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The "nadir of American race relations" is a phrase referring to the period in United States history from the end of Reconstruction through the early 20th century, when racism was deemed to be worse than in any other post-bellum period. During this period, African Americans lost many civil rights gains made during Reconstruction. Anti-black violence, lynchings, segregation, legal racial discrimination, and expressions of white supremacy increased.

The phrase "the nadir" to describe this period was first used by historian Rayford Logan in a 1954 book titled The Negro in American Life and Thought: The Nadir, 1877-1901. It continues to be used, most notably in the books of James Loewen, but also by other scholars.[1][2] Loewen argued that the post-Reconstruction period was actually one of widespread hope for racial equity, when civil rights were championed by idealistic northerners. The true nadir, accordingly, began only when northern Republicans ceased supporting southern black rights around 1890, and extended through 1940. This period followed the financial Panic of 1873 and continuing decline in agriculture, and coincided with American imperialist aspirations, the Progressive Era, and the sundown town phenomenon across the country.[3]


In the early part of the 20th century, white southerners put forth the concept of Reconstruction as a tragic period, when Republicans motivated by revenge and profit, used troops to force Southerners to accept corrupt governments run by unscrupulous Northerners and unqualified blacks. William Dunning, an influential historian at Columbia University, also believed that "black skin means membership in a race of men which has never of itself…created any civilization of any kind." [4] The Dunning School's view of Reconstruction held sway for years. They were represented in D.W. Griffith's popular movie The Birth of a Nation (1915) and to some extent in Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone with the Wind (1934). Historians have overwhelmingly revised that assessment.[5]


Hiram Revels, the first African American Senator, elected in 1870 from Mississippi. One other black Senator, Blanche K. Bruce, was elected from the same state in 1874.

Today's consensus regards Reconstruction as a time of idealism and hope, with some practical achievements. The Radical Republicans who passed the 14th and 15th Amendments were, for the most part, motivated by a desire to help freedmen.[5] This view was put forward by African-American historian W. E. B. Du Bois in 1910, and later expanded by Kenneth Stampp and Eric Foner. The Republican Reconstruction governments had their share of corruption, but it was one that benefited many whites —and they were no more corrupt than Democratic governments, or, indeed, than Northern Republican governments.[6]

Furthermore, the Reconstruction governments established public education and social welfare institutions for the first time, improving education for both blacks and whites, and trying to improve social conditions for the many left in poverty after the long war. No Reconstruction state government was dominated by blacks; in fact, blacks did not attain a level of representation equal to their population in any state.[7] When blacks did serve in public office, they often did so with distinction.

Reconstruction's failure[]


"And Not This Man?", Harper's Weekly, August 5, 1865. Thomas Nast drew this cartoon; in 1865 he, like many Northerners, remembered blacks' military service and favored granting them voting rights.

File:Colored rule.jpg

"Colored Rule in a Reconstructed(?) State", Harper's Weekly, March 14, 1874. Nine years later, Nast had given up on racial idealism. He caricatured black legislators as incompetent buffoons.

Many former Confederates resisted Reconstruction with violence and intimidation. James Loewen notes between 1865 and 1867, when white Democrats controlled the government, an average of one black person was murdered by whites every day in Hinds County, Mississippi. Black schools were an especial target; school buildings were frequently burned, and teachers were flogged and occasionally murdered. [8] This was the period when the secret vigilante group of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) first arose, attacking freedmen and their white allies.

Nonetheless, blacks continued to vote and attend schools. Literacy soared, and many African-Americans were elected to local and statewide offices—several served in Congress. There were limits to Republican efforts on behalf of blacks—for example, a promise of land reform made by the Freedman's Bureau, would have granted blacks plots on the plantation land they worked, never came to pass. However, for several years, the federal government, pushed by Northern opinion, showed itself willing to intervene to protect the rights of black Americans. [9] The Force Acts and state action reduced the power of the KKK by the early 1870s. Because of the black community's commitment to education, by 1900 the majority of blacks were literate.

Continued violence in the South, especially heated around electoral campaigns, sapped northern intentions. More significantly, after the long years and losses of the Civil War, northerners had lost heart for the massive commitment of money and arms that would have been required to stifle the white insurgency. The financial panic of 1873 disrupted the economy nationwide, causing more difficulties. The white insurgency took on new life 10 years after the war. Conservative white Democrats waged an increasingly violent war, with the Colfax Massacre and Coushatta Massacre in Louisiana in 1873 as signs. The next year saw the formation of paramilitary groups, such as the White League in Louisiana (1874) and Red Shirts in Mississippi and the Carolinas, that worked openly to turn Republicans out of office, disrupt black organizing, and intimidate and suppress black voting. They invited press coverage.[10] One historian described them as "the military arm of the Democratic Party." [11]

In 1874, in a continuation of the disputed gubernatorial election of 1872, thousands of White League militia fought against New Orleans police and state militia and won, turning out the Republican governor and installing the Democrat McEnery, taking over the capitol, state house and armory for a few days, then retreating in the face of Federal troops. This was known as the "Battle of Liberty Place". Northerners waffled and finally capitulated to the South, giving up on being able to control election violence. Abolitionist leaders like Horace Greeley began to ally themselves with Democrats in attacking Reconstruction governments. By 1874 there was a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. Ulysses S. Grant, who as General led the victorious Union campaign, as President initially refused to send troops when asked by the governor of Mississippi in 1875. Violence surrounded the election of 1876 in many areas. This was a beginning of a trend. After Grant, it would be many years before any President would do anything to extend the protection of the law to black people. [12]



A postcard showing the burned body of Jesse Washington, Waco, Texas, 1916. Washington was a 17-year-old mentally retarded farmhand who confessed to raping and killing a white woman.


As noted above, white paramilitary forces contributed to whites' taking over power in the late 1870s. A brief coalition of populists took over in some states, but conservative Democrats had returned to power after the 1880s. From 1890-1908 they proceeded to pass legislation and constitutional amendments to disfranchise most blacks and many poor whites. They used a combination of restrictions on voter registration and voting methods, such as poll taxes, literacy and residency requirements, and ballot box changes. The main push came from elite Democrats in the black belt, where blacks were a majority of voters. The elite Democrats also acted to disfranchise poor whites.[13][14][15]

South Carolina Senator Ben Tillman proudly proclaimed in 1900, "We have done our level best [to prevent blacks from voting]...we have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it." [16] African Americans were an absolute majority of the population in Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. They represented more than 40% of the population in four other former Confederate states. Accordingly, many whites perceived African Americans as a major political threat, because in free and fair elections, they would hold the balance of power in a majority of the South. [17]

Conservative white Democratic governments passed Jim Crow legislation, creating a system of legal racial segregation in public and private facilities. Blacks were separated in schools and the few hospitals, were restricted in seating on trains, had to use separate sections in some restaurants and public transportation systems. They were often barred from some stores, or forbidden to use lunchrooms, restrooms and fitting rooms. Because they could not vote, they could not serve on juries, which meant they had little if any legal recourse in the system. Indeed, between 1889 and 1922, as political disfranchisement and segregation were being established, the NAACP calculates lynchings reached their worst level in history, almost 3,500 people, almost all of them black men. [18]

Historian James Loewen notes lynching emphasized the helplessness of Blacks, "the defining characteristic of a lynching is that the murder takes place in public, so everyone knows who did it, yet the crime goes unpunished." [19] Ostensibly prompted by black attacks or threats to white women, in fact scholars and journalists have shown that lynchings arose out of economic competition and desire by competing whites for social control. African American civil rights activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett conducted one of the first systematic studies of the subject. She found blacks were "lynched for anything or nothing" - for wife-beating, stealing hogs, being "saucy to white people", sleeping with a consenting white woman - for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. [20] It was a system of social terrorism.

Blacks who were economically successful faced reprisals or sanctions. When Richard Wright tried to train to become an optometrist and lens-grinder, the other men in the shop threatened him until he was forced to leave. In 1911 blacks were barred from participating in the Kentucky Derby because African Americans won more than half of the first twenty-eight races. [21] Through violence and legal restrictions, whites often prevented blacks from working as common laborers, much less as skilled artisans or in the professions. Under such conditions, even the most ambitious and talented black people found it extremely difficult to advance.

This situation called into question the policies of Booker T. Washington, the most prominent black leader during the early part of the nadir. He had argued that black people could better themselves by hard work and thrift. He believed they had to master basic work before going on to college careers and professional aspirations. Washington believed his programs trained blacks for the lives they were likely to lead and the jobs they could get in the South.

However, as W. E. B. Du Bois pointed out,

it is utterly impossible, under modern competitive methods, for working men and property-owners to defend their rights and exist without the right of suffrage.[22]

Washington had always (though often clandestinely) supported the right of black suffrage, and had fought against disfranchisement laws in Georgia, Louisiana, and other Southern states.[23] This included secretive funding of litigation resulting in Giles v. Harris, 189 U.S. 475 (1903), which lost due to Supreme Court reluctance to interfere with states rights.

United States as a whole[]

Many blacks voted with their feet and left the South to seek better conditions. In 1879, Logan notes, "some 40,000 Negroes virtually stampeded from Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia for the Midwest." More significantly, beginning about 1915, many blacks moved to Northern cities in what became known as the Great Migration. Through the 1930s, more than 1.5 million blacks would leave the South for lives in the North, seeking work and the chance to escape lynchings and legal segregation. While they faced difficulties, overall they had better chances there. They had to make great cultural changes, as most went from rural areas to major industrial cities, and had to change from being rural workers to learn to be urban workers.

In the South, whites began to get alarmed and often tried to block black migration. They worried that the labor force was leaving. During the nadir, northern areas struggled with upheaval and hostility. In the Midwest and West, many towns posted "sundown" warnings, threatening to kill African Americans who remained overnight. These were seldom the destinations of blacks seeking industrial jobs, so it was fear about something that was not going to happen. Monuments to Confederate War dead were erected across the nation— in, for example, Montana. [24] Such towns were not the major destinations of blacks, however, who headed where there were industrial jobs. As an example, in its years of expansion, the Pennsylvania Railroad recruited tens of thousands of workers from the South.

Black housing was often segregated in the North. There was competition for jobs and housing, as blacks entered cities which were also the destination of millions of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. In some regions, blacks could not serve on juries. Blackface shows, in which whites dressed as blacks portrayed African Americans as ignorant clowns, were popular in North and South. The Supreme Court reflected conservative tendencies and did not overrule southern constitutional changes resulting in disfranchisement. In 1896, the Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that "separate but equal" was constitutional. The Court was made up almost entirely of Northerners. [25]

As more blacks moved north, they encountered racism where they had to battle over territory, often against ethnic Irish, who were defending their power base. While there were critics in the scientific community such as Franz Boas, in academia, eugenics and scientific racism were promoted by scientists Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant who argued "scientific evidence" for the racial superiority of whites and thereby worked to justify racial segregation and second-class citizenship for blacks.

Numerous blacks had voted for Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 election, based on his promise to work for them. Instead, he introduced the re-segregation of government workplaces and employment in some agencies. This was a decline in Washington, DC.

Wilson was said to be a vocal fan of the film Birth of a Nation (1915), which celebrated the rise of the first Ku Klux Klan. His praise was used to defend the film from the NAACP. [26] The director of the film was said to publicize remarks by Wilson out of context.


A quote from Woodrow Wilson used in "Birth of a Nation".

Birth of a Nation helped popularize the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan, which gained its greatest power and influence in the mid-1920s. In 1924, the Klan had 4 million members. (Current, p. 693). It also controlled the governorship and a majority of the state legislature in Indiana, as well as exerting a powerful political influence in Arkansas, Oklahoma, California, Georgia, Oregon, and Texas. (Loewen, Lies Across America, pp. 161–162)

In the years during and after the First World War, there were great social tensions in the nation: not only because of the effects of the Great Migration and European immigration, but because of demobilization and attempts of veterans to get jobs. Mass attacks on blacks that developed out of strikes and economic competition occurred in Houston, in Philadelphia and in East St. Louis in 1917.

In 1919 there were riots in several major cities, causing the season to be called Red Summer. The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 erupted into mob violence for several days. It left 15 whites and 23 blacks dead, over 500 injured and more than 1,000 homeless.[27] An investigation found that ethnic Irish, who had established their own power base earlier on the South Side, were heavily implicated in the riots. It was during that same year that Race Riots erupted throughout the nation (hence, the term Red Summer of 1919) The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma was even more deadly; white mobs invaded and burned the Greenwood district of Tulsa. 1,256 homes were destroyed and 39 people (26 black, 13 white) were confirmed killed, although recent investigations suggest that the number of black deaths could be considerably higher. [28]


Black literacy levels, which rose during Reconstruction, continued to increase through this period. The NAACP was established in 1909, and by 1920 the group won a few important anti-discrimination lawsuits. African Americans, such as Du Bois and Wells-Barnett, continued the tradition of advocacy, organizing, and journalism which helped spur abolitionism, as well as developing new tactics helping to spur the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The Harlem Renaissance and the popularity of jazz music during the early part of the 20th century made many Americans more aware of black culture and more accepting of black celebrities.

Overall, however, the nadir was a disaster, certainly for black people and arguably for whites as well. Foner points out: the early twentieth century [racism] had become more deeply embedded in the nation's culture and politics than at any time since the beginning of the antislavery crusade and perhaps in our nation's entire history.[29]

Similarly, Loewen argues that the family instability and crime which many sociologists have found in black communities can be traced, not to slavery, but to the nadir and its aftermath. (Lies My Teacher Told Me, p. 166)

Foner noted that "none of Reconstruction's black officials created a family political dynasty" and concluded, the nadir "aborted the development of the South's black political leadership." (p. 604)

Many commentators pointed out lynchings and mob action undermined respect for the established justice system. Lynching and mob violence continued in the first three decades of the twentieth century. More racial violence of whites against blacks arose in the South in relation to activities of the Civil Rights Movement.

Exact year[]

Logan took some trouble to establish the exact year when the nadir reached its lowest point; he argued for 1901, suggesting that relations improved after then. Others, such as John Hope Franklin and Henry Arthur Callis, argued for dates as late as 1923. (Logan, p. xxi) Though the term "nadir" is still used to describe the post-Reconstruction and early 20th century period, the search for the single worst year has been abandoned.

See also[]

  • White Supremacy
  • Anti-racism



  1. One Nation Divisible: What America Was And What It Is Becoming
  2. The University of Chicago Martin Marty Center
  3. Loewen, Sundown Towns
  4. (quoted in Foner, p. 609).
  5. 5.0 5.1 (Current, pp. 446-447)
  6. (Foner, p. 388)
  7. (Current, pp. 446-449)
  8. (Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me, pp. 158-160)
  9. (Current, pp. 449-450)
  10. Nicholas Lemann, Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War, New York: Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 2007
  11. George C. Rable, But There Was No Peace: The Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1984
  12. (Foner, p. 391; Current, pp. 456-458)
  13. J. Morgan Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974
  14. Michael Perman, Struggle for Mastery:Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001
  15. (Current, pp. 457-458)
  16. (quoted in Logan, p. 91)
  17. Gabriel J. Chin & Randy Wagner, "The Tyranny of the Minority: Jim Crow and the Counter-Majoritarian Difficulty," 43 Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 65 (2008)
  18. Steve Estes, I Am a Man!: Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement, University of North Carolina Press. Introduction
  19. (Lies My Teacher Told Me, p. 166)
  20. (Chapters 5 and 6)
  21. (Wright, Chapter Nine; Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me, pp. 163-164)
  22. (Chapter 3)
  23. Robert J. Norrell (2009), Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington, p. 186-88.
  24. (Loewen, Lies Across America, pp. 182-183, pp. 102-103)
  25. (Logan, 97-98)
  26. (Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me, pp. 28-29)
  27. (Current, p. 670)
  28. (Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me, 165)
  29. Foner, p. 608


  • James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name
  • Richard N. Current, et al., American History: A Survey, 7th ed., New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.
  • W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
  • Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
  • James Loewen, Lies Across America, New York: Touchstone, 1999.
  • James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me, New York: Touchstone, 1995.
  • James Loewen, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, New York: The New York Press, 2005.
  • Rayford Logan,The Betrayal of the Negro from Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson,, New York: Da Capo Press, 1997. (This is an expanded edition of Logan's 1954 book The Negro in American Life and Thought, The Nadir, 1877-1901)
  • Alan Lomax interview with Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Boy Williamson on the album , Blues in the Mississippi Night, Rykodisc, 1990.
  • Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery, 1901
  • Ida B. Wells-Barnett, A Red Record, 1895
  • Richard Wright, Black Boy, Harper & Brothers, 1945