The Death of Charles Caldwell
When Charles Caldwell was surprised by his attackers and murdered, it marked an important change in America's History. It is said that Caldwell had to die. He had to die because he was a Republican, because he was a leader, and above all -- because he was black.
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Caldwell was born into slavery near the town of Clinton, Mississippi. He was a self-educated man and worked as a blacksmith until the end of the Civil War. The emancipation proclamation granted him freedom and opportunity, and he seized them both. In 1868, he was elected to the Constitutional Convention in Jackson, where he helped draft the new state constitution. Soon, Caldwell became a Mississippi State Senator.
Although Caldwell was a remarkable fellow, he was not the only African-American in government during this time. The Reconstruction period after the Civil War was unlike any other time in Mississippi politics. African-Americans formed the largest group of Southern Republicans and thousands voted in the elections to form a new government with Republicans in power. There were also substantial numbers of African-Americans in the legislature and although they never had a majority, they did make an enormous impact. Among others there was Hiram Revels, the first African-American in the U.S. Senate. There was also Blanche Bruce, another Senator and one of Frederick Douglass' closest friends. And there was Alexander Davis, the lieutenant governor. In all, 30 black Republicans served in the state legislature, and several others held the important offices of secretary of state, education superintendent and Speaker of the House.
Conservative whites were not happy. In 1875, they introduced the Mississippi Plan, which allowed Democrats to regain power in that year's state elections. This "plan" involved many illegal tactics such as stuffing the ballot box with Democratic votes, destroying Republican ballots, and miscounting ballots. It also involved scaring away African-American voters.
This was a tense time and that led to violence. In September, a Republican rally in Clinton was disrupted by gunfire, and when it was over, several people lay dead. In the days following, groups of armed white men attacked Republicans in the county, both black and white. One of these groups told Caldwell's wife that they were going to kill her husband. It happened, of all nights, on Christmas. Caldwell was lured into a store for a "friendly" Christmas drink. But there was no eggnog waiting for him. Instead, there was an ambush, and a shot in the back. His coat soaked with blood, he was carried outside to the street where a crowd of armed white men had gathered. It was here that Caldwell spoke his defiant last words, telling the cowards around him that they were killing a "gentleman and a brave man." That night, the south lost one of its most courageous and talented leaders. There were more losses to come. One way or another, every last African-American congressman and senator who had been elected during Reconstruction was driven from office by 1896.
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