John Paul Figaro
Reconstruction Essay Paper
Reconstruction policies proved to be the seeds of failure in American race relations
in the 19th century. Reconstruction demanded the Negroes freedom, their civil rights, the
opportunity for economic freedom, education and the right to vote. This idea of Negro
equality was the most controversial aspect of radical reconstruction, and violence was one
of the means used to undermine Reconstruction. Racism and violence have proved to be
interrelated factors in American society. In the words of W.
E.B. Du Bois The slave went
free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.
The Southern whites ideology expressed certain propositions about the black man
in society. The abolition of slavery ended the institution but not the system of beliefs,
assumptions, and values they held concerning the Negro. Within the context of this white
supremacist ideology, racism flourished.
The black man was viewed as being part of a
caste system where they were relegated to the bottom of the social classes with no legal
In the movie The Birth of A Nation the director, D.W. Griffith, interprets the
social reality and justifying policies of the Southern white in the 19th century. The tone of
the movie infers that blacks are inherently inferior and are incapable of appreciating the
freedom given to them. We are introduced to images of the contented slave working complacently in the field, to the freedman who has been corrupted by the Scallywags and Carpetbaggers, to the comic Negro in his clownish clothes, dancing and performing and to the vicious Negro renegade who attacks a white woman.
The contrast between the Negro and the Southern white is established not only by characterization but also by southern attitudes and mannerisms. Griffith is re-creating the southern ideal of what it meant to be part of a higher civilization with values and an outlook that shaped the souths history. He pictures the well-dressed southern gentleman and lady, with their genteel manners and refined airs, as having the innate ability to appreciate the cotton flower in contrast to the downtrodden Negro worker in his shabby attire. There are other racist images throughout the movie as we view a changed south, that now has Negro judges and juries and white defendants. We are shown state assemblies in which the black men have control and authority but they are portrayed as drunken, shoeless, ignorant buffoons. It is here that we come to understand that new laws will be created to ensure the advancement and equality of the black race.
It is suggested that the black man would dare to pass laws that allow intermarriage between whites and blacks. We learn that the
Southern girl, Elsie, is outraged when Silas Lynch, a mulatto, dares to propose marriage.
Silas Lynch becomes a symbol of his mulatto race. To underscore such absurdity, her
father, a black sympathizer, becomes angered when he learns of the proposal thus
emphasizing the hypocrisy of the northern views. Racism is again reinforced when Cameron meets Lynch for the first time and Cameron refuses to shake Lynchs hand because Lynch dares to consider himself an equal. There is also a confrontation on the street when a black man refuses to step aside for the white men to pass.
Even the old Colonel is arrested and paraded before his former slaves who spit and taunt him. All these images project a South humiliated and degraded by Reconstruction. The Southerner feels degradation over the new order and the new rebellion of the South begins.
Within the context of the South, beaten in war, where murder, disorganization and
military rule is the new order, violence becomes the answer. Violence was the direct result
of the Souths racist attitude and it was an integral part of the Southern landscape.
Sympathy is elicited for the Southern white when Piedmont, South Carolina is under
attack by a band of Negro militia and northern whites.
We see the Negro raiding and
burning homes, shooting whites and destroying the town without any just cause.
Self-preservation becomes the key to saving themselves and violence becomes the means
to their salvation.
At the center of the resort to violence was a secret organization which served as a
kind of guerrilla force to restore white supremacy. It was known as the Ku Klux Klan or
The Invisible Empire of the South. A .