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REFLECTION: George S. Boutwell’s 1876 Report Shows Parallels Between Then And Now

by Jeffrey H. Boutwell, Ph.D.
In August of 1876, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, George S. Boutwell, the junior Senator from Massachusetts, presented a 2,000-page report to his colleagues documenting the widespread murder and intimidation carried out by white supremacists in Mississippi against Blacks and their white supporters during the state election campaign the previous year.
     Boutwell was chair of a special Senate committee that took testimony in Washington, D.C. in the spring and summer that year while many Americans were celebrating and enjoying their country’s 100th birthday. He and his colleagues also traveled in June to Mississippi, at some risk to themselves, to hear first-hand from victims in Jackson and Aberdeen about the reign of terror that the perpetrators themselves called the 'Mississippi Plan of 1875'.
     The testimony included dozens of stories from victims, wives, family members and friends concerning the brutal and unchecked violence carried out by white terrorists who were seeking to 'redeem’ their state from what they regarded as the blasphemy of Black political and civil equality, including the right to vote, that had been promised by Reconstruction.
     In its meticulous documentation of the violence carried out by white supremacists in Mississippi in the summer and fall of 1875, the report provided firsthand evidence of the Lost Cause campaign that helped ‘redeem’ Southern white society and usher in decades of Jim Crow enforced subjugation of Black Americans that only began to be dismantled in the 1950s, but still remains today.
     The Boutwell Report, as it came to be known, is available for reading on-line under the title, Mississippi in 1875: Report of the Select committee to inquire into the Mississippi election of 1875.
     In one of its most chilling conclusions, the report noted that much of the white violence was perpetrated by “the young men of the State, especially those who reached manhood during the war, or who have arrived at that condition since the war.”
     Certainly, some of the vigilantes were Confederate army veterans, but many were not, having been ten or 15 years old during the Civil War, too young to fight. Now, burning with a desire to ‘redeem’ themselves, they were eagerly enlisting in the army of the Lost Cause and were often the prime instigators of the violence, and would carry forth the struggle for white supremacy for decades to come.
     On January 6, 2021, that same anger and rage could be seen on the floor of the U.S. Senate when white supremacists and other extremist supporters of Donald Trump, aided and abetted by the President stormed the U.S. Capitol.                         Outrageously called ‘American patriots’ by the President’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, the several thousand, mostly white male, demonstrators who overwhelmed the Capitol police were responding to the President’s call to illegally overturn the results of the 2020 election in the name of ‘taking back’ (redeeming) the country in the name of white supremacy. Not surprisingly, some of them proudly waved Confederate flags inside and outside the Capitol building.
     I thought of this anger and resentment when I recalled one of the most unforgettable memories of my teenage years: the torture and murder of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in June of 1964 in Mississippi. The three of them, one Black and two Jewish, were abducted and killed by white supremacists near Philadelphia and Meridien, Mississippi. The 10 white men most directly responsible for their murders were all in their twenties and thirties. And where Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner died is midway between Jackson and Aberdeen, where George Boutwell had listened to testimony of similar white supremacist violence in June of 1876, 88 years before.
     In addition to his work as a Senator documenting white terrorism in the 1870s, George Boutwell served in the House of Representatives in the 1860s where he helped frame the Fourteenth and Fifteenth civil rights amendments to the Constitution to safeguard Black civil and voting rights. It was these same voting rights, so long denied by Jim Crow and structural racism, that were amply ‘redeemed’ on January 5 in Georgia - just one day before the Capitol takeover – with the election to the U.S. Senate of one Black man and one Jewish man, the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.
     The last four years have exposed how America is still struggling with the anger and resentments of white superiority and racism that infect all parts of the country and have reached even into the White House. The Trump boil may have burst, but the infection remains. From George Boutwell to James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, and on to Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, much work remains to be done in ‘redeeming America’s promise.’
- Jeffrey Boutwell is a former resident of Groton and member of the library board of directors. He received his Ph.D. in political science from M.I.T. and worked for many years at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge. His forthcoming book, Redeeming America’s Promise: George S. Boutwell and the Politics of Race, Money, and Power, 1818-1905 will be published in 2022. His great, great grandfather, Rodney Cleaves Boutwell (1811-1891), was a second cousin of George S. Boutwell (1818-1905).
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