Reflect. React. Rise Up.
The 13th Amendment, adopted late in 1865, officially abolished slavery, but the question of freed Black peoples’ status in the post–war South remained. As white southerners gradually reestablished civil authority in the former Confederate states in 1865 and 1866, they enacted a series of laws known as the Black Codes, which were designed to restrict freed Black peoples’ activity and ensure their availability as a labor force.
Impatient with the leniency shown toward the former Confederate states by Andrew Johnson, who became president after Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, so-called Radical Republicans in Congress overrode Johnson’s veto and passed the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which basically placed the South under martial law. The following year, the 14th Amendment broadened the definition of citizenship, granting “equal protection” of the Constitution to people who had been enslaved. Congress required southern states to ratify the 14th Amendment and enact universal male suffrage before they could rejoin the Union, and the state constitutions during those years were the most progressive in the region’s history.
The 15th Amendment, adopted in 1870, guaranteed that a citizen’s right to vote would not be denied—on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” During Reconstruction, Black Americans won election to southern state governments and even to the U.S. Congress. Their growing influence greatly dismayed many white southerners, who felt control slipping ever further away from them. The white protective societies that arose during this period—the largest of which was the Ku Klux Klan (KKK)—sought to disenfranchise Black voters by using voter suppression and intimidation as well as more extreme violence. By 1877, when the last federal soldiers left the South and Reconstruction drew to a close, Black Americans had seen dishearteningly little improvement in their economic and social status, and what political gains they had made had been wiped away by the vigorous efforts of white supremacist forces throughout the region.
As Reconstruction drew to a close and the forces of white supremacy regained control from carpetbaggers (northerners who moved South) and freed Black people, Southern state legislatures began enacting the first segregation laws, known as the “Jim Crow” laws. Taken from a much-copied minstrel routine written by a white actor who performed often in blackface, the name “Jim Crow” came to serve as a general derogatory term for African Americans in the post-Reconstruction South. By 1885, most southern states had laws requiring separate schools for Black and white students, and by 1900, “persons of color” were required to be separated from white people in railroad cars and depots, hotels, theaters, restaurants, barber shops and other establishments. On May 18, 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its verdict in Plessy v. Ferguson, a case that represented the first major test of the meaning of the 14th Amendment’s provision of full and equal citizenship to African Americans.
By an 8–1 majority, the Court upheld a Louisiana law that required the segregation of passengers on railroad cars. By asserting that the equal protection clause was not violated as long as reasonably equal conditions were provided to both groups, the Court established the “separate but equal” doctrine that would thereafter be used for assessing the constitutionality of racial segregation laws. Plessy vs. Ferguson stood as the overriding judicial precedent in civil rights cases until 1954, when it was reversed by the Court’s verdict in Brown v. Board of Education.