoverished and very loosely-knit organization. For three years now, virtually alone, about half of the 250 had walked through valleys of death in Mississippi. This week they were in Atlanta, rather than Alabama, partly because of their jealousy of, and contempt for, King and his better-financed, headline-grabbing Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Chairman John Lewis and other leaders backed a successful proposal to make SNCC governed by (poorly) paid field staffers rather than the college campus coordinating committees that had run the organization since its inception during the sit-ins. Field staffers were generally poor and overwhelmingly black people from the South, who had chafed against the influence of white Northern campus intellectuals.

On Feb. 12, the membership fought for six hours over a proposal that the executive committee be limited to black Southerners with no college education. Finally, illustrating the war-weariness of SNCC leaders who had seen people–local and otherwise–killed doing their bidding, much-battered Bob Moses, a 30-year-old New York native with a Harvard master’s degree who was regarded as of almost Biblical stature by his colleagues, rose to back the executive committee proposal banning the college-educated–and announced that he was quitting and changing his name to Bob Parris.

He walked out and would never come back.

*

On Feb. 16, a night march by 400 demonstrators in the Perry County seat turned into a savage melee as state troopers and Marion police clubbed marchers in the darkness and chased them back toward the church from which they had come.

The church doors were too small to accommodate the policemen’s panicked prey. Cager Lee, 82, lunged bleeding into Mack’s Café, where he huddled with his daughter, Viola, and grandson Jimmie Lee Jackson. The troopers again attacked the old man, and they clubbed Viola Jackson to the floor for trying to protect her father. As Jimmy Lee tried to shield his mother, they shoved him away and shot him twice in the stomach.

On Sunday, Feb. 21, two and a half weeks after making a brief appearance in Selma and telling Coretta King that he wanted to help, not hinder, Coretta’s jailed husband, Malcolm X was shot to death by fellow Muslims in his own mosque in Newark, N.J.–apparently on orders from Nation of Islam headquarters in Chicago.

On Tuesday, Feb. 23, Alabama Highway Patrol head Al Lingo served Jimmie Lee Jackson with an arrest warrant in his hospital bed. Three days later, Jackson died of his wounds from a Lingo trooper’s gun.

 

[For more, see Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 1998; The Race Beat: the Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, Knopf 2006; An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America by Andrew Young, HarperCollins 1996; and Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis with Michael D’Orso, Simon & Schuster 1998]

 

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March ’65

1865

The once-vaunted Confederate military, winnowed to dribs and drabs, now fell to pieces.

On the month’s third day, at Waynesborough, Va., a unit of Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer routed and destroyed most of the surviving portion of Maj. Gen. Jubal Early’s Shenandoah Valley army, capturing nearly the total force, more than 1,000 men. Early and his staff managed to escape and head for Richmond.

On Mar. 7, most of the remainder of the once-formidable Army of Tennessee, a mere remnant after the terrible battles of Franklin and Nashville, arrived in Kinston, N.C., to join  Generals Joseph E. Johnston and Braxton Bragg. There they would try to help stop Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s Federals driving north from South Carolina.

It was a forlorn hope and of little consequence. Generals of the greatest ability on both sides knew the outcome had been decided. Noncombatant politicians were apparently the remaining people most in favor of continuing to fight.

On the night of Mar. 2, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Lt. Gen. James Longstreet went to see President Jefferson Davis in an effort to end the carnage.

In a recent meeting requested by Federal Maj. Gen. E. O. C. Ord to discuss prisoner exchange, Longstreet had been told that Ord thought his commander, Maj. Gen. U. S. Grant, would react favorably to a letter from Lee. Ord had suggested the letter seek a talk in which “old friends of the military service could get together and seek out ways to stop the flow of blood.”

At the Confederate White House, Lee and Longstreet encountered Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge, Davis’s new Secretary of War. As soon as Breckinridge arrived in Richmond and learned from Davis the dire condition of the armies, he had urged Davis to extend peace feelers.

Breckinridge accompanied Lee and Longstreet as they entered Davis’s study. There the trio apparently tried to tell their President, without actually saying it, that the end was at hand.

Lee told Davis he thought his 50,000 hungry men–of whom just 35,000 remained healthy enough to fight–could hold off Grant’s 120,000 in front of Petersburg for two more weeks. Then he would have to abandon Richmond and try to link up with General Johnston in North Carolina. That should have told any rational person that the drama was played out, but Davis by now was withdrawn and apparently semi-delusional.

“The war came,” Davis had recently said, “and now it must go on till the last man of this generation falls in his tracks and his children seize his musket and fight our battle.”

So he gave Lee permission to write to Grant, but doubtless with little hope that the letter could come to anything. Lee himself had little hope, too, mostly because of Davis. He told his President that he thought Grant “will consent to no terms unless coupled with the condition of our return to the Union.” He added a sentence that hardly recommended continuing to fight:

“Whether this will be acceptable to our people yet awhile I cannot say.”

But Lee went ahead and wrote Grant, mentioning what Ord had said and proposing that they get together to try to arrive “at a satisfactory adjustment of the present unhappy difficulties by means of a military convention.”

On Mar. 4, Grant answered–after conferring with President Abraham Lincoln. Just as Lee had predicted, Grant said the only major matter on which he was authorized to meet with Lee was to accept the surrender of Lee’s army.

 

*

 

That same day, Mar. 4, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated for the second time.

His speech, like his great Gettysburg Address of 1863, was short and as poetic as a passage of Scripture. Its most quoted words are the soaring and remarkably forgiving ones at its end–“With malice toward none, with charity for all…”–but in the middle there was another one referring to the war itself. In it, the U. S. President sounded as determined to carry the fight to the last ditch as did Jefferson Davis in Richmond:

“…if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword–as was said three thousand years ago, so it still must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

The Confederate South’s very foundation, slavery, was becoming history–in name, anyway. On Mar. 3, the U.S. Congress passed a law creating the Freedmen’s Bureau to aid former slaves displaced by the war and in need of sustenance and employment.

On Mar. 9, Vermont became the ninth state to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery. Nobody seemed to notice, though, that this proposed addition to the Constitution had no teeth to punish anyone who continued to hold persons in bondage.

Formal slavery was losing its grip even in the Confederacy. On Mar. 13, far too late to be of any use, the Confederate Congress sent President Davis a bill authorizing the arming of slaves to fight in the Confederate armies. The measure left to the individual states the matter of whether these black Confederates would be given freedom. Davis signed the bill into law and castigated the lawmakers for delaying passage of the measure.

On Mar. 23, Abraham Lincoln left Washington for Virginia to get away from the worries of Washington. He would confer with Grant and other Union generals at the front.

 

*

 

Meanwhile, Grant’s army in Virginia and Sherman’s in North Carolina got stronger.

On Mar. 11 Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley cavalry, having destroyed Early’s tiny army, now came east to add to Grant’s strength. Since the 7th, Federals under Maj. Gen. Jacob Cox had been working to repair the railroad from New Berne to Goldsborough, N.C., to get supplies to Sherman from the Atlantic coast with the greatest dispatch.

On the 11th, Sherman reached Fayetteville, where he had his troops destroy everything that could be of use to the Confederacy. On Mar. 15 he headed for Goldsborough in three columns. Jacob Cox’s troops, finishing their railroad repair, also headed for Goldsborough to link up with Sherman.

On St. Patrick’s Day, Mar. 17, another 45,000 Federal troops under Maj. Gen. Edward R. Canby prepared to capture well-fortified Mobile, Ala., which was garrisoned by some 10,000 Confederates.

On Mar. 18, Confederate cavalry under Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton assailed the leftmost of Sherman’s three columns, hoping to slow Sherman while Johnston solidified a position at Bentonville, N.C. The next day, Hampton withdrew while fighting–until Johnston attacked the Federal column of 30,000 with his whole 20,000-man army, forcing the Union force to pull back and fortify.

Johnston had hoped to vanquish the 30,000 Federals before the others could come to their aid, but he failed. Sherman’s other two columns turned back toward Johnston, arriving at Bentonville on Mar. 20. Then Johnston and his 20,000 faced 100,000 Federals.

The fighting continued on Mar. 21, with Johnston parrying Sherman’s moves. This and the previous two days of fighting constituted the last realistic Confederate attempt to stop Sherman. In it, Johnston lost 2,606 men compared to 1,646 for the Federals.

Meanwhile, Federal cavalry launched two raids farther south to aid Sherman. On Mar. 20 Maj. Gen. George Stoneman left Jonesboro, Tenn., with 4,000 troopers bound for western North Carolina.

On Mar. 22, Union Maj. Gen. James Harrison Wilson inaugurated a much larger incursion. Wilson led 14,000 horsemen into the very bowels of what remained of the Confederacy’s infrastructure. He meant to destroy the military capacity of Selma, Ala., one of Dixie’s last major munition-making centers, and then aid Canby against Mobile.

Wilson divided his force into three columns to confuse his skeletal opposition, composed mainly of Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s 2,500 cavalrymen. Wilson skirmished with Confederates at Houston, Ala., on Mar. 25, Black Warrior River on the 26th, Jasper on the 27th, and Elyton (now Birmingham) on the 28th.

On the 31st, as Forrest struggled to gather some 6,000 widely-separated Confederates, Wilson scattered and routed some 2,000 of them as he and his comparative horde drove hard past Montevallo toward Selma.

 

*

Back at Petersburg, Lee made one last desperate attack.

On Mar. 25, he sent Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon in a furious assault on so-called Fort Stedman on the Federal right. Lee’s hope was to force Grant to contract his left to protect his right, which guarded his supply line northward. That might open a westward route through which Lee could get away and march southward to Johnston in North Carolina.

Gordon’s 4 a.m. attack broke through the Union line and captured Fort Stedman, but a 7:30 a.m. Federal counterattack overwhelmed the Confederates. Lee ordered a withdrawal, but too late to save another precious 1,900 men who were captured. Total Confederate casualties numbered 4,000, compared to barely more than a thousand Federal ones.

On Mar. 29, Grant–instead of contracting his left–extended it farther by sending Sheridan’s cavalry, newly arrived from the Shenandoah Valley, around Lee’s right. Rains slowed Sheridan, though, and Lee dispatched Maj. Gen. George Pickett, of the famous doomed charge at Gettysburg, to oppose him.

On the 31st, with the end of the rains, the Union horsemen got going again, only to be stopped by the Confederates. But Pickett was vastly outnumbered, and he withdrew.

His retreat left Lee no option but to try to flee Petersburg, abandon the Confederate capital at Richmond, and outrun Grant southward to North Carolina.

 

[For more see The Civil War Almanac by John S. Bowman, exec. ed., Bison Books 1982; Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour by William C. Davis, HarperCollins 1991; Lee by Clifford Dowdey, Little Brown 1965; Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, Simon & Schuster 1995; and The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001.]

1965

Great opportunities are rare and fleeting. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sensed a golden one during the first week of March in Selma, Ala.

King had returned to the old Alabama town on Mar. 1 and first toured its rural outback, rife with thickets that could hide an assassin. He had dared such dangers since 1955. Then, as a new Montgomery pastor, he led the bus boycott resulting when seamstress Rosa Parks disobeyed a driver’s order to surrender her seat to a white man.

Selma in ’65 was at least as dangerous as Montgomery in ’55. Its outlying counties were likely more so, bristling with rifles and sinister Ku Kluxers. This day, with King present, was especially explosive. It was also the month’s first Monday, one of just two March days on which Alabama law allowed citizens to apply to register to vote.

Today was rainy, and King led soaked black Selmans on marches to and from the courthouse. There an unprecedented 266 managed to make application, but how many, if any, would be accepted nobody knew. At day’s end King had to speed back to the Montgomery airport to go to Washington for a scheduled address at Howard University.

In Selma, maverick aide James Bevel urged black Selmans toward an unauthorized idea which he and his wife, Diane Nash, had brainstormed after the Birmingham church bombing that had killed four schoolgirls in 1963: to march on the state capitol at Montgomery and demand black rights.

Arriving back in the Selma area on Wednesday, King proceeded to Marion, seat of his wife’s home county of Perry. His mission there was to eulogize a 26-year-old local demonstrator, Jimmie Lee Jackson, who had been shot to death by a state highway patrolman in late February.

Three miles to a cemetery in the rain, King led 1,000 mourners. The large number of black people ready to be seen identifying with Jackson likely influenced King. He decided now to go ahead with a Selma-to-Montgomery march–even though the trek’s midpoint would be on narrowed highway in rural and especially dangerous Lowndes County, which was so racist that its stores refused to sell Marlboro cigarettes and Falstaff beer because the parent companies were said to have supported the NAACP.

King slated the 54-mile march for Sunday, Mar. 7, and left town again on his whirlwind speaking schedule. On Mar. 6, Alabama Gov. George Wallace forbade the march. King, still out of town, preached at his home church in Atlanta on the 7th and thus was unable to return to Selma in time to lead the march. As black volunteers from surrounding counties gathered early on the 7th, the crackling of a police radio in the courthouse was monitored by female deputies wearing Confederate flag pins:

“There’s three more cars of niggers crossing the bridge. Some white bastards riding with them.”

The trek departed without King at 2:18 p.m. from a black Selma church called Brown Chapel. Some 525 marchers were followed by two ambulances, three borrowed hearses carrying supplies and doctors, and a flatbed truck bearing four porta-potties.

Police quickly stopped the trailing vehicles. They declared the highway closed to all but foot traffic–and barred the doctors, who were movement sympathizers from out of town, because they were unlicensed by the State of Alabama. A little farther on, two hundred feet past Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River, a line of heavily armed lawmen halted the marchers and ordered them back to Selma. They refused to go.

Suddenly, state and local officers–plus deputized civilians, some on horses–charged the procession, discharging tear gas canisters and striking demonstrators’ skulls with billy clubs. A tear-gas cloud shrouded screaming marchers as they turned to run back to Brown Chapel. The police followed with whips, pistols, tear gas, and clubs.

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chairman John Lewis, at 25 an oft-beaten veteran of the movement, had been a lead marcher, and he suffered a fractured skull in the melee. But back at the church, before being taken to a Catholic hospital that was the only one in Selma treating blacks, he gave a short, outraged speech to weeping marchers taking refuge in the sanctuary.

“I don’t see how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam–I don’t see how he can send troops to the Congo–I don’t see how he can send troops to Africa and can’t send troops to Selma, Ala.,” he cried. “Next time we march we may have to keep going when we get to Montgomery. We may have to go on to Washington!

Mar. 7 became known thereafter as Bloody Sunday. It was not hyperbole.

*

The next few days were blurred by controversy and laced with some backdoor federal betrayal of King and the marchers.

Ultra-bigoted FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover–whose agents arrested only three white men in Selma, and these for beating an agent they mistook for a reporter–forbade his men from warning King of two new death threats in Selma.

Meanwhile King regretted not being in Selma on Bloody Sunday. He had tried in vain to get the march rescheduled for Monday so he could. Now he addressed 1,000 people in Brown Chapel after wiring Northern churchmen to join him in a Tuesday “Ministers’ March to Montgomery.”

Predictable problems arose. On Tuesday, Mar. 9, a federal judge signed a court order prohibiting another march. Diane Nash bitterly reviled the federal government as the enemy while 800 Protestants and Catholics, black and white, hurried in from 22 states.

King publicly considered defying the court order. Saying he “would rather die on the highways of Alabama than make a butchery of my conscience,” he led the Tuesday marchers to Pettus Bridge.

Again, lawmen were drawn up on the structure’s other side. But after the marchers knelt in prayer, the police suddenly pulled back, opening the highway to the marchers. It looked like an invitation to a trap, an ambush on narrowed road in the lonely wilds of Lowndes County. King now rethought making an outright foe of the federal court  by offering up the marchers and himself for massacre in Lowndes County. He ordered everybody back to Brown Chapel.

Among the marchers, there was simultaneous relief and anger at King. SNCC officer James Forman was so openly contemptuous of King’s Tuesday action, or inaction, that on Wednesday he vowed to “radicalize” the movement by opening a rival SNCC campaign in Montgomery.

But danger enough lurked in Selma. Tuesday evening, Unitarian minister–and marcher–James Reeb emerged from a local eatery to have his skull cracked with a baseball bat by an ambusher who hit him from behind. Reeb was hospitalized near death.

The next day, Mar. 11, he died. That day, the White House and the Justice Department asked for an FBI escort in Alabama to safeguard Mrs. Reeb and were turned down. Meanwhile, J. Edgar Hoover quietly removed from Selma the agent who had identified individual local officers who violated federal law at the Pettus Bridge on Mar. 7.

On Friday, Alabama Gov. Wallace asked for a meeting with President Johnson and got it. The next day he railed to the President about how blacks “trained in Moscow and New York” couldn’t be satisfied–wanting front seats on buses, then to take over public parks, then public schools. After that, Wallace complained, they wanted jobs and then distribution of wealth without work. Johnson alternately schmoozed and berated the governor. “Don’t you shit me, George Wallace,” he said at one point and advised Wallace to forget 1865 and think about 2065.

“When the President works on you, there’s not a lot you can do,” Wallace moaned to aides on his flight back to Alabama.

Meanwhile another plane, a small one labeled “Confederate Air Force,” dropped leaflets on Selma calling for all local demonstrators to be fired from their jobs and advocating a defense fund for the arrested alleged murderers of Rev. Reeb.

On Monday, Mar. 15, Johnson spoke to a joint session of Congress. King, although invited, decided to stay in Selma to eulogize Reeb. Johnson, too, paid tribute to the slain minister in his address, saying:

“We thank God for the life of James Reeb. We thank God for his goodness.”

The President went on to assert that no matter how many victories America won on how many different fields, if it continued to treat black people unequally “we will have failed as a people.” He then said that “all of us must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” Civil rights advocates were dumbfounded and overjoyed to hear Johnson’s Texas drawl then raise the movement’s best-known rallying cry:

“And…weshallovercome!”

*

On Mar. 16, a fortyish Detroit mother of five named Viola Liuzzo, daughter of a Tennessee coal miner and wife of a member of the Teamsters Union, got out of bed so inspired by the President’s speech the night before that she headed for Selma alone in her Oldsmobile. That same day in Montgomery, police waded into 600 Jackson State University students led by James Forman seeking to present a voters’ rights petition to Gov. Wallace. The officers beat them into a bloody retreat.

On Sunday, Mar. 21, on its third try, the vaunted march from Selma to Montgomery set out across Edmund Pettus Bridge around 1 p.m.–escorted by 19 Army jeeps, four Army trucks, two helicopters overhead, and the 31st Infantry Division of the federalized Alabama National Guard.

The trek’s logistics were daunting. The federal judge’s order allowed only 300 marchers on the narrowed road through Lowndes County, so the surplus marchers before and after Lowndes had to be transported back to Selma or forward to Montgomery. A special train and volunteered automobiles were designated for this task. Viola Liuzzo’s Oldsmobile was one of the latter.

Enduring a long hard rain and 22 miles of Lowndes County, the march entered Autauga County, where the highway widened to four lanes and the number of marchers more than doubled almost instantly. The number kept proliferating. By the time they reached the Montgomery outskirts they numbered more than 10,000, some estimated.

The crowd was so large that it jostled diminutive Rosa Parks out of the procession and onto a curb before others recognized her and gave her a new place in line. It took more than an hour and a half before the final marchers passed the starting point four miles from the state capitol.

At the capitol on Thursday, Mar. 25, Gov. Wallace peeked through drawn blinds at the gathering horde. He had had aides cover with plywood the bronze floor emblem memorializing the spot where Jefferson Davis had taken his oath as president of the Confederate States of America. On the steps outside, blonde Mary Travers of the Peter, Paul and Mary folk-singing trio kissed singer/activist Harry Belafonte on the cheek, an act whose camera-captured image soon scandalized many white Southerners.

Among many speakers, Rosa Parks told how as a child she had hidden from Klansmen and how her family had had their land taken from them. Then Martin Luther King Jr. stepped up to say such horrors were on the way out in Alabama.

King said the “often bloody trail” of their quest for civil rights had become “a highway up from darkness.” Alabama’s segregation, he said, was on its deathbed.

“The only question,” he added, “is how costly the segregationists and Wallace will make its funeral.”

*

With the great trek completed, marchers had to get home. Once again, Viola Liuzzo’s was one of many cars volunteered for the job.

Liuzzo, who had been a marcher herself, now took over her steering wheel. She had been informed that its current driver, Leroy Moton, 19, might not have a license, so she tactfully told Moton she wanted to practice for the long drive back to Detroit. Moton moved to the front passenger seat, and they dropped one rider at the Montgomery airport and headed for Selma carrying a black man from Selma and three white women from Pennsylvania. They were tailgated for a while by two cars with flashing lights, but they successfully reached Brown Chapel, unloaded, and started back to Montgomery for more.

On the narrowed road in Lowndes County, a car carrying four Ku Klux Klansmen from Birmingham pulled alongside them. Three pistols shot Mrs. Liuzzo in the head, killing her instantly and showering young Moton with blood and window-glass. He played dead, then ran into the night and eventually flagged down a ride into Montgomery.

Mrs. Liuzzo had hardly died before J. Edgar Hoover besmirched her name to President Johnson. He implied that Liuzzo and Moton were sexually involved–they weren’t at all–and that she had a doper’s needle marks on her arm. The marks turned out to be cuts made by the bullet-shattered glass, and a medical exam found no drugs in her system.

Hoover instantly had a lot of information, factual and otherwise, on the shooting. That was because he had an informant in the shooters’ car. The man had been participating in Klan violence against civil rights for five years.

Hoover also tried to run down the reputation of Liuzzo’s husband to the President. The FBI director caused Johnson to wait so many hours to call the husband in Detroit that Mr. Liuzzo, up all night seeking information on his wife’s murder, had finally gone to bed. The family told the White House they didn’t think their father should be disturbed.

On Monday night, Mar. 29, Viola Liuzzo’s Detroit funeral drew 1,500 mourners. They stood and cheered James Leatherer, a one-legged settlement house worker from Saginaw who had participated in the Selma march. Leatherer told the crowd that Liuzzo’s death was a message to still-undecided Americans: “you have to get off the fence.”

*

The next day, Mar. 30, J. Edgar Hoover finally took a long-deserved hit from the rear.

President Johnson had been repelled by information obviously obtained by FBI spying on a journalist friend of long standing, closet homosexual Joseph Alsop. To a lesser extent, Johnson was also concerned about government spying on King. The President instructed Atty. Gen. Nicholas Katzenbach to order Hoover to stop all microphone surveillance and to submit requests for all wiretap activity for approval by Katzenbach, who himself had been uncomfortable with Hoover’s activities.

Hoover, who had all but coerced his authority to wiretap from prior Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy, now saw his strongest power source severely threatened. One of the sorriest chapters in U.S. law enforcement history was nearing its end.

[For more, see At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 2006; Reporting Civil Rights, Part Two by Clayborne Carson, David Garrow, Bill Kovach, and Carol Polsgrove, eds., Library of America 2003; Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis and Michael D’Orso, Simon & Schuster 1998; and An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America by Andrew Young, HarperCollins 1996.]

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April ’65

1865

And then suddenly it was over.

Not completely, of course. There still would be pockets of resistance and individual Confederates who would try to get to Texas to keep fighting or escape to Canada, England, or elsewhere to avoid surrender. Those hoping to become new Texans would most notably include the dying Confederacy’s president.

But they all would be increasingly endangered, alone, or captured. By the end of the month, every significant Confederate army east of the Mississippi was quitting the fight.

*

The end’s beginning came on April 1 at a remote rural crossroads called Five Forks, southwest of Petersburg, Va.

The Confederates had to hold Five Forks–“at all hazards,” commander Robert E. Lee told Maj. Gen. George Pickett, whom he had sent there. The position defended the Richmond & Danville Railroad, the last un-captured tracks that could expeditiously get Lee’s rapidly diminishing Army of Northern Virginia to North Carolina to join the 30,000 troops of General Joseph E. Johnston for an epic last stand.

It never happened. The mental debilitation of Lee’s surviving officers after months of continual pounding from Lt. Gen. U. S. Grant’s Federals is evinced by the fact that Pickett and two of his subordinate commanders, Thomas Rosser and William Henry Fitzhugh (Rooney) Lee, took that occasion to leave their troops and go a few miles north of Five Forks to bake and eat shad, then running in the local rivers. The generals’ lame excuse was that they didn’t expect the Federals to attack.

But the Federals, under Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, did. Pickett’s 10,000 initially leader-less troops at Five Forks, assaulted by 27,000 Federals, scattered and fled except for several hundred killed and wounded and 4,500 who were captured. Lee’s right wing crumbled into nonexistence, and he did not even know it for hours. When he learned it, very early on Sunday, April 2, he sent an urgent message to President Jefferson Davis:

“I think it is absolutely necessary that we abandon our position tonight.”

Davis, who had deluded himself for months, got the word at 10:40 a.m. in his pew at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Despite having been repeatedly warned by Lee of the mounting danger, he was shocked. He left the church to wire back: “To move tonight will involve the loss of many valuables, both for the lack of time to pack and of transportation.” Lee’s many warnings had gone for naught. Davis had made no provision whatever for the calamity.

Lee got Davis’s wire in early afternoon. In an uncharacteristic lapse of self-control, he ripped it to pieces. Then he dictated an icy reply: “Your telegram received. I think it will be necessary to move tonight…”

Thus began a frantic, hotly-pursued, and increasingly surrounded week-long stampede that ended on the 9th eighty-some miles west of Petersburg. Just before he proffered his sword–and his remaining 26,765 troops–to Grant in the McLean House at Appomattox, Lee flatly rejected a suggestion from his artillery chief, Brig. Gen. Edward Porter Alexander: that they scatter and continue the fight as guerrillas.

Lee’s response has sometimes been viewed by historians as a reflection of his high-minded refusal to subject America to that kind of bitter scourge. Actually, it seems to have been more an evidence of Lee’s pragmatic engineer’s mind.

“There are here only about 15,000 men with muskets,” he reasoned. “Suppose two-thirds, say 10,000, got away. Divided among the states, their numbers would be too insignificant to accomplish the least good…Their homes have been overrun by the enemy and their families need them badly.

“We have now simply to look the fact in the face that the Confederacy has failed.”

*

Abraham Lincoln was with Grant’s army in front of Petersburg.

In late March he had come out to talk to his generals and escape the frets of Washington. He entered Richmond on April 4, the day after a fleeing Davis arrived in Danville, Va. Richmond had been burned by the retreating Confederates, and in its ruined streets Lincoln was cheered by Union soldiers and newly-freed black Virginians.

From Danville that day, the still-delusional Davis composed an address “to the People of the Confederate States of America.” It called for the very kind of South-wide guerrilla war Lee would refuse to countenance from Porter Alexander less than a week later. Davis said that losing Richmond, although disheartening, had a brighter side. Lee and his subordinate generals would no longer be tied to such cities as Richmond and could range freely, falling on and whipping detachments of Federals as they found them.

“Let us but will it,” he said, “and we are free.”

Among many problems with this rosy view was that to survive, their ragged bands of soldiers would have to base themselves in mountainous areas of the South populated by the people least loyal to their government, many of whom had been unionists all along. These would likely join with Federals to fight Davis’s guerrilla bands in the bands’ own backyards.

Davis’s foe, Lincoln, returned to Washington on the 8th. On the 10th, as notification of Lee’s surrender reached the capital, a jubilant throng of 3,000, accompanied by a band, approached the White House and called for a speech. Lincoln deferred the speech to the next day but made a special request from the musicians. He asked them to play “Dixie,” which he said he had always liked and believed now belonged to the entire nation.

In the next day’s speech, Lincoln discussed reconstruction of the surrendering South. He defended the new loyalist government set up in the state of Louisiana but said he would have preferred that its new constitution enfranchise the “most intelligent” black Louisianans as well as all black Union soldiers. It was the first time any President had publicly advocated black suffrage.

Four nights later he was shot in the back of the head at Ford’s Theatre by actor/assassin John Wilkes Booth. Forever after, arguments would rage over how Lincoln would have carried out reconstruction, whether he would have been more lenient than the Radicals who took control after his death. He had said not much more than that he wanted no retribution against Southerners who would pledge renewed allegiance to the Union and “obey the laws.”

Perhaps the last phrase answers the question. It suggests that his leniency would have hardened when Southerners began virtual re-enslavement of Southern blacks under the reinstituted state governments he thought he favored.

*

Out in the hinterlands, the war was sputtering out.

Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the only other major Confederate army besides Lee’s, met with Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman on April 17-18 to talk surrender. With Lee’s army surrendered, Johnston had no hope of meaningful reinforcement. In their discussions, he and Sherman overreached by forging an agreement covering every other army besides Lee’s. Its terms provided that every Southern state government would be restored to the Union with its full antebellum authority; the South’s antebellum federal courts would be reopened; and all Southerners would be entitled to their former property.

When Sherman’s agreement was communicated to Grant on April 21, the commander of all U. S. armies blanched. Prewar antebellum “property” in the South obviously included slaves. When Grant took the Sherman document to President Andrew Johnson and the cabinet that night, everyone including Sherman’s friend Grant opposed it. As unobtrusively as possible, Grant went in person to Sherman in North Carolina, arriving on the 24th. He told Sherman that the agreement with Johnston must be renegotiated, and on April 26 Sherman and Johnston signed a document whose terms agreed with the generous but far less ambitious ones Grant had given Lee at Appomattox.

Farther south and west, 14,000 Federal cavalrymen under Maj. Gen. James Harrison Wilson had beaten a small collection of conscripts and militia under Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest at Selma on April 2. Forrest, only able to link up with reinforcements under subordinate Brig. Gen. James Chalmers after the battle, escaped to the northwest of Selma.

Other Federals under Maj. Gen. Edward Canby occupied Mobile, Ala. on April 12–“when it was of no importance,” later wrote Grant, who had tried to initiate a campaign against it many months earlier.

But the war’s disasters were yet to cease. One of fate’s cruelest was reserved for more than 1,600 newly-released and homeward bound survivors of Confederate prisoner of war camps, including many all-but-starved inmates of Andersonville. They drowned or later died of exposure in the Mississippi River when the boilers of the vastly overloaded steamboat Sultana exploded on April 27 near Memphis.

The Sultana sinking remains the worst mechanical accident in U.S. annals and one of the worst shipping catastrophes in world history.

*

Jefferson Davis, meanwhile, was trying to reach the Trans-Mississippi.

He and what remained of his government traveled by train to Greensboro, N.C.—which, unlike hospitable Danville, seethed with disloyalty. The train tracks ended at Greensboro, so from there the bureaucrats had to head overland by wagon. Davis had arrived at Lexington, N.C. when a telegram on the 16th informed him of Lincoln’s assassination. All sorts of wild rumors were afoot, but he said that if the telegram’s contents were true, “I fear it will be disastrous for our people, and I regret it deeply.”

Little wonder. If Lincoln was dead, the new U. S. president was Tennessean Andrew Johnson, the plebeian onetime tailor who for two decades had despised Davis as a symbol of the South’s haughty aristocracy.

On April 22 Davis was in Charlotte, where he planned to relocate his government when he got news of the Sherman-Johnston agreement basically surrendering everything Confederate south of Virginia. Within three more days he received the happy news that Washington had rejected that pact. He did not, though, immediately learn that Johnston, with whom he had quarreled throughout the entire war, was going ahead and surrendering at least his own army without even notifying Davis.

Riding horses, Davis and his little party crossed the Catawba River into South Carolina on the 28th. The Chief Executive whose Confederacy was dissolving around him was still telling his amazed companions that they could somehow get to Texas and continue the war.

[For more, see The Civil War Almanac by John S. Bowman, Bison Books 1982; The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001; Lee by Clifford Dowdey, LittleBrown 1965; Grant by Jean Edward Smith Simon & Schuster 2001; and Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour by William C. Davis, HarperCollins 1991.]

 

1965

Selma’s “Bloody Sunday,” though “smaller in scope,” was more consequential nationally than the front-paged pictures of Birmingham schoolchildren assaulted by police dogs and firehoses two years earlier.

That was the judgment of Stan Levison, arguably Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s shrewdest, most valued, and–to the FBI–most controversial advisor.

“For the first time, whites and Negroes joined the struggle in a pilgrimage to the Deep South,” Levison wrote in a long letter to King on April 7.

Levison based his opinion on more than the news. He had seen.

“In the Montgomery airport I was struck by the unfamiliarity of the participants,” he wrote. “They were not long-committed white liberals and Negroes. They were new forces from all faiths and all classes…from businessmen to pacifist radicals.”

Viola Liuzzo, the white Tennessee-rooted Detroit Teamster’s wife shot in the head by Ku Klux toughs on a rural road in Lowndes County, was an obvious example of Levison’s point. Stirred by the Selma killings of Unitarian minister James J. Reeb of Boston and local civil rights worker Jimmie Lee Jackson, and by President Johnson’s reactive “We Shall Overcome” speech to Congress, Liuzzo had driven to Alabama on her own in behalf of a justice fiendishly perverted in the South since Reconstruction.

There was a reason Levison wrote King his analysis of Selma instead of telling him by phone or face-to-face.  The Kennedy White House, coerced by racist FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, had demanded that the civil rights leader dissociate himself from Levison. The basis was flimsy FBI “evidence” that Levison was a Communist, which King discounted. He renounced Levison with great regret and soon reinstated him in the inner circle, come what may.

Levison’s letter said King’s direction of the Selma campaign had made him “one of the most powerful figures in the country, a leader now not merely of Negroes but of millions of whites.” But not everything Levison wrote was laudatory. He also said King had “caused deep disquiet” on the last day of March by diverging from the “struggle for voting rights” to embrace an off-the-wall call for a national boycott of Alabama products.

King, Levison advised, should stay on his beaten path of arousing “the finer democratic instincts of the nation.” King-style nonviolence, the advisor said, bred courage, which in turn bred energy for political action. He added:

“Someone asked a Negro if he thought they would win, and he responded, ‘We won when we started.’ This is profound.”

*

But the great victory of Selma that Levison so carefully analyzed was demoralizing the victors. It presented a problem: What now?

Movement members exhausted from years of putting lives on the line in Dixie had become internally divided and paralyzed. Many, weary of shootings and beatings, were renouncing nonviolence. Their factions increasingly fixated on differing goals, and the disarray mirrored a psychological shutdown afflicting King himself.

Haunted by perpetual threat of assassination and Hoover’s spying into every aspect of his life, obsessed with his responsibility to the powerless and dispossessed for whom he labored (an urge so strong that he refused to move his family out of a rented apartment into a house), King sank into depression.

His funk stemmed in no small part from guilt over extra-marital affairs with which he seemed to compensate for his burdens. Tortured by self-recrimination, he promised close confidants he would give up these dalliances that provided the obsessed Hoover so much fodder.

But he didn’t.

*

April had begun with a contentious Southern Christian Leadership Conference meeting in Baltimore. There King, with assassination obviously on his mind, called for his longtime associate, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, to be formally named his successor in the event he became unable to serve. This was just one of several topics indicating that, as Levison had noted, the movement’s eyes were straying from the prize of Dixie voting rights.

Another diversion was the proposed national boycott of Alabama products. Such opponents as Whitney Young of the business-oriented National Urban League said it would cost thousands of black Alabamans their jobs. King aide James Bevel, who had the boycott idea and was never at a loss for a biting incendiary phrase, retorted that the urbane Young was the pompous wearer of “a fifty-dollar hat on a two-dollar head.”

King himself was bothered by the fact that Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa gave the SCLC a check for $25,000 but would not commit to the boycott.

Another King subordinate, Andrew Young, proposed an alternative: that they push the nonviolent movement into Northern cities, where blacks were being victimized by subtler discrimination. The SCLC board, though, decried leaving their Southern church base to enter unfamiliar areas and face the competitive and often hostile NAACP. Longtime movement strategist Bayard Rustin cautioned that re-focusing their geographical emphasis would cost the cause supporters both North and South.

Back in Selma, it was all too clear that much was left to do at home. On Palm Sunday, April 11, a mixed-race group showed up for the 7:30 a.m. service at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and was told by an usher that although the bishop “says we’ve got to let you in,” they would not be given Communion.

Finally, they were allowed to sit on the back row and receive Communion after everyone else. But following the service, out on the church’s front steps, a member of the congregation called them “goddamn scum,” and the chief usher later told two white seminarians they were welcome as long as they weren’t accompanied by “nigger trash.”

*

Against the advice of Levison and several others, King took the movement to Boston on April 22. That day he addressed a joint session of the Massachusetts legislature, and the historic significance of the honor was not lost on him.

“For one who has been barricaded from the seats of government, and jailed so many times for attempting to petition legislatures and councils, I can assure you that this is a momentous occasion,” he told the lawmakers.

He added that he had come to Massachusetts “not to condemn but to encourage.

“It was from these shores that the vision of a new nation conceived in liberty was born,” he said, “and from these shores liberty must be preserved.”

He did not back away, though, from mentioning that liberty needed to be for all. Without mentioning Massachusetts, he emphasized inflammatory Boston themes of “school imbalance” and “de facto segregation.”

With the ever-malicious Hoover piddling with assigning agents to try to discern whether King had lied in saying that he had only once–eight years earlier–visited the controversial Highlander (“Communist training”) Center in Tennessee, King led a Boston march on Friday, April 23. Guarded by 600 policemen, he and crowds estimated at anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 walked three miles out of the south Boston suburb of Roxbury in the rain.

In a comment following a speech on the Boston Common–where he beseeched Americans not to be “a nation of onlookers”–he made diversionary anti-Vietnam War headlines by saying he had no objection to movement leaders speaking against war as well as against segregation.

On April 30 he was back in Atlanta trying to forge a truce with disaffected, bellicose leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC had furnished many of the movement’s most heroic grassroots workers.

*

“Our conflicts with SNCC in Selma…had to do with the breadth of some of their objectives,” King aide Andrew Young later wrote. “Our objectives were simple: we wanted to clearly demonstrate to the nation that black citizens were being effectively deprived of their right to vote in Selma…and that Selma was not an anomaly: it was representative of many other towns in the black belt.

“As in Birmingham, there were activists…for whom incremental progress was unacceptable. But I always stressed that nonviolent social change requires reconciliation and forgiveness. The people of Selma had a lot to forgive, but without forgiveness no real change could take place.”

SNCC chairman John Lewis, who had had his skull fractured by Selma’s purported lawmen, was a fellow believer with Young and King in peaceful demonstration, but he was feeling increasingly alone in his own organization.

Lewis later recalled sadly that Selma “was the last act for the movement as I knew it. Something was born in Selma during the course of that year, but something died there, too. The road of nonviolence had essentially run out.”

The Ku Klux Klan and its racist back-shooters. cowardly killers of even women, were finally stirring desperate blacks to physical resistance. Lewis wrote that he could hardly blame movement members who saw Viola Liuzzo’s death as “one more reason” to start hitting back.

“We’re only flesh,” he would tell a writer for the New York Times who asked for his Selma recollections. “I could understand people not wanting to get beaten anymore. The body gets tired. You put out so much energy and you saw such little gain. Black capacity to believe white would really open his heart, open his life to nonviolent appeal, was running out.”

Selma, Lewis later reflected, “was the last act” for the ascendancy of nonviolence in the movement.

“After that,” he wrote, “we just came apart.”

 

[For more, see At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 2006; An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America by Andrew Young, HarperCollins 1996: and Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis and Michael D’Orso, Simon & Schuster 1998.]

 

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May ’65

1865

Subsequent Confederate surrenders, all minor compared to the April ones of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of Tennessee, kept coming.

General Richard Taylor–commanding Confederates in Alabama, Mississippi, and eastern Louisiana–capitulated on May 4 to Maj. Gen. Edward Canby at Citronelle, Ala., 35 miles north of Mobile.

On May 9 at Gainesville in west-central Alabama, a Taylor subordinate, Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, disbanded the tattered remnants of his long-feared cavalry. This epic warrior whom many had assumed would fight to his last breath showed he was as practical as he was fierce. To politicians appealing to him on May 3 to keep fighting, he interrupted them and said:

“Men, you may all do as you damn please, but I’m a-going home.”

In any further battle, it had become obvious, his few remaining troopers would be outnumbered ten to one.

“To make men fight under such circumstances would be nothing but murder,” Forrest told the eminent noncombatants. “Any man who is in favor of a further prosecution of this war is a fit subject for a lunatic asylum and ought to be sent there immediately.”

On the 10th, Maj. Gen. Samuel Jones surrendered his Florida troops at Tallahassee the same day that infamous guerrilla William Clarke Quantrill (whose barbarous rabble most notably included future famed outlaws Jesse and Frank James and Cole Younger) was killed while raiding at Taylorsville, Ky.

Arkansas-Missouri leader Jeff Thompson laid down the arms of his remaining forces at Chalk Bluffs, Ark. on May 11. On the 19th, the CSS Stonewall gave up to Federal authorities in the harbor at Havana, Cuba.

A more major surrender was also percolating. On May 13, the Confederate governors of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana prevailed on Trans-Mississippi commander Edmund Kirby Smith to recognize the hopelessness of their cause, but die-hard subordinates led by Brig. Gen. J. O. Shelby threatened to arrest him if he did. On May 26, however, Smith’s representative, Lt. Gen. Simon B. Buckner, met with a representative of Maj. Gen. Canby to discuss terms.

In the meantime, the last formal battle of the Civil War occurred at Palmito Ranch, Tex., near Brownsville, on May 12-13. It was, anticlimactically, a Confederate victory–as well as a pitiful affair that featured several of the worst traits of the concluding four-year conflict.

U.S. Col. Theodore H. Barrett arrived at Brazos Island green and rank-hungry. He quickly exploded a truce maintained there since March by both sides in realization that the war was ending. Ignoring orders, Barrett took 800 Federals and attacked 350 Texas Confederates grandly calling themselves the Cavalry of the West. The Confederate commander, though, was a worthy adversary, a storied Indian fighter and former Texas Ranger named John S. Ford.

From Palmito Ranch, a hillock between Brownsville and Brazos Island, Ford opened up on the attackers with 12-pounder cannons and then charged. Chasing Barrett’s Federals for miles, he killed 30 and captured 113 while sustaining only five minor casualties. Included among the U. S. force was a portion of the 62nd Colored Infantry as well as some Texas Union cavalry, and after the battle there were allegations that some of these were shot while trying to surrender. Ford insisted otherwise.

In late May, to avoid formally capitulating, Ford disbanded the Cavalry of the West.

*

Meanwhile, the shooting was yielding to a less-violent cousin: politics.

Perhaps most symbolic of the death of the Confederacy and increasing progress toward a modified U. S. normalcy was the Federal capture on May 10 of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. In early morning, the 4th Michigan Cavalry surprised Davis, his wife, his secretary, and Confederate Postmaster General John H. Reagan in camp at Irwinville, Ga. They were still half-asleep and exhausted, having been on the run southward since early April.

Rushing to escape, Davis grabbed his wife’s overcoat instead of his own, and Varina Davis threw her shawl over her husband as he hurried out. The diverse garb gave rise to a widely-circulated–and false–story that Davis, who was also wearing spurs, was hiding in female attire when taken.

A week before the capture, Confederate Secretary of State Judah Benjamin had left Davis’s party as the fleeing group crossed the Savannah River. Benjamin told Davis he would try to get to Cuba and the Bahamas to do diplomatic business, but that was likely a ploy.

The danger of accompanying the man who had become America’s number one fugitive, following the killing of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth in April, was mounting.  New U. S. President Andrew Johnson, who suspected Davis of helping plan the Lincoln assassination, had offered a stupendous reward of $100,000 for his capture.

Benjamin confidentially told Postmaster General Reagan that his intent was to put all the distance between him and the all-but-dead Confederacy that he could, “if it takes me to the middle of China.” Benjamin ended up not having to go nearly that far. His flight landed him in England, where he became a highly successful lawyer.

Meanwhile, the toppled Confederate president whom Benjamin left behind was hustled off from Georgia to Nashville under heavy guard. By May 22 he was in chains in a cell at Fortress Monroe, Va.

*

Andrew Johnson, eventually to be labeled “His Accidency” by some contemptuous newspapers, had begun the war as a Union hero of the first rank. His impassioned speeches in the United States Senate, where he was the only member from a seceding state who refused to leave his seat, were crucial in rallying supporters to the Lincoln government.

But politics makes, as they say, strange bedfellows.

Soon Johnson had to adjust to Lincoln’s emancipation, a doctrine for which the formerly slaveholding Johnson likely had little love. Then, becoming president via Lincoln’s murder, he had to choose between allying himself with abolitionist Radicals who were deeply suspicious of him or with rich Southern planters whom he, as a plebeian former tailor, had long despised.

Having to make this choice put Johnson in a hard spot, and during May he gave little indication as to which way he would go. On May 10, a week after Lincoln’s much-viewed funeral train reached Springfield, Ill. and six days following the slain president’s burial, Johnson announced that armed resistance to the government of the United States was “virtually at an end.”

On May 29, a Johnson proclamation hinted at how he might decide to proceed. This man who had long thundered that “treason must be made odious and traitors punished” announced a general amnesty for all former Confederates except for the formerly high and mighty.

The latter, mostly ranking members of the Confederate government or its military plus anyone else owning more than $100,000 worth of property, would have to apply individually to Johnson himself for pardons. This created a platform on which Johnson and the former Southern ruling class might get on friendlier terms.

One of the most important consequences of Johnson’s proclamation was that all property, except the former slaves, was ordered restored to antebellum owners. This included lands that had been confiscated by federal authorities, many now being farmed by the new freedmen.

Other extraordinary governmental events were in the offing, too.

On May 1, Johnson ordered Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to appoint a nine-man military commission to try persons charged with planning or aiding Booth in the Lincoln murder. Five days later, Stanton did so. The appointees included abolitionist Maj. Gen. David Hunter and the future author of the novel Ben Hur, Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace.

On May 5, Connecticut became the 10th state to ratify the slavery-abolishing Thirteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. A week later, President Johnson followed the wishes of Lincoln and Secretary Stanton by naming Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard to head the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands.

Howard was a devoutly religious and abstemious native of Maine, who opposed drinking and gambling among his men. Although a heroic soldier who was awarded both a Medal of Honor and a congressional resolution of thanks, he was intemperately described by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman as a man who “ought to have been born in petticoats and ought to wear them.”

Under Howard’s leadership, the Freedmen’s Bureau, as it was generally known, became the one governmental agency that tried to guard the new rights of the former slaves in the face of immediate moves to compromise and cancel these rights by antebellum politicians whom Johnson’s lenient Reconstruction policy permitted to be reinstalled in Southern statehouses.

The Freedmen’s Bureau and its volunteer helpers from various relief organizations established many schools for ex-slaves, found them employment, negotiated wages from Southern planters and other businessmen hiring them, and resettled many on government land.

But, although it wasn’t so obvious at the time, Howard was in an impossible position in the South that was developing as 1865 approached its mid-point.  On one side President Johnson, who had named Howard to the post, would soon be seen to have no interest in seeing the Freedmen’s Bureau do more than procure workers for the wealthy Southern planters. The planters, for their part, already had no interest in any organization that would try to assure that blacks would be treated better than they had been as slaves.

Howard seems to have been a very fair-minded man. In May he wrote a Boston minister friend, who had connections with aid organizations, that poor Southern whites ravaged by the war “are now calling for aid, quite as much as the negroes, and I trust our benevolent Societies will not neglect them.”

The euphoria accompanying the end of the long war produced a rosy national view of the future. On May 22, President Johnson declared that on July 1 all Southern seaports except four in Texas would be open for business.

America would soon return to the greedy business of reaping its Manifest Destiny.

[For more, see The Civil War Almanac by John S. Bowman, Bison Books 1982; The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001; Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour by William C. Davis, HarperCollins 1991; Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War by Patricia L. Faust, ed., Harper & Row 1986; When The War Was Over by Dan T. Carter, LSU Press 1985; and Yankee Stepfather: General O. O. Howard and the Freedmen by William S. McFeely, W. W.  Norton 1970.]

 

1965

Detroit housewife Viola Liuzzo, 39, killed by KKK nightriders as she transported volunteers home from the Selma-to-Montgomery march, went un-mourned at the May trial of her accused murderer.

The proceeding, shepherded by Ku Klux Klansmen, began in Lowndes County, Ala., on Monday the 3rd. It lasted through the rest of the week. Alabama Klan Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton and Klan Klonsel–meaning counsel–Matt Murphy sat at the defense table with the accused, Collie Leroy Wilkins.

Waving a pistol and stamping on his hat, Murphy made his case for the defense in twenty minutes. He likely felt he needed to spend no more time on Wilkins, since convicting a Klansman of anything in Alabama was like putting an elephant into a thimble. So Murphy digressed into wild charges against everybody but Wilkins.

Liuzzo, he said, was “a white nigger who turned her car over to a black nigger for the purpose of hauling niggers and communists back and forth.” Liuzzo’s real killer, the Klonsel claimed, was likely Leroy Moton, the black teenager who was with her–and had been driving her volunteered automobile until a fellow civil rights worker told Liuzzo that Moton might not have a license. Murphy accused Moton of murdering Liuzzo himself “under the hypnotic spell of narcotics” after having sex with her, all of which could not have been more unsubstantiated.

But Murphy reserved his greatest outpouring of vitriol for Gary Thomas Rowe, the chief prosecution witness, a federal informant who had been in the car with the shooters. After he entered the courtroom with FBI inspector Joe Sullivan and a phalanx of assigned protectors, Murphy described him as “a traitor and a pimp and an agent of Castro and I don’t know what all.”

Murphy was a first cousin to Southern novelist Walker Percy, but blood seems to have been all Murphy and Percy had in common. That seems implicit in a confidence shared with Percy two years earlier by Civil War historian and fellow novelist Shelby Foote, Percy’s closest friend since high school. Two years before the Liuzzo trial, with the civil rights movement roiling Mississippi, Foote had written Percy from Memphis that he and his wife were considering moving to the Alabama coast.

“I feel death all in the air in Memphis,” Foote wrote, “and I’m beginning to hate the one thing I really ever loved—the South. No, thats wrong: not hate—despise. Mostly I despise the leaders, the pussy-faced politicians, soft-talking instruments of real evil; killers of the dream, that woman called them, and she’s right. Good Lord, when I think what we could have been, the heritage we perverted!—the misspent courage, the hardcore independence, the way a rich man always had to call a poor man Mister, the niggers who stood up for a century under what would have crumpled the rest of us in a month…All that; and now we trust it to the keeping of Ross Barnett!…I want to go live by the Gulf.

“Rgds,

“Shelby.”

Ross Barnett, of course, was governor of Mississippi at the time, which was when James Meredith was taking his life in his hands to integrate Ole Miss. “That woman” was writer Lillian Smith, a Florida-born Georgian who used the phrase “killers of the dream” in the title of one of her novels decrying the segregationist South.

The Liuzzo trial jury, a dozen white males, stunned everybody by deliberating into a second day–and then hanging, 10-2, rather than issuing the prompt acquittal everybody expected. A juror later explained that they had been insulted by Klonsel Murphy’s lurid viciousness. But, reported The New York Times:

“No one, prosecutor or defense lawyer, had a kind word for the dead woman.”

*

The trial did not reflect well on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

Syndicated writer Inez Robb declared herself “sorely” troubled by the “moral aspect” of an FBI informant being in the car of the murderers. Robb wondered what Rowe’s job was meant to have been. To observe? To participate? Or to prevent the killing? Robb said Hoover’s Bureau “owes the nation an explanation of its action in the Liuzzo case.”

The Director’s requisitely-sycophantic immediate subordinates rushed the May 17 column, which ran in 132 newspapers, to his desk. It was accompanied by a report on Robb which had turned up “no derogatory information.” The Director returned a curt response:

“Back in the ’30s or ’40s she vilified the FBI and me personally when I was in Miami.”

The subordinates dived back into their archives. They found Robb had criticized their crime-fighting boss for taking vacations in Mafia-run gambling spots on the Florida coast. The subordinates then recommended that Deputy Director Deke DeLoach be sent to sternly instruct Robb on Gary Thomas Rowe. Hoover said no to that idea, preferring to let the matter drop for reasons that seem all too obvious.

“She’s a ‘bitch,’” he scribbled back, “& nothing would be gained.”

At almost exactly the same time, on May 19 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., best- known leader of the movement for which Viola Liuzzo–and many other people–had  died, persuaded a powerful Chicago cleric, judge, banker, and politician, Dr. Archibald Carey, to go to Washington to reason with the FBI. King hoped to head off a rumored impending press attack on him orchestrated by the Bureau and based partly on information from phone taps and hotel room bugs and partly on the Director’s political and racial biases. The attack was thought to be scheduled for the last week in May.

DeLoach fended off Carey with a lie of implication.

“I…told him…the FBI had plenty to do without being responsible for a discrediting campaign against Dr. King,” DeLoach later recalled.

The truth was, the Bureau had been responsible for a number of just such campaigns, secretly feeding damning wiretapped information on King’s private life to friendly newspapermen. After the meeting, Carey advised King to do more of what Carey had already urged King to do: publicly praise the egomaniacal Hoover.

*

Meanwhile, emblematic of the increasing fractionalization of the movement, a number of civil rights leaders participated in a mammoth “national teach-in” on the Vietnam War.

A radio hook-up connected 122 college campuses in, as one writer put it, a “battle of the eggheads” that pitted academics against government officials. It occurred, on radio and off, for a week beginning on May 15. In California especially, it splintered into a Free Speech Movement whose promoters flamboyantly advocated talk that was inflammatorily vulgar.

Noted historian Arthur Schlesinger and not-yet-famous Daniel Ellsberg were among those who spoke for the Johnson Administration. Aging socialist Norman Thomas, former Presbyterian minister and perennially unsuccessful candidate for president, bemoaned white churches that he perceived to be retreating from backing civil rights while favoring the Vietnam conflict, thus reverting to their “familiar role of opposing all wars except the one they are in.”

Former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee giant Bob Moses, now calling himself Bob Parris after recoiling from four years of traumatic life-and-death struggle in Mississippi, told a crowd at Berkeley that Americans, deceived by government officials and warmongering newspapers, mistakenly “believe that they’re in Vietnam fighting Communism as the manifestation of evil in the world.

“You’ve got to be prepared to offer (them) a different reality,” he said.

The splintering of the movement by the Vietnam War was natural and even justified. The Vietnam struggle, like the South’s baldly racist status quo, had at least two powerful civil rights aspects. First, America’s military draft sent to Southeast Asia mostly poor white and black American youths who had neither the clout nor money to go to Canada or graduate school. Second, it sent them there to kill even poorer people, both soldiers and civilians, who had little idea what Communism even was.

*

On May 20 Dr. King addressed 2,000 members of the American Jewish Committee at the Americana Hotel in New York–after the hotel first had to be evacuated because of a bomb threat.

King spoke on nonviolent protest and said its roots stretched back to the beginnings of American revolutionary thought. He noted that it had benefited a number of causes other than that of black rights, including women’s suffrage, and added that its aim was to make the U.S. Constitution more perfect, not to disobey it.

In a May 23 sermon in his home church, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta, he used a phrase he would more famously employ again later, saying he had “been to the mountaintop” and that whatever else happened to him in his life wouldn’t matter, because “I have seen the promised land.”

He looked back on how far he had come from the Montgomery bus boycott of 1954. He ended by recalling his recent march back into Alabama’s capital city from Selma “to stand right at the place where Jefferson Davis stood and say that the old cradle of the Confederacy is now rocking.”

Seeming to play on Alabama’s Heart of Dixie nickname, he added:

“Dixie will one day have a heart–because we are moving now!”

*

They definitely were.

The Selma victory had shoved consciousness of the necessity of action onto Congress, where on May 26 the Senate voted 70-30 against cloture. That opened the way for passage of the Voting Rights Bill of 1965, and the next day that momentous bill passed the Senate. John Tower of Texas and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina cast the only Republican votes in opposition.

Mourning what was in effect the South’s loss of the constitutional states’ right to engage in racial oppression, Thurmond claimed to preach the funeral of the U.S. Senate, which he described as the “final resting place of the Constitution and the rule of law, for it is here that they will have been buried with shovels of emotion under piles of expediency, in the year of our Lord, 1965.”

The nation’s second President Johnson, reigning exactly a century after the first, was such a master of manipulation that he seemed a national colossus at the time. But the 1965 Johnson, just like the 1865 one, stood on the brink of a fall few saw coming.

[For more, see At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 2006; The Correspondence of Shelby Foote & Walker Percy by Jay Tolson, ed., W.W. Norton, 1997; ‘Racial Matters’: The FBI’s Secret File on Black America, 1960-72 by Kenneth O’Reilly, Free Press 1989; and In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s by Clayborne Carson, Harvard 1981.]

 

 

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June ’65

1865

June saw the last significant surrender of soldiers flying the Confederate flag. The final organized force to lay down its arms did so on June 18, 1865 at Doaksville in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.

These Confederates were American Indians, and the number present was small. Their commander, Brig. Gen. Stand Watie, having heard of the April capitulations of Generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston on the eastern seaboard, had allowed many of his troops to go home.

The surrender was a formality but necessary, especially for Watie. It assured him federal protection from fellow Native Americans on the Union side who had hated and tried to kill him for nearly three decades.

That there had to be a surrender at all was ironic. Native Americans had no dog in the Civil War fight. They had been cheated and otherwise mistreated by both Northerners and Southerners ever since white men began arriving in the so-called New World that was “new” only to these late-comers.

But the Indians had an inter-tribal war of their own, and they used the larger conflict to help fight it. Watie, for instance, was despised by many of his fellow Cherokees. In 1835 he had joined chiefs who signed the agreement with the U. S. government removing them from their native southern Appalachian homelands and sending them to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. Because of their backing of removal, Watie’s brother was assassinated and Watie himself survived several attempts on his life.

He and many of his so-called Treaty Party associates, being slaveholders and adherents of the “peculiar institution,” sided with the South. John Ross, titular chief of the Cherokees, ended up espousing the federal government which had instituted the removal he strongly opposed. So at the end of the war Watie and his followers needed protection against the Ross Cherokees, and they got it from the U.S. in their surrender.

For the Oklahoma Cherokees, the Civil War had been as costly as the Trail of Tears thirty years earlier. Their population of 21,000 fell to 15,000 during the four years. By 1863, a quarter of the children were orphans, a third of the wives were widows, nearly seven thousand Cherokees were refugees at U.S. Fort Gibson, and 300,000 head of their cattle had been taken by Union or Confederate troops.

By late 1865, nearly all the Cherokee survivors would be little more than alive, kept that way by government food allotments dispensed at Fort Gibson.

*

June may have been the most important month in shaping the South’s enduring postwar attitudes. The change resulted from a mistake, and the man who made it was President Andrew Johnson.

Congress was in recess at the time, so Radical, slavery-hating Republicans were not in Washington. The Southern Democrat Johnson saw a chance to beat them to the punch by doing his own version of Reconstruction. In June he quickly launched new, but old-style, state governments across the South.

He named new interim governors of Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina before the Radicals could return and enact laws putting these states under the kind of temporary military rule to be expected in conquered territory at the end of a war.

Most of the men Johnson named had been little more than lukewarm to secession, but they, like Johnson–and even most of the wartime North–were less than friendly to the idea of citizenship for ex-slaves. The new governors swiftly instituted laws that all but copied their states’ prewar ones governing people of color.

So the brutal and bloody racial oppression that began sweeping the South, and would characterize it for another century, perhaps did not have to. In June, according to The Nation, “most Southern men looked forward to exemption from hanging and forfeiture of goods as the utmost they could hope for…

“They laid down their arms, denounced all attempts at guerrilla warfare, acknowledged that their slaves were free, and, in fact, gave the Government to understand that it had only to name the terms on which it would restore civil government in order to have them normally acceded to.”

Similarly, prominent journalist Whitelaw Reid, traveling around the war-sick and defeated region in May, assessed the prevailing attitude of the residents as ready to “promptly” accept any requirement for rejoining the United States, including the right of freedmen to vote.

But in June Johnson made Southerners begin to believe they could again have, in all but name, the supreme racial domination that had been the region’s hallmark before the war. Alabama Gov. Lewis Parsons would put it more succinctly in July:

“Every political right which the State possessed under the Federal Constitution is hers today, with the single exception relating to slavery.”

Even that “single exception” was an illusion. A Johnson emissary to the South in June assured the section’s eminent men that he felt that granting or restricting the right to vote should be left to the states. Anybody in the South, black or white, knew what that meant. No Southern state legislature would ever willingly give freedmen the right to vote. That in turn meant African Americans could never hope to gain the political muscle required to defend their meager properties or their own–or their families’–bodies.

The governor of Florida made this reality crystal clear. He told the freedmen to go back to the plantations, work hard, and “call your old Master ‘Master.’”

On June 15, U. S. Sen. Henry Wilson of Massachusetts wrote to General Oliver O. Howard, commissioner of the new Freedmen’s Bureau, beseeching him to “do all that can be done for the protection of the poor negroes” because “this nation seems about to abandon them to their disloyal masters.”

Indeed. In the South, almost no whites cared to champion the cause of the freedmen. Ex-Confederate landowners wanted them to be only powerless laborers. And most white unionists also opposed enfranchising them, thinking they would vote the way their late, and now restored, masters told them to.

So the primary political battle in the South in June of 1865 was not between whites and freedmen but, rather, between rich planters who had always held power in the region and poorer whites who had never been allowed to significantly participate in government. The freedmen got little attention from either of these groups, except as pawns.

*

The war was over, but the good, or at least relieved, feelings sweeping the nation were deceptive and short-lived. As the South’s elites saw Johnson giving them back the power they had always wielded over Dixie’s black and poor-white populations, sectional bitterness quickly revived.

One of the earliest triggers of Southern resentment came on June 30, when a Johnson-named military commission found eight people guilty of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth to kill President Lincoln. Four were sentenced to hang–including a lone female, Mary Surratt, whose crime seems to have been that she operated the rooming house where Booth made his plans.

These harsh, and seemingly unfair, punishments did not satisfy the many Northerners who thought the whole South deserved punishment for starting the war. Meanwhile the South, emboldened by Johnson, slapped the face of these revenge-minded victors.

South Carolina and Mississippi refused to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery. Georgia’s legislature elected Alexander Stephens, the recent vice president of the defeated Confederacy, to the United States Senate–while he was still imprisoned awaiting trial for treason. Mississippi elected to its governorship a former Confederate brigadier general who had not even received his presidential pardon.

That was not near all. Less than half a year past the war’s last surrender, Southern states would send to Congress a horde of former Confederate officials: four generals, five colonels, six cabinet members, and 58 members of the Confederate congress.

The racial climate in such an atmosphere was all too predictable. From the South, New York Tribune writer Whitelaw Reid informed his friend, powerful abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, that Southern ex-slaves were being told that emancipation had been a passing Union fancy cancelled out by the South’s surrender.

“The masters tell them,” Reid wrote Stevens, “that slavery is to be restored as soon as the army is removed; that the government is already mustering the army out of service; that next year, when the State is reorganized, the State authorities will control slavery.”

Outraged abolitionists such as Stevens were not the only people taken aback. Even President Johnson–whose “excessive tenderness,” in the words of The Nation, had “roused” Dixie’s leaders “to their old audacity”–was red-faced. Johnson had to plead with his fellow Southerners to tread lighter.

In many cases, he would do so in vain.

*

Having sowed the wind by overplaying the pat hand Andrew Johnson dealt it, the South reaped what many Southerners have ever since decried as the whirlwind of Reconstruction.

But this whirlwind, actually one of American racial history’s most naively hopeful chapters, lasted just nine years. The North, never a strong advocate of minority rights at best, wearied of trying to change a region violently determined not to comply.

The South exchanged its Confederacy for one with a small “c.” It resumed its former role as spiritual seat of ultra-conservatism within the United States, from which it loosed ghosts of Confederate rage that still haunt America’s social and political landscape.

Jefferson Davis’s aristocratic Confederate oligarchy out-bungled the Union and lost the shooting war it started, but it employed race phobia, fear of the federal government, and, when pressed, lynch mobs and back-shooting ambushers to capture and hold the postwar “peace.”

In important ways, the Lost Cause didn’t lose.

[For more, see The Civil War Almanac by John S. Bowman, Bison Books 1982; The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher, Simon & Schuster 2001; Between Two Fires: American Indians in the Civil War by Laurence M. Hauptman, Free Press 1995; Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1865-1877 by Eric Foner, Harper & Row 1988; Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South by Fawn M. Brodie, Norton Library 1966; Yankee Stepfather: General O. O. Howard and the Freedmen by William S. McFeely, Yale University Press 1968.]

 

This, the 50th month of the Civil War covered by this blog, is this narrative’s concluding Civil War entry. But in the above, the author has tried to suggest that June 1865 was by no means the war’s final month. Rather, it was the end of organized shooting by formal military units wearing the blue and the gray. Gunfire and other violence continued, however, and not just until 1877, when the federal government recalled the last of its troops from the South. As attested by the other half of this ‘Civil War & Civil Rights’ enterprise, the struggle for America’s soul raged for much more than a century. It persists today.

 

1965

June 1965, like the same month an exact century earlier, made transforming changes in an ongoing national struggle.

June also forecast more and larger ones yet to come. Passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in August would precede by hardly a week a mammoth riot in the Watts section of Los Angeles. African Americans bereft of hope would burn down their own suburb, as if black people outside the South were symbolically shouting, “What about us? We’re oppressed, too.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., consensus leader of the Southern civil rights movement of the 1960s, was becoming ever more focused on a wider horizon filling up with the conflict in Vietnam. Thirty-three thousand American troops were already there, and generals were calling for 140,000 more.

King’s interest in the fighting was justified. Its role as a civil rights issue was burgeoning. Young black men–especially in the South, where they and their parents had no vote and little else–were far more likely than their white counterparts to be drafted, assigned to the infantry, and ordered to risk their lives for a recruiting-poster “American way of life”  open to virtually every American but themselves.

“From the outset, black U. S. soldiers were dying in Vietnam in horrifyingly disproportionate numbers,” John Lewis, then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, later noted.

“While 10 percent of the nation’s population was black, one out of every four American fatalities in Vietnam was a black soldier. By late 1965, America’s front lines in Vietnam were so filled with black men–as many as 60 percent–that the soldiers called it Soulville.”

But Vietnam was not the only burning issue diverting the movement’s leaders from Southern injustices that had been their original target. While hundreds of marchers continued to be jailed on Southern civil rights battlefields that June, King and his associates were pulled toward the vastly more complex second front that Watts would soon represent: the urban non-South.

Northern industrial cities into which waves of African Americans had poured out of Dixie since the late 1800s had turned out to be far less than welcoming, cramming these new residents into squalid, crime-breeding tenements.

The hard-to-miss truth had to be faced. Not just the South, but America, was rotten with racial discrimination.

*

The month began, though, on more familiar turfs.

Now-famed sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader of the upstart Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and some 70 other African Americans tried to picket on June 2 in Panola County, Miss., seeking a raise in their $3-a-day wages. It was the first attempt in the county in 30 years, and it got the pickets thrown out of the sharecropper shacks in which they had lived.

That same evening in Bogalusa, La., a Klansman pulled alongside a sheriff’s patrol car occupied by the county’s first two black officers. The two were hired to deal only with African Americans, but the Klansman shot-gunned them, killing one and wounding the other. The survivor radioed a description to headquarters, and Ku Kluxer Ray McElveen was soon arrested.

On June 4, President Lyndon Johnson addressed the graduating class of Howard University, the historically black Washington institution named for Civil War General O. O. Howard. The President said recent “tumbling down” of barriers to African American freedom was a beginning, not an end. Freedom, he said, “is not enough.” What Americans had to do was produce “not just freedom but opportunity…not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and a result.”

Freedom’s benefits, he implied, are cumulative and equal opportunity rarely reachable in one or two generations.

“You do not take a person who for years has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, and bring him up to the starting line of a race, and then say, ‘you are free to compete with the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”

Johnson shunned political platitudes this day. He said that despite recent gains on paper, the majority of African Americans–relatives of the graduates in front of him–remained among the nation’s “uprooted” and “dispossessed,” deprived of education and the skills it imparted, confined to ghettos and “losing ground every day” while white Americans surged ahead.

Such realities, he said, “to the Negro are a constant reminder of oppression. For the white, they are a constant reminder of guilt.”

Guilt and its activators continued to proliferate. That very night, back in Bogalusa–where the state attorney general had swiftly disallowed state employee survivor insurance to go to the widow of the Klan-slain black deputy, and where prosecution of the murderer quickly stalled–some “half-witted white kids,” according to the sheriff, put bullet holes in a white deputy’s home to discourage police “race traitors.”

*

Then, 500 miles north of Dixie, Chicago cried out.

Long bloated by a continuing influx of African Americans fleeing Southern racial oppression and loss of subsistence employment to the mechanization of cotton-picking, the City of Big Shoulders met these new immigrants with a shoulder colder than it was big, crowding them into impoverished, dangerous, high-rise ghettos.

Ninety-four percent of the city’s schools were all-white or all-black, and when the Board of Education gave its de facto segregationist school superintendent a four-year contract extension after he had been scheduled to retire, the local NAACP called for a citywide five-day boycott of the schools.

More than 60,000 students walked out on June 10. A companion group of 252 adults got arrested the next day. On the 12th, 196 more people were arrested, including Catholic nuns and the Chicago insurgency’s leader, teacher and minister Al Raby. Raby had gotten his baptism in the fire of nonviolent demonstration by answering Dr. King’s plea for help in Selma, Ala., and now Raby and his fellow demonstrators begged King to help them rally their crusade.

The Chicago appeal opened new divisions within King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and they festered after the Watts riot in August.

One of King’s most effective associates, Andrew Young, opposed diverting SCLC resources and efforts outside the South. Young saw Watts–and, by inference, Chicago and other Northern cities–as fundamental departures from the movement’s central goal. Such diversion raised “issues that went beyond the largely middle-class focus of the Southern movement,” Young contended.

“Watts,” on the other hand, “was a cry for help from the unemployed, the displaced, the disinherited.”

On June 12, King agreed to visit the Windy City, and on the July 6-7 visit he announced he would be back for a longer stay beginning on the 24th.

In the interim, Watts ignited. A remark the conflagration elicited from Robert Kennedy, Young later recalled, heightened King’s Chicago commitment. Young said Kennedy told King that focusing on the South “had neglected the problems of the North and the cities.” King, “personally…wounded,” told Young that Kennedy was right.

Young angrily disagreed.  He reflected that Chicago’s black population was perhaps as big as all of Alabama’s.

“I said, ‘Look, Martin, here we are with about a half-million-dollar budget and maybe a hundred staff members, and this rich boy who has the resources of the entire federal government at his disposal is telling us we haven’t done enough? I think we’ve done a helluva lot.”

Young felt their organization had nowhere near the resources “to sustain two major campaigns in far-off geographical areas.” He “felt we could help the Northern cities more” by registering the hordes of prospective black voters in Dixie. Doing that could change “the political climate in the South and, thereby, in the nation.”

King remained un-persuaded.

Meanwhile, a Mississippi event would dramatically illustrate that civil rights efforts were finally bearing some positive fruit. Sex had always underscored the complete domination of Southern whites over African Americans, with black men continually being killed on flimsy charges of raping white women while white men raped black women with impunity.

In Forrest County on July 13–coincidentally the 144th birthday of the county’s namesake, Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest–a white man had lured a 15-year-old black girl from her home on a pretense of babysitting for the man and his wife. Instead, he took the girl to a remote area, viciously foiled her efforts to flee, and raped her. Taken to a hospital by a passing motorist who found her wandering in a daze, the girl told police what happened and picked her attacker out of a lineup. Authorities who wanted no more national attention on Mississippi got him indicted by a grand jury.

In the November trial, the man proved to be unmarried, while a white doctor testified that the girl had been a virgin. The defendant was convicted. It was the first time since Reconstruction that a Hattiesburg jury had found a white man guilty of raping an African American female–and sentenced him to life in prison.

*

With fewer than three more years of living left, and his nonviolent movement fracturing toward militant resistance in such groups as the Black Panther Party, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. nevertheless would wade into wider worlds of suffering.

He would champion myriad new causes: those of marginalized tenement dwellers in Chicago, garbage collectors in Memphis, and many others, meanwhile not neglecting the savagery still tyrannizing the Deep South.

Sky-high tensions would go higher. Cowardly Klan-style ambush murders would continue to strike down civil rights adherents in the South while assassinations of sympathetic political figures elsewhere would rock the whole nation. In 1967 and ’68, Watts-style riots in several more major cities would set America afire.

Amid it all, on April 3, 1968, King suddenly ascended to a revered place in American history. The bullet that sent him there, long expected by its victim, had come from the rifle of a man in hiding.

[For more, see At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years1965-68 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster 2006; Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis and Michael D’Orso, Simon & Schuster 1998; An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America by Andrew Young, HarperCollins 1996; At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power by Danielle L. McGuire, Alfred A. Knopf 2010; and The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches and Firsthand Accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954-1990 by Clayborne Carson, David J. Garrow, Gerald Gill, Vincent Harding, and Darlene Clark Hine, eds., Penguin Books 1991.]

 

The above concludes the four-year ‘Civil War & Civil Rights’ narrative. In time, on this site, the author hopes to begin another blog dealing with kindred themes. Many thanks for reading.

 

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December ’64

1864 The Confederate Army of Tennessee–its ranks and officer corps vastly thinned by the failed assaults the previous afternoon at Franklin, Tenn.–headed to Nashville behind a fleeing Union army on Dec. 1. The Confederate commander, Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood, … Continue reading

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