Visions of Freedom: Democracy
During Reconstruction, African Americans gained citizenship rights. The United States government recognized these rights by creating three amendments to the Constitution and passing the first federal civil rights acts. These laws promised equal protection, equal access to public accommodations, and the right to vote regardless of race.
But after 1873, the federal government retreated from enforcing civil rights laws. White supremacists used voter suppression, violence, and terror to regain political power in southern states and to strip away the rights gained by African Americans. By the end of the century, in place of democracy, African Americans faced a system of racial discrimination that confined them to second-class citizenship.
Emancipation was only the first step to full citizenship. For African Americans to secure their rights and defend their freedom, they needed to build political power and gain an equal voice in American democracy. During Reconstruction, Black men and women organized political conventions to discuss, define, and debate issues of shared concern.
Along with conventions, African Americans constructed political power through community institutions, including Black churches, schools, fraternal and benevolent societies, women’s clubs, and veterans’ organizations. By organizing and participating in mass meetings, African Americans exercised their rights, asserted their citizenship, and expressed their visions of freedom.
Since the 1830s, free African Americans in northern states had organized Colored Conventions to advance the struggle for freedom. After emancipation, Black political conventions spread across the South as newly freed men and women moved to claim their citizenship rights. In 1865 and 1866, African Americans held conventions in South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and other former Confederate states. They protested the Black Codes, laws that restricted the rights of freed people, and petitioned Congress for voting rights and recognition as equal citizens.
We want the rights guaranteed by the Infinite Architect. For these rights we labor, for them we will die. ...We want two more boxes, beside the cartridge box—the ballot box and the jury box. We shall gain them. The government of this nation will not prove false to its plighted faith.
Proceedings of the State Convention of Colored Men of Tennessee, 1865
The conflict of arms is past—all that that can win for us is already won. But there is a question to be solved—a moral battle to be fought. The simple act of emancipation, if it stops there, is not much. We are not freemen till we attain to all the rights and privileges of freemen. Without these, we still have to be governed by laws that we have no voice in making, and submit to taxation without representation.
Address of the Colored State Convention to the People of the State of South Carolina, 1865
We have now shown you...the necessity of the recognition of the right of suffrage for our own protection, and have suggested a few of the reasons why it is expedient you should grant us that right...on the grounds of humanity and political expediency, we would not have you forget that our case also stands on the basis of constitutional right.
Address from the Colored Citizens of Norfolk, Va., to the People of the United States, 1865
Then we had as many different laws, as we had masters, every master had rules to regulate his own domestic subjects. But now a uniform system of laws must govern us... These laws should either recognize our rights as a people, or [else] the State should not exact of us the tribute of a people, for taxation without representation is contrary to the fundamental principles which govern republican countries.
Proceedings of the Freedmen’s Convention of Georgia, 1866
We will inculcate in the minds of our people a desire to become landholders; to own a little spot which they may call their own, around which they can gather all the comforts of a home, and have a spot upon which their bones and the ashes of their fathers may be laid away in peace.
Proceedings of the First Convention of Colored Men of Kentucky, 1866
This 54-foot-long petition bears the signatures of hundreds of men who participated in the State Convention of Colored People of South Carolina, held in Charleston in November 1865. The petitioners asked Congress to help them secure “our equal rights before the law,” including the right to vote. Some signers later served in the state legislature. The By the People crowdsourcing project at the Library of Congress has transcribed the petition and all 3,740 signatures.
Four of the 3,740 men who signed the petition at the 1865 South Carolina Colored Convention later served as state senators and representatives.
Approximately 200,000 African American soldiers and sailors fought for the United States during the Civil War. As they fought for freedom, they also fought for equal pay, which Congress granted in 1864. After the war, Black veterans asserted that their loyalty and sacrifice had earned them the right to full citizenship. Many became active in politics. They also joined the Grand Army of the Republic, a national veterans’ organization, to commemorate their service and uphold the cause of freedom and equality for which they fought.
Some of us are soldiers and have had the privilege of fighting for our country in this war. Since we have become Freemen . . . we begin to feel that we are men, and are anxious to show our countrymen that we can and will fit ourselves for the creditable discharge of the duties of citizenship.
Petition of North Carolina freedmen to President Andrew Johnson, 1865
A prominent voice for civil rights, Philadelphia activist Octavius Catto (1839–1871) led protests against discrimination and helped draft legislation to outlaw segregated streetcars in Pennsylvania. He was murdered on Election Day in 1871 while defending the right of Black citizens to vote.