Reconstruction-era voting-rights activist claimed by an assassin’s bullet

In the late 1940s, a historian predicted that one day all of Mississippi’s schoolchildren, black and white, would come to know the name of Charles Caldwell, who gave his life during the Reconstruction struggle for black citizenship, economic opportunity and equal rights for women. It was a bold prediction at a time when the textbooks of schoolchildren, and earlier racist films like 1915’s Birth of a Nation, were providing wildly inaccurate depictions of the Reconstruction era in the South, particularly when it came to the role of black politicians like Caldwell. Such images upheld the idea of white supremacy that men like Caldwell and his allies were determined to overcome.

Little is known of Caldwell’s early life, except that he was born a slave in the early 1830s, just as federal troops were removing the last of Mississippi’s Native Americans to make way for the rapid expansion of cotton and slavery in the Deep South. A blacksmith by trade, he was living with his wife, Margaret Ann, in Clinton, near the state capital of Jackson, when he was elected one of 16 black delegates to Mississippi’s 1868 Constitutional Convention.

The convention produced Mississippi’s first democratic constitution, which included an integrated public school system, legalized interracial marriage and, for the first time, gave the vote to all adult men, regardless of race or property. By 1870, when he became one of the first five African Americans elected to Mississippi’s Senate, Caldwell owned about $1,500 in real estate and $1,000 in personal property—evidence of moderate but solid wealth.

Caldwell was among the more radical of the state’s Republicans in demanding full political rights and better economic opportunities for the black majority. Republicans, of the party of Lincoln, were by far the more liberal and supportive of the civil rights of freedmen at the time in Mississippi and the other Southern states. Though literate, Caldwell lacked the formal education of some of his black colleagues and was not a great political orator, at least as measured by the flowery standards of the era.

But he was regarded as a lucid and clear speaker, who calmly and determinedly made his case on the Senate floor, just as he had once shod horses or repaired a plow. Prominent in his support for women’s education and property rights, Caldwell, along with his fellow radicals, was usually outvoted on issues of greatest importance to the majority of black voters, like rent controls and higher wages. By his fifth year in office, however, the task of legislating was being undermined by an organized wave of white violence against black and white Republicans. Since 1870, “White Line” groups including the Ku Klux Klan had killed several hundred citizens, mostly African Americans.

The 1875 elections would determine whether a biracial democracy could survive in Mississippi. The campaign began in early September with a large political barbecue, held, as was the Southern tradition, at the magnolia-lined mansion of a local Republican doctor. At least 1,500 of those in attendance were African American, the most prominent being Caldwell.

Perhaps seeking to calm white fears, and in a spirit of democracy, Caldwell invited a local Democrat to speak. He duly came and gained a respectful hearing from the mostly black Clinton crowd, as Caldwell had hoped. Caldwell had also urged attendees to avoid alcohol and to leave their guns at home. Most, but not all, complied, with some black Republicans and several whites arriving with concealed weapons.

After the Democrat spoke, scuffles broke out between blacks and whites, which Caldwell tried to prevent from escalating. Several shots were fired, followed by general pandemonium that left three whites and eight blacks dead. Four days of violence then followed, during which local whites and specially trained mercenaries systematically hunted down and killed around 50, mostly black, Republicans. Caldwell, along with 500 others, survived by fleeing to the sanctuary of the state capital, but the vigilantes were willing to wait and strike again. One reported, “[I]f it is two years, or one year, or six; no difference. … We have orders to kill him, and we are going to do it.”

The terror campaign that followed has come to be known as the last battle of the Civil War. The Democrats’ “Mississippi Plan”—using terror to prevent black and white Republicans from voting—tested the idea that the United States was a true democracy.

A U.S. Senate investigation of the violence in 1875 Mississippi would reveal a network of Democrats, many of them former slaveholders, stockpiling arms and determined to restore white minority rule by any means necessary. (In both Mississippi and South Carolina at the time, the majority of adult males were black.) A foretaste of the political future could be seen in the Mississippi Delta, where the white radical Republican sheriff of Yazoo County was deposed in an armed coup a few days before the Clinton Riot.

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