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The Black Experience During the Reconstruction Era

Exploring why racial equality proved an unattainable goal

The legacy of racial prejudice, civil and voting rights violations, and power politics is found in an era that is slow to enter public consciousness. There is no period in history with a wider gap between scholarly understanding and public consciousness than between 1865 and 1877, the Reconstruction era.

The central story of Reconstruction takes place in the defeated Confederacy and in the wake of a former slave’s freedom. Before the terror and travail in this era, one question surfaced: What is to be done with the newly freed slaves?

The leading motive of the reconstruction process had been to ensure to the freedmen their civil rights. Hopes to build a new South out of the ashes of the old plantation order involved providing relief to blacks deprived of their civil rights advances by state actors and countering the condoned and perpetrated reign of terror that sought to reverse their legal gains.

Throughout localities, blacks struggled with their political and civil rights to vote, sue, and testify. The era’s legal authority established a method of federal intervention; however, a problem that surrounded all the legal changes was enforcement. That is, although progressive legislation was enacted to curtail the authority of the states, the laws had been abandoned due to a total failure of enforcement.

The series of laws were intended to elevate blacks, but public and private actors alike violated the dictates of equality legislation with impunity. Without federal enforcement, the states had little incentive to abide by subsequent federal policy. The inescapable truth is that government policy at state and local levels violated federal laws mandating equal protections with the purpose of establishing a pernicious racial caste system. Put differently, laws that whites would have to obey were anathema to them. It would be another eight decades before the states yielded to interracial cooperation.

Hence, blacks came to recognize that while slavery had been abolished, their newly secured freedom was at risk. They found it necessary to protect themselves from the racist backlash against their rights. This meant efforts to impose federal solutions on localities to guarantee black rights were unsuccessful. However, the long-term survival of some of the era’s legal reforms foreshadowed the rise of the 1960s civil rights movement.

Reconstruction’s early years (1865–1871) consisted of a series of landmark laws to create an interracial democracy in the former Confederate states. The post-war political dominance of Republicans, many of them former Whigs who favored a strong central government, addressed freedom, citizenship, and black suffrage by legislating the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States.

In a liberal, Republican-led government, these Reconstruction Amendments granted former slaves rights and privileges. The issuance of the amendments was the attempt to change public policy. Specifically, the laws gave constitutional fulfillment to the emancipation promise. The laws meaningfully altered the political status of blacks and reinforced constitutional equality that guaranteed blacks’ rights. However, by 1875, Republicans dissipated after defeat of the Democratic Party.

Under Democratic leadership, Reconstruction efforts were paralyzed at both the national and local level. Democrats were united against federal race reform and influenced by local constituencies to challenge the laws’ constitutionality. State legal institutions invented categories of race and codified white privilege. Insisting on reestablishing antebellum policies of white supremacy, whites rejected democratic racial reform, which undermined the campaign for civil equality.

By nullifying federal policies in practice, their goal was to repress blacks, who they felt had gained too much, and reclaim what they believed to be a white-only government. The reinstatement of state-level politics allowed state governments to implement a distorted and racist brand of justice. Southern statesmen frequently led coups and openly contested ideas about democracy, citizenship, class differences, and racial hierarchies.

Even though economic reforms, redistribution of land, and enforcement of laws would have assisted in the growth and strength of the black community that change would never be accepted by revanchist white supremacists. The postwar response of whites to emancipation involved regaining authority and claiming their leadership over blacks, whom they perceived to be inferior. They used legal loopholes and acts of domestic terrorism to deny blacks an equal place in public life. As the historian Eric Foner observed in an op-ed for the New York Times:

The Ku Klux Klan and kindred groups began a campaign of murder, assault and arson that can only be described as homegrown American terrorism.

As the era progressed, growing racism over blacks gaining legal rights caused state and local governments to create laws that circumvented black economic and political participation. In itself, racism manifested through state legislation permitted whites to violently assert that its society should be restructured hierarchically under an ideology of inherent racial superiority and be predicated upon a belief in inherent racial difference.

Using campaigns of violence, white communities banded together to restore white supremacy and, inspired by racism, they successfully took control of their heavily Democratic state governments. As a result, whites unwelcomed societal transformations and followed the Democratic Party, which stood for as little change as possible.

Structural commitments to impoverishing and immobilizing blacks in waves of state laws reflected Congress’ obligation to respond to the widening inequality between the two races. However, it exercised little enforcement by raising issues of federal overreach. Even though an extended military occupation and access to the ballot box would have probably been the best strategy to combat white oligarchy, Congress became less involved in limiting state powers by endorsing the racist rhetoric of white over black. The federal government did not uphold and enforce the principles of democracy and equality as guaranteed in the Constitution. Therefore, the authority for ensuring black rights was left to states’ discriminatory governments and local public sentiment that legally enforced white supremacy.

Although blacks trusted the federal government to serve their best interests by enforcing their civil rights and liberties, the outcome proved contrary to what they had hoped for. As a result, inclusion and equality for blacks were unattainable during the era. Therefore, whatever else may be said about the era, national and local struggles for racial equality during Reconstruction had led to the encoding of racism in the political order in the American South and the proliferation of racism as an American institution.

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