Years of civil war had devastated the American South’s economy, and planters and city officials hoped to come back quickly to prosperity. Their expectations were interrupted by the new society born out of the Emancipation Proclamation. Now free to work where they chose, former slaves left the plantations and moved into cities such as Memphis along the Mississippi River. Without cheap labor in the country, the plantations could not reap lucrative harvests. With a swell of new laborers in the city, the working poor (many of them Irish immigrants having fled the Great Potato Famine) suddenly found competition for jobs as Reconstruction began.
To add to the social stress, the legal status of the newly freed slaves had been left vague by the Thirteenth Amendment. Some in the South argued that freedmen without documentation were not even citizens and could be treated by authority in any way it saw fit. Black Codes were written up by Southern legislatures to regulate the freedmen through imprecise language for crimes such as “vagrancy” or “unlawful assembly” that gave police power to arrest practically anyone at their discretion. A freedman with a weapon could be labeled an “Armed Prowler” and arrested or, if he fought back, killed on the spot. Work-gangs from the prisons would be taken out to plantations, filling the need for forced labor. If police could not find enough able bodies, military troops (some of them freedmen themselves) began grabbing workers off the street, including children on their way to school.
Yet the freedmen were not without support. Communities with safety in numbers formed throughout Southern cities, such as South Memphis near Fort Pickering, where families of the Third United States Colored Heavy Artillery had settled. Battle-hardened veterans, the black soldiers were willing to defend themselves, one time driving police away from an “illegal” gathering where a group of soldiers’ wives were accused of prostitution. The soldiers, armed as well if not better than the police they outnumbered, chased them off.
The tension came to a head at the end of April, 1866, when the 3rd Artillery was discharged as part of the government’s work toward demilitarization. Since they had to wait a few days for paperwork and their last pay, the soldiers found themselves free of responsibility. They celebrated, walking the streets and dreaming of where they would go next.
On May 1, after a few altercations already, city officials sent police out to break up a large afternoon party. Four policemen attempted to dispatch dozens of veterans before promptly running away. Chasing led to gunfire, and then an all-out riot broke as more police and local white business owners hurried to attack the black former soldiers. Many of the veterans retreated to Fort Pickering, which remained in order under military, and the white mob continued on to attack South Memphis. Appeals to establish order came to General George Stoneman, who initially felt that such should be the sheriff’s duty.
Yet Stoneman thought back to his service in the Cavalry Corps under Major General Joseph Hooker, who had given him orders to raid behind Lee’s lines and destroy logistics. Stoneman’s raids proved ineffectual, and Hooker blamed the Union defeat at Chancellorsville on this lack of drive. Just before midnight, as the few soldiers Stoneman had sent out returned from quiet streets, he determined to prevent any follow-up violence. He readied orders to march on Memphis at the first sound of trouble.
Those sounds came early the next morning. Rather than the expected counterattack by black soldiers, a mass of whites charged into South Memphis as they had the night before, now in larger numbers with much more vicious intent. Stoneman led the charge, rounding up the rioters and arresting all but a few who escaped. Rather than being the poor Irish who competed with the blacks for employment, the mob was primarily Memphis police and firefighters acting beyond their jurisdiction, joined by white-collar government officials and middle-class business owners. Stoneman, being far from a Radical Republican who would have predicted such activity, was dismayed at them and handed out punishments according to Tennessee law.
Stoneman’s quick action was lauded in Northern papers, as was that of the military in a riot in New Orleans later in July. Because the military was involved, federal investigations prompted recommendations of increased oversight that became the Fourteenth Amendment. The Secret Service, founded the year before to battle counterfeiting, was given additional charges of cracking down on racial violence. Their powers were expanded in the Fifteenth Amendment to investigate nonviolent crimes such as preventing the free exercise in voting.
Southerners and, soon, others around the nation balked at the perceived invasion of Federal power, a complete end to states’ rights. Racial actions by local authorities and secret brotherhoods gave the Secret Service ample opportunity for headline-grabbing busts and shootouts. Grant’s Republican administration greatly encouraged the Secret Service, whose powers expanded and were entrenched by the time of Democratic Cleveland’s terms. Although famous for their efforts during Jim Crow to ensure the equality of “Separate but Equal,” Secret Service investigators were infamous for their ruthless anti-socialist campaigns in the twentieth century. Some conspiracy theorists hold the agency responsible for the assassination in Memphis of poverty-rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., whose Poor People’s Campaign marched on Washington and rocked the nation from its foundation.
In reality, General Stoneman did not declare martial law until May 3. By then, nearly fifty people had been killed, dozens more were injured, and nearly 100 structures had been burned, including churches and schools. The violence encouraged the Fourteenth Amendment to protect African-American rights, yet it would be another century of struggle until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination by government or in public places.