On Feb. 18, 1868, in Charleston, S.C., Radical Republican Solomon George Washington Dill, known as S.G.W. Dill, rose at South Carolina’s Second Constitutional Convention to offer a resolution that would protect sharecroppers and tenant farmers, including formerly enslaved Black people, from gouging by white landowners. The resolution was tabled but when Dill, a white man, was allowed to speak, he said, “I insist on giving the poor man justice and all that truly belongs to him . . . Numbers of them are oppressed; numbers are without homes, without shelter, and cannot obtain it unless they give more than one-half of their physical labor to their landlords for shelter … I am begged to do something for them towards keeping the landlords in check.”
In taking this strong stand, Dill put his life at risk. Elected to represent Kershaw County he never got to serve his full term in Columbia. On the night of June 4, 1868, Dill was assassinated by assailants who were never found, though many reported the men belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. Dill’s killing fit the pattern of Klan violence against whites who acted in the interests of the poor against the interests of wealthy landowners.
During Reconstruction, the Klan acted as the paramilitary arm of the Southern Democratic Party and of white landowners. The Klan’s goal was simple: keep the poor, Black and white, from encroaching on the economic power of the wealthy. Ultimately, the Klan and their wealthy white backers were victorious but not before the formerly enslaved, and their supporters, scored several major victories that were then ripped away through white violence.
During the Reconstruction period—from 1865 to 1877—thousands of formerly enslaved people across the South were voted into office. They controlled politics from local police departments to state legislatures, and in some instances the governor’s mansion itself. State legislatures passed tenancy laws to protect sharecroppers and tenant farmers; passed bills making it easier for poor people to obtain credit; and created state agencies charged with looking out for the poor. Reconstruction justices and juries, many of them Black, delivered verdicts in favor of poor farmers, Black and white, against wealthy landowners. Across the south, Black men, such as Blanche K. Bruce, a U.S. senator from Mississippi, and James T. Rapier, a U.S. representative from Alabama, owned and operated large plantations of a thousand acres or more.
At the same time, state legislatures had been charged by newly approved state constitutions to meet more of the public need in education and care of the poor, in hospitals and mental health facilities. A new tax structure followed this new set of public priorities. Combined with huge state deficits incurred during the Civil War and a collapse in the credit market for the South, southern states moved aggressively to raise property taxes, in some cases by a factor of 10, when compared to the pre-war period. Black-run legislatures believed this might be a market-driven solution for land redistribution. Owners of large plantations and huge tracts of land would either be forced to sell or have their land confiscated for failure to pay taxes. That land could then be redistributed to landless formerly enslaved and to poor white people.
While land redistribution by taxation rarely happened, the period saw the country embarking on a road toward wide-scale democracy and racial justice. But the period ultimately descended into violence as white Americans allowed their fear of the power of the formerly enslaved to trump their embrace of equality and fairness.
Increased taxation sent plantation owners up in arms, and gave them a way to shift the focus of their attack from race to taxes, even though race was very much beneath the taxation issue. Such anger on the part of wealthy whites contributed to the rise of violent groups supported by them, such as the KKK, and ultimately to an organized, successful political effort to undo Reconstruction through violence.