Reconstruction and Repression, 1865-1900

In 1865, following the Civil War, southern state legislatures began enacting Black Codes to restrict freedmen's rights and maintain the plantation system. The Republican-controlled Congress responded to these measures by passing the three great postwar constitutional amendments (Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth) that abolished slavery, guaranteed the newly freed blacks equal protection of the laws, and gave all male American citizens the right to vote regardless of their "race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

As Reconstruction came to an end in 1877, the concept of equal rights collapsed in the wake of legislative and judicial actions. The Civil Rights Cases of 1883 greatly limited the rights of blacks and strengthened Jim Crow laws in the South. In Plessy v.Ferguson,the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the concept of separate but equal public facilities, thus ensuring racial segregation and discrimination, especially in education. Whites would use this concept to keep African Americans, as well as other minorities, in separate and unequal facilities.

The passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments was partly responsible for a rising focus of women's rights activists on the right to vote. Asian, Irish and other immigrant Americans were also restricted from public life, isolated in segregated schools, and discriminated against in regard to employment and housing. They also suffered under bans on racial intermarriage and limitations on real property ownership. Unlike blacks, the Chinese were excluded from immigration after 1882, while many other Asians were limited in the numbers that could legally immigrate, and none were allowed to become citizens. Americans Indians fought the tide of frontier and westward expansion and broken treaty obligations.

The last decades of the nineteenth century were a time when vast and dramatic changes took place throughout America, many of them as a consequence of the Civil War. Urbanization, industrialization, immigration, the ferment of populism and labor struggles, the expansion of education, the settlement of the West and the end of the frontier, and the emergence of women's professions created a more diversified and complicated setting for the equal rights struggle.

*Some content used with permission from Eastern National's Guidebook to The American Civil Rights Experience.

Last updated: April 12, 2016


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