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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.

A large conference hall of African American men during a session. A few men sitting in the while one stands in front.

SectionConstructing Black Political Power

An Equal Voice

The National Colored Convention in session at Washington, D.C., 1869

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.

The National Colored Convention in session at Washington, D.C., 1869

Freedmen’s Conventions

National Convention of Colored People, Nashville, Tennessee, 1876

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.

National Convention of Colored People, Nashville, Tennessee, 1876

Black South Carolinians Petition U.S. Congress

Petition of Colored Citizens of South Carolina

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.

Petition of Colored Citizens of South Carolina

Petition of Colored Citizens of South Carolina

Citizen Soldiers

Portrait of a U.S. soldier, ca. 1865

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.

Portrait of a U.S. soldier, ca. 1865

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

Grand Army of the Republic Certificate

Grand Army of the Republic encampment, Natchez, Mississippi, late 1800s

U.S. soldiers mustered out at Little Rock, Arkansas, 1866

Octavius Catto

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.

Photographic portrait of African American man dressed in overcoat with bow tie. The text below the image reads "Octavius V. Catto, Assassinated in Philadelphia, Oct. 10th, 1871.  One more Martyr to the cause of Constitutional Liberty.