How did white and black southerners react to Reconstruction?

Expert Answers
rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The answer to this question is quite complex, since of course there was not a simply singular and unified response to Reconstruction on the part of either white or black Southerners.

For many African Americans, Reconstruction created extraordinary and unprecedented opportunities, and they sought to take advantage of them. This was especially true in political access and education. Black men were allowed to vote with the Fifteenth Amendment, and they voted in numbers approaching ninety percent in many states in the early days of Congressional Reconstruction. As a result, a few African American politicians were elected to Congress, and many joined state legislatures. Some counties elected black sheriffs, an huge development so soon after the end of slavery.

Additionally, African American adults and young people took advantage of educational opportunities, attending schools sponsored by black churches or the Freedmen's Bureau. Economically, they responded to the end of slavery by seeking new opportunities, moving to cities and even to lands in the west, By far, most African-American families ended up farming on lands belonging to white men, however, entering into sharecropping and tenant farming arrangements that kept them indebted and in poverty.

Many poor whites found themselves in similar circumstances, though white politicians took great pains to ensure that they did not find common cause with African-Americans. While many Southern whites embraced the economic and political opportunities of Reconstruction (becoming known as "scalawags" as a result) many also sought to roll back the gains made by African Americans. They resorted to terror in the form of organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, voter fraud, and other means. White "Bourbon" politicians regained control of southern politics at different times in different Southern states, but the process was complete in 1877, when a political compromise ended federal enforcement of Reconstruction laws.

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Initially, the Republican Party intended a "Radical Reconstruction" in which black people would be given lands that had been appropriated by the Union armies. African Americans had fought in large numbers on the Union side and initially were elected to state offices and took advantage of the emancipation that was guaranteed by the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution. Unfortunately, Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, was a firm believer in states' rights, and rather than pursuing the aims of radical reconstruction, he let state governments make their own choices about how to implement new codes.

The initial enthusiasm for emancipation was met by disappointment as southern states began to enact "black codes" or "Jim Crow" laws that enforced segregation and denied African Americans many fundamental rights. This eventually led to the Great Migration, in which southern African Americans moved out of the South, seeking the freedom and equality that had been promised by emancipation but taken away in the Reconstruction.

Several northerners moved south after the Civil War, sometimes to help blacks and the Reconstruction efforts but sometimes to take advantage of sales of distressed property. These northerners were termed “carpetbaggers” by white southerners who saw Reconstruction as a form of northern profiteering.

poetrymfa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Reconstruction resulted in a point of conflict between black Southerners and white Southerners over what freedom itself means and entails. 

In the Reconstruction-era South, black Southerners immediately took the opportunity to make their newfound freedom meaningful by demanding civil and political rights, seeking economic independence, establishing schools and churches of their own, and reuniting families who had previously been separated when slavery reigned. 

White Southerners, however, were dismayed by the changes brought about by the emancipation of slaves and were smarting from the loss of loved ones in the Civil War; the ravaging of personal property during the fighting had only added insult to injury. A new pride and nostalgia for the "Old South" and the "Lost Cause of the Confederacy" was born, with white Southerners choosing to erect monuments and build cemeteries dedicated to the Confederate forces. Some Southerners left the South altogether, while less passive individuals began to incite violence out of their bitterness; they also built factions which would further promote racism (such as the Ku Klux Klan). Otherwise, any Southerners who approved of the Reconstruction policies were belittled as "scalawags."