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.]
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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