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    Vol.62/No.4           February 2, 1998 
After Slavery: The Fight For 40 Acres And A Mule  

Below we reprint excerpts from the article "The Fight for a Workers' and Farmers' Government in the United States" by Jack Barnes. This selection describes the 1867-77 period Radical Reconstruction that followed the Civil War in the United States, and the class forces that led to its bloody defeat. The Militant is printing this as part of a series on the conditions that gave rise to U.S. imperialism and the struggle against it. The entire article appears in issue no. 4 of the Marxist magazine New International. It is copyright by 408 Printing and Publishing Corp., reprinted by permission. Subheadings are by the Militant.

The creation of the Black proletariat following the revolutionary abolition of slavery was .. integrally linked to the land question. In this case, however, proletarianization did not primarily involve the dispossession of Black farmers (although that has been the fate of millions of farming families that are Black over the past 100 years).

Instead, freed slaves in their great majority were denied land ownership. In the initial two years following the Civil War, most ex-slaves were impressed into contract labor gangs on plantations under the notorious Black Codes adopted by most state governments of the vanquished Confederate slavocracy. Blacks organized in the South to resist this effort by the planters to restore virtual slave labor conditions. They won the support of some sectors of the northern labor movement, as well as that of a layer of industrial capitalists and their representatives in Congress who were alarmed at efforts by the former slave owners to reassert their political influence.

As a result of this postwar struggle, Radical Reconstruction regimes were set up throughout the South by 1867, with the mandate of the U.S. Congress and backed up by the armed power of the Union Army. These new governments repealed the Black Codes and adopted legislation barring some of the most onerous provisions of the labor contracts that had been imposed on Black agricultural laborers.

Freed Blacks fight for land
The proletarianized ex-slaves, however, wanted more than better contracts and labor-law reform. They waged a struggle for land - for a radical agrarian reform that would break up the old plantations of the former slave owners and divide the land among the freed slaves and other small rural producers. They fought for the tools, livestock, cheap credit, and other things they would need to make a go of it as free farmers. "Forty acres and a mule" became their slogan.

Exploited farmers and other toilers who were white in the South also fought for land, for tools, for better conditions. Many initially joined in struggle with freed Black slaves, some even with the goal of reconstructing the former Confederacy as "states of labor." Small farmers and propertyless rural working people made up the big majority of the population in all these states. In five states Blacks were a majority.

In South Carolina, in particular, the exploited producers, led by Blacks, took big strides for a number of years following 1867 toward establishing a revolutionary dictatorship that advanced the class interests of the freed slaves, small farmers, and other working people. The Radical Reconstruction regime there had a majority Black legislature, and its social base among the freed slaves and other working people was organized through an extensive armed militia and Union League chapters in many communities.

The U.S. ruling class, its schools, and bourgeois historians try to hide or distort this revolutionary experience of the producing classes in this country. But it is a story that needs to be told by a revolutionary proletarian party in the United States, as an example of what many of our predecessors fought for a century ago - a forerunner of the kind of workers' and farmers' government we are fighting for today. This story will find a ready audience among fighters in the factories and on the farms.

The most advanced of these Radical Reconstruction regimes, such as those in South Carolina and Mississippi, adopted progressive social legislation: civil rights laws barring racial discrimination; progressive tax laws that taxed the rich; universal suffrage for males regardless of race; the first free public schools in these states, in some cases including free college education; expanded rights for women; and public-relief systems.

Aspirations blocked by capitalist rulers
None of the Reconstruction governments, however, had the will or the power to enforce an expropriation of the big plantation owners that could have made possible a radical land reform, since the appointed Union Army commanders in each state held effective veto power over legislation and its enforcement. While some of these officers were more radical than others, none were willing to countenance a broadside attack on the property of the southern landowners...

Most of the freed slaves did not get any land, and were instead forced into sharecropping, tenant farming, or wage labor in the fields and towns. Often they worked under conditions of virtual debt peonage for large plantation owners. Of the white farmers and few Black farmers who did have their own small plots, many fell deeper and deeper into debt bondage. They often lost their land and ended up in the same situation as the majority of freed slaves.

The aspirations of the liberated and proletarianized Blacks, and their allies among southern white working people, were blocked by the growing power of the U.S. capitalist class. The final defeat of Radical Reconstruction required a bloody counterrevolution. The deal between the Democratic and Republican parties to withdraw Union troops from the South in 1877 accelerated a reign of terror by the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Carnelia, and other racist gangs beholden to the interests of the exploiters...

This defeat was suffered not only because the freed slaves, who aspired to get land and to become working farmers, were betrayed by the bourgeoisie and both capitalist political parties. It also occurred because the U.S. working class and its organizations were as yet still too weak and politically inexperienced to provide leadership to the kind of social revolution that could have made possible a massive expropriation and redistribution of land to the freed slaves.  
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