American History as It Happened

MODULE TWO: 1877-1899


Compare and contrast: Documents Four and Five discuss the differences in treatment between blacks and whites under the law. Document Five is written in response to Document Four. Carefully re-read each document, and answer the questions that follow.

1. Describe the difference in treatment of black and whites who are accused of crimes, as depicted in Document Four

That document, Negro Convicts in South Carolina, reports on how African Americans received disproportionately punitive sentences compared to whites charged with similar crimes. The writer notes that the law appears to call for impartial judgements on whites and blacks, but that it also “allows juries to recommend white offenders to mercy, while the negroes suffer the full penalty of the law.”

Another approach to answering this question might be to say that two separate and unequal societies would be completely against the values codified in the US Constitution. In other words, an apartheid United States is unacceptable because it is strictly unconstitutional. And since discrimination and segregation are the vehicles leading the country to this outcome, all Americans are threatened.

2. In what way does each author claim that African Americans were mistreated by whites?

The author of Document Four clearly believes that African Americans do not receive justice from Southern white juries for at least two reasons—because of the greater harshness of their sentences and because of legal loopholes that favor whites. On the other hand, Document Five’s letter writer, W.J. Alexander, claims that Northern whites who came South after the end of the Civil War exploited and degraded blacks by encouraging them to commit criminal acts.

3. How might the author of Document Five feel about more stringent sentences for blacks than whites? Use examples from the text to support your answer.

Alexander would almost certainly have supported the tougher sentences. He believed that African Americans—both because of their slavery experience and because of what he claims were crimes they committed after being encouraged by Northern visitors—are “ignorant,” have “low moral tone,” and were guilty of acts of “incendiarism and theft.”

4. What is the tone of each document? Why might each author have used that tone?

Both authors use definitive tones to express their positions. The author of the original article is incredulous at the blatant differences between the sentences of whites and blacks, and sarcastically comments, “This seems to have been such a pleasant, friendly murder that the scruples of the prosecuting attorney in thus waiting a year are hard to understand.” The letter writer replies with an opposing, passionate view expressing contempt for African American morals. These wildly divergent views reflect wide gap between the attitudes of Northerners and Southerners in this period.