Charles Caldwell (center) with members of the Mississippi Legislature of 1874-1875
Library of Congress

In the late 1940s, a historian predicted that one day all of Mississippi’s schoolchildren, black and white, would come to know the name of Charles Caldwell, who gave his life during the Reconstruction struggle for black citizenship, economic opportunity and equal rights for women. It was a bold prediction at a time when the textbooks of schoolchildren, and earlier racist films like 1915’s Birth of a Nation, were providing wildly inaccurate depictions of the Reconstruction era in the South, particularly when it came to the role of black politicians like Caldwell. Such images upheld the idea of white supremacy that men like Caldwell and his allies were determined to overcome.

Little is known of Caldwell’s early life, except that he was born a slave in the early 1830s, just as federal troops were removing the last of Mississippi’s Native Americans to make way for the rapid expansion of cotton and slavery in the Deep South. A blacksmith by trade, he was living with his wife, Margaret Ann, in Clinton, near the state capital of Jackson, when he was elected one of 16 black delegates to Mississippi’s 1868 Constitutional Convention.

The convention produced Mississippi’s first democratic constitution, which included an integrated public school system, legalized interracial marriage and, for the first time, gave the vote to all adult men, regardless of race or property. By 1870, when he became one of the first five African Americans elected to Mississippi’s Senate, Caldwell owned about $1,500 in real estate and $1,000 in personal property—evidence of moderate but solid wealth.

Caldwell was among the more radical of the state’s Republicans in demanding full political rights and better economic opportunities for the black majority. Republicans, of the party of Lincoln, were by far the more liberal and supportive of the civil rights of freedmen at the time in Mississippi and the other Southern states. Though literate, Caldwell lacked the formal education of some of his black colleagues and was not a great political orator, at least as measured by the flowery standards of the era.

But he was regarded as a lucid and clear speaker, who calmly and determinedly made his case on the Senate floor, just as he had once shod horses or repaired a plow. Prominent in his support for women’s education and property rights, Caldwell, along with his fellow radicals, was usually outvoted on issues of greatest importance to the majority of black voters, like rent controls and higher wages. By his fifth year in office, however, the task of legislating was being undermined by an organized wave of white violence against black and white Republicans. Since 1870, “White Line” groups including the Ku Klux Klan had killed several hundred citizens, mostly African Americans.

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The 1875 elections would determine whether a biracial democracy could survive in Mississippi. The campaign began in early September with a large political barbecue, held, as was the Southern tradition, at the magnolia-lined mansion of a local Republican doctor. At least 1,500 of those in attendance were African American, the most prominent being Caldwell.

Perhaps seeking to calm white fears, and in a spirit of democracy, Caldwell invited a local Democrat to speak. He duly came and gained a respectful hearing from the mostly black Clinton crowd, as Caldwell had hoped. Caldwell had also urged attendees to avoid alcohol and to leave their guns at home. Most, but not all, complied, with some black Republicans and several whites arriving with concealed weapons.

After the Democrat spoke, scuffles broke out between blacks and whites, which Caldwell tried to prevent from escalating. Several shots were fired, followed by general pandemonium that left three whites and eight blacks dead. Four days of violence then followed, during which local whites and specially trained mercenaries systematically hunted down and killed around 50, mostly black, Republicans. Caldwell, along with 500 others, survived by fleeing to the sanctuary of the state capital, but the vigilantes were willing to wait and strike again. One reported, “[I]f it is two years, or one year, or six; no difference. … We have orders to kill him, and we are going to do it.”

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The terror campaign that followed has come to be known as the last battle of the Civil War. The Democrats’ “Mississippi Plan”—using terror to prevent black and white Republicans from voting—tested the idea that the United States was a true democracy.

A U.S. Senate investigation of the violence in 1875 Mississippi would reveal a network of Democrats, many of them former slaveholders, stockpiling arms and determined to restore white minority rule by any means necessary. (In both Mississippi and South Carolina at the time, the majority of adult males were black.) A foretaste of the political future could be seen in the Mississippi Delta, where the white radical Republican sheriff of Yazoo County was deposed in an armed coup a few days before the Clinton Riot.

Overwhelmingly outgunned, Caldwell’s—and democracy’s—only chance of survival lay with Mississippi’s white Republican Gov. Adelbert Ames. Ames, a native of Maine, supported using the state militia to uphold the law in the upcoming election but could not find a white officer to lead it. Reluctantly he formed three black militia units from refugees of the Clinton massacre.

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Three weeks before the election, Ames appointed Caldwell commander of a unit of 100 men tasked with transporting a small cache of arms from the state capital to another unit 30 miles away in Edwards, in Hinds County. As the uniformed militia marched in formation to the steady beat of its drummers, with bayonets fixed and Caldwell in the lead, White Line groups carefully tracked its movements. We now know that they possessed the weaponry to assassinate Caldwell and probably to disarm the militia; several would-be assassins waited impatiently for orders to fire. But no order came, no challenge was made to the militia and Cmdr. Caldwell successfully delivered the arms.

The White Line groups kept their powder dry, stockpiling weapons for Election Day, and Ames bowed to Democrat pressure to abandon the “provocative” black militias. Without that state or federal protection, the 1875 elections were marked by fraud, intimidation and violence by the White Line groups, and the Republicans were swept from office. Across Mississippi, thousands stayed away from the polls; it was unsurprising when, in the town of Aberdeen, the few brave black voters were met by more than 100 armed and mounted ex-Confederates camped on the Monroe County courthouse lawn, beside a huge cannon.

Sen. Caldwell was among those black Mississippians who insisted on casting their ballots; he persuaded others to do likewise but to avoid confronting whites. He survived the election violence and at the end of 1875 was preparing to testify before a U.S. Senate investigation of the Magnolia State’s violent and fraudulent elections. Invited by a white acquaintance for a Christmas drink at a Clinton cellar bar, Caldwell accepted and raised his glass to his companion. The sound of the glasses clinking was apparently a signal for a marksman waiting outside the cellar window to shoot the senator through the back of the head.

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According to the Senate investigation, which was now also examining Caldwell’s assassination, his final words were, “Remember, when you kill me you kill a gentleman and a brave man. Never say you killed a coward.” Caldwell’s assassins then riddled his body with bullets before turning their terror on other blacks in the vicinity, killing his brother Sam, among others.

Within a year, Reconstruction was also, officially, dead. White Line Democrats had regained the state and within two decades had established a political system that kept all but a handful of black voters from the polls until the Second Reconstruction, which lasted from World War II until the civil rights action in Selma, Ala., and the 1965 Voting Rights Act enacted, in federal law, the right for which Caldwell and thousands of others had given their lives.

Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the African American National Biography was first published by Oxford University Press in an award-winning, eight-volume print edition in 2008; a 12-volume second edition followed in 2012. As of 2015, more than 5,500 separate AANB entries are available online as part of OUP’s African American Studies Center.

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Steven J. Niven is executive editor of the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, the Dictionary of African Biography, and the African American National Biography at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is also the author of Barack Obama: A Pocket Biography of Our 44th President.