150 years after the Civil War, America still searches for racial redemption

Carole Emberton.

A new book by UB historian Carole Emberton looks at how the Reconstruction era contributed to the attitudes of the South today.

Release Date: July 18, 2013

“People always think there is going to be a point where we finally ‘get it.’ But the past leaves an imprint on us. It defines who we are, and not always in a good way. Redemption is an ongoing process. ”
Carole Emberton, assistant professor of history

BUFFALO, N.Y. – A University at Buffalo historian who credits the American culture of guns and violence to the Civil War era, says the racial attitudes born of this period are so powerful that the South may never redeem itself from its violent, invidious history.

In “Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence and the American South after the Civil War” (University of Chicago Press, 2013), Carole Emberton, assistant professor of history, digs into the turbulent Reconstruction era to uncover the roots of the bigotry and gun culture that continue to foment violence in 21st century America.

Emberton says that at the end of the Civil War, the principal concern of Southern freedmen was their redemption from lives of slavery. Some looked forward to a fresh start as new citizens and land owners and to the peace they hoped would mark the post-war era.

What they found instead was continued violence, bigotry and political oppression.

Emberton employs an array of archival material, including documented interviews with and letters by former slaves, to trace the meanings “redemption” held for different groups of Americans as they tried to come to terms with the results of the war and the changed social mores of a healing nation.

“I was concerned with how newly freed people negotiated the dangerous landscape of the post-war South,” says Emberton. “I wondered how people coped. How did people live under the continual fear that they were going to be hunted down?”

For freed African Americans, she says, the path toward full citizenship lay with land and gun ownership, military service and the vote. Land ownership marked them as independent, self-employed men; and gun ownership provided them with the power to keep would-be abusers at bay. Past military services indicated their loyalty to the Union, from which they expected recognition and recompense. The vote would give them control of their political destiny.

Their pursuit of these very ends, however, provoked tremendous rage toward them and toward the federal government that had defeated the South, says Emberton.

“This ultimately led to the rise of a violent form of white supremacy, a larger culture of gun ownership and ultimately the defeat of Reconstruction itself,” she says.

During the Reconstruction period, even as black Americans sought redemption through the exercise of their electoral rights, many white Southerners, unable to tolerate being policed by federal troops, some of which included black soldiers, tried to create their own form of redemption by reasserting their dominance over the land they once controlled though a political coalition called the Redeemers, a southern wing of the conservative faction of the Democratic Party, which at the time opposed many of the era's civil rights reforms.

They, along with the paramilitary organizations they supported, including the White League, the Red Shirts and Ku Klux Klan, sought to reverse the Union victory by turning out Republican office holders, terrorizing and killing former slaves, taking back their property and suppressing their vote, Emberton says. 

Southern whites used the barrel of a gun to beat back change and in order for former slaves to defend their new rights – and sometimes their lives – it was imperative that they, too, arm themselves.  Emberton points out that guns were anything but scarce. American weapons manufacturing exploded in order to fuel the Civil War, and to maintain production and profit, the leading manufacturers – Colt, Smith and Wesson, Springfield and Winchester – needed a new market.

The South was a tinderbox, and Election Day was all it took for it to erupt. Voting booths became the setting for massacres even as federal troops were used to enforce the right of African Americans to vote and Southerners responded with violence.

“If you want to vote you had to be armed, because the other side is armed,” she says. “It was a militarized political culture where everyone brought their guns to the voting booths.”

This culture provoked fear of crime as well, Emberton says. It instilled in white Southerners the belief that men needed to protect their homes and families from the violence they saw as rampant right outside their doors. Although whites were largely responsible for creating this culture of violence, they blamed freedpeople for it. These fears still exist today and are often expressed openly.

Given the issues of race and violence currently rattling the nation, “Beyond Redemption” demonstrates why the author holds that redemption from this violent past is far from assured.

“People always think there is going to be a point where we finally ‘get it,’” says Emberton. “But the past leaves an imprint on us. It defines who we are, and not always in a good way. Redemption is an ongoing process.”

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