Reconstruction, Rights, & Retaliation
For generations, enslaved and free African Americans fought for freedom for all. In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation granted freedom to enslaved Black people in rebelling states. On June 19, two months after the Confederate surrender, Union Army General Gordon Granger read General Order #3 in Galveston, Texas, announcing that all enslaved people were free in the western-most rebelling state. This order stated that formerly enslaved African Americans were expected to stay in their “present homes”— slave cabins. Further, the relationship between former enslavers and formerly enslaved people would become that of employer and hired laborer, and idleness would not be tolerated. The order demonstrated what the broader society expected of African Americans: that they know their place.
In December 1865, the first of three important constitutional amendments went into effect when the 13th Amendment was ratified, ending slavery in the nation. But what would freedom mean? Economic independence? Full citizenship? Freedom from fear? The right to vote? Propelled forward, the nation and the people responded—in courthouses, in legislatures, on farms, and in homes and factories. Reconnecting with family, building new lives, and restoring communities, African Americans fully embraced their freedom. They also debated among themselves where to best manifest their freedom. Black freedom was met with anti-Black violence and domestic terrorism. State governments and private citizens sought to create new forms of bondage. From 1865 to 1890, tension grew between the federal government, state legislatures, and the people as all fought for the soul of the nation. During this period of Reconstruction, the aspirational nation attempted to become a true democracy.
"Give us the suffrage and you may rely upon us to secure justice for ourselves."
Convention of Freedmen in Virginia, 1865
Beginning in the colonial period, free Black landowning men could vote in certain jurisdictions. This fact played a role during the Dred Scott case, when dissenting Supreme Court justices argued that Black men’s ability to vote in at least five states demonstrated rights granted to them as civically engaged citizens. Over time voting rights became restricted, as the limits of freedom based on race extended to both enslaved and free Black people in the years leading up to the Civil War.
The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, challenged voting laws in the North and South. In the South, representing 35 percent of the population, Black men formed a strong voting bloc. Black votes meant Black power, which was ultimately met with a campaign of domestic terrorism designed to intimidate African American citizens. Black voters and politicians changed the nation even as they continued the fight against efforts to disenfranchise them.
"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."
15th Amendment, Article XV, Section 1
Prior to the ratification of the 15th Amendment granting voting rights to all citizens regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 required that southern states provide voting rights for free Black people. At the time, at least half of the northern states and all of the former border states did not extend voting rights to African Americans.
By 1868, African Americans in southern states were enforcing their civic rights by voting and running for office. The majority-Black population helped secure elected offices for many local Black politicians. Black-owned churches became sites of organizing and political action. At these meetings, African Americans presented new views of citizenship that included the right for everyone—man, woman, or child—to stand up, vote, and be heard. Over time, African American men moved into more traditional leadership roles. Yet the concept of shared authority persisted, especially among women.
Although the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 required southern states to grant voting rights to free African Americans, it took the 15th Amendment to extend voting rights to all male citizens across the nation. While only Black men could vote, they represented their families and communities as they cast their vote to help advance the Black community and improve the nation. They organized meetings to set their political agenda with input from all members of the community, including women and children. They formed Union Leagues, pledging loyalty to the United States and the Republican Party. They publicly demonstrated their civic commitment with rallies as they encouraged fellow Black citizens to exercise their political rights.
Though some African Americans held political offices throughout the South prior to 1870, the 15th Amendment prompted a sea change, leading to around 2,000 Black men serving in office during Reconstruction. It opened opportunities to serve at the federal level in Congress. Twenty African American men served in the U.S. House of Representatives between 1870 and 1900, and two served in the Senate. The federal government realized the growing backlash to Black political power. Not long after the passage of the 15th Amendment, the government passed the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871. Both acts, also known as the Ku Klux Klan Acts, were created to provide protection to African Americans exercising their political rights by extending the federal government's control over national elections and oversight over polling sites.
White conservatives and Ku Klux Klan members launched targeted attacks on African Americans who exercised their rights as citizens by voting and serving in office. Black people were torn from their homes in the middle of the night, and some were beaten or lynched to send a message to the Black community. Groups of white supremacists appeared at polling sites to intimidate Black voters. Residents who mounted this campaign of terror included businessmen, professionals, educators, government officials, clergy, and working-class white citizens.
The attacks were fierce and relentless because African Americans were changing the nation. Under Reconstruction governments, Black and white legislators instituted public education, wrote laws protecting the rights of the working class, and readjusted tax codes to balance economic power more evenly across classes.
Clashes occurred across the South, as African Americans and their white allies refused to give in and pushed onward despite the threat of harm and even death.
Various leaders in the federal government made efforts to change the nation through constitutional amendments, legislation, and case law. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner shed his blood trying to change the nation. He was caned on the House floor as he vehemently advocated against slavery. In 1864 he submitted a constitutional amendment to end slavery and later proposed what became the Civil Rights Act of 1875, designed to combat what he referred to as the “tail end of slavery ”—segregation and anti-Black laws.
While the Reconstruction Amendments provided freedom, citizenship, due process, equal rights, and voting rights, the implementation and compliance with the law on the state level demanded greater federal government oversight. As a result, the first civil rights laws came into being during the Reconstruction period. Each law provided greater access and stronger protections for African Americans, who constantly faced reprisal merely because they were free citizens exercising their rights.
Only a decade after the end of slavery, African Americans had achieved great milestones while fighting violent backlash. Black citizens built communities and institutions, cast their votes, and held local and federal office. They continued arranging Colored Conventions, begun in the 1830s, using them to outline a Black agenda and present a unified voice.
As the centennial approached, the Supreme Court declared that the equal protection clause only applied to government action, not actions of private citizens. This cleared the way for further Ku Klux Klan violence and intimidation at the polls. The 1876 presidential election results were contested in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida—previously southern Democratic strongholds. Ultimately, the Democrats and Republicans struck a bargain that challenged Black empowerment. In 1877, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes assumed the presidency contingent upon his promise to remove federal troops from the South, restoring home rule and ending Reconstruction.
Following readmission of the former Confederate states to the Union, the Compromise of 1877, and the removal of federal troops from the South, southern states assumed home rule and reinstated anti-Black state governments. The Supreme Court issued narrow interpretations of the Reconstruction Amendments and invalidated the Civil Rights Act of 1875. By 1890, Mississippi had enacted a new constitution that, coupled with the state’s Black Codes, limited African American freedom, rights, and progress. It set the stage for segregation and Jim Crow.
Efforts to reconstruct the nation shifted to bringing together former Union and Confederate soldiers as a symbol of reunification. African American progress was not part of the effort. The national narrative centered on the Lost Cause and Black inferiority. It was promoted through curriculum written by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, widely accepted scholarship by William Dunning, and monuments erected across the nation in honor of Confederate heroes.
"The elevation of the Negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution of 1787. No thoughtful man can fail to appreciate its beneficent effect upon our institutions and people."
President James Garfield, 1881 Inaugural Address