The Reconstruction Era, from 1865 to 1877, laid the foundations through political, economical, and societal struggles of what our society still contends with today. History comes with positive and negative aspects despite the perspective of the viewer and here is a brief look at some of the factors that had the most effect then and how our society is dealing with these issues in the present. The Constitution was written in the United States and used as a blueprint in other countries who shared our democratic government ideals1, but it was written over 200 years ago and has made amendments since.
The 14th Amendment in Section One gave citizenship to all persons born or naturalized and secured their rights to life, liberty, property, and due process. Section Two ensured that all males over 21 years of age, minus non-taxed Indians and rebellious criminals, were accounted for when determining the number of state representatives, giving states the choice to let negroes vote or lose seats in Congress2. This amendment would go on to aid the Supreme Court in decisions of racial segregation (Brown v. Board, 1954), abortion (Roe v. Wade, 1973), a presidential election (Bush v. Gore, 2000), and regarding same-sex marriage (Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015)3.
The 14th Amendment is currently being debated for revision to its citizenship clause as people argue that this modification will improve the illegal immigrant situation in the United States by denying their children citizenship4. In a debate, it’s important to hear from all sides of the argument. This is what makes the 15th Amendment so important as it gave the negro man a legal voice in the voting process, prohibiting state and federal governments from denying this right.5 It was the opposition to this viewpoint, by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, that would cause Congress to pass the three Enforcement Acts within a twelve-month period allowing the militia to stop violent activities, deemed federal offenses, that stopped negroes from voting, holding office, serving on juries, and receiving equal protection from the law.6
After these amendments were passed to overcome the Black Codes, and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 passed that outlawed discrimination in hotels and theaters, the South was busy quickly making changes that would bypass these constitutional laws at the state level without attracting the attention of Congress while upholding their “southern way of life”. These laws would put an end to the Black Codes, but the Jim Crow Laws would spring up in their place ensuring separation, but ‘equality’ everywhere. Schools, toilets, restaurants, railcars, and playing fields had to be separated by different doors and not within a certain distance of each other — this way the races wouldn’t mix for marriage or equal rights.7
The Grandfather Clause, a way to exempt poor and illiterate whites from the same disenfranchisement of the negroes, along with the Jim Crow Laws, helped to strengthen the position of the Southern whites and the Midwest republicans by charging poll taxes, giving literacy tests, or demanding proof of ownership of property. The Grandfather Clause was found unconstitutional in 1915, in the case of Guinn v. United States, but sadly the Jim Crow Laws would be supported until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed all discriminatory legislation, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that was able to get a majority of negroes registered to vote in the South.8
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965 as a temporary measure to ensure that states with restrictions to voting, such as the Jim Crow Laws, and less than 50% of the eligible voters registered prior to November of 1964 would have to check-in with the Attorney General or District Court of DC before making changes to their election practices. This included seven states entirely and parts of four others. Section 5 will go on to be amended in 1970 to add electoral participation, in 1975 to include language minority groups that constituted more than 5% of the voting age, and in 1982 to terminate coverage under a bailout. This procedure gives the jurisdiction ten years to make improvements for minorities to vote and then the opportunity to ask the federal trial court to be released from this measure.12 Step-by-step, the federal government is bringing the United States out of the first and second Reconstruction Eras and into the improvements of the present. America has seen the introduction and the body of the racist story; let’s hope for a conclusion soon.
In 2006, Congress extended the circumstances of Section 5 for 25 more years while nine states were fully covered and seven partially effected, but the Supreme Court deemed the formula insufficient in 2013 leaving states uncovered until a replacement is passed. This ruling allows states to require a photo ID, which is necessary to prevent fraud, and make changes to early voting and same-day registration. Oregon and Florida removed themselves from the Interstate Cross-Check Program, also an attempt to prevent fraud, and 20 states made online voting available.12 It is great progress when an old law is no longer needed to strictly enforce rights so easily given to others based on something as superficial as skin color, though these changes are not always timely.
The “Jim Crow Laws might produce some laughter in the twenty-first century but…”7 they shouldn’t because no one should be proud of formulating laws in such a manner as to make another human suffer for such an unneeded period of time, causing them to work so hard for such slow and painful change. It’s sad to see that President Johnson gave the States their racial rights back2 and the freedom to take their time with the segregation process. Tourgée, an idealist carpetbagger turned judge, argues in a letter to the National Anti-Slavery Standard in 1867 that, “No law… can shield the poor man… bloodshed must necessarily follow.”9 And that’s exactly what happened as President Hayes gave the Democrats control of the South for a taste of the Oval Office without dispute.
I would like to think that circumstances are different today, but I can see the practices that lead Negroes to believe that Black Lives don’t Matter still being fought for fairness — and it’s a fight on both sides of the black and white coin. The Freedmen’s Bureau was able to supply medical aid to more than a million people including the elderly, children, and disabled. Congress funded this progress for five years before shutting down the “black handout”.10 People are still wary today of government assistance and welfare to those they deem undeserving, such as the ongoing debate that is Obamacare.
The Redeemers reduced the negro influence in the southern government and established white-supremacist regimes by defunding schools, closing hospitals, and reducing taxes for the wealthy, the plantation-owning “one percenters” of the day.10 The modern one percent have the same tax breaks today and don’t require government assistance for education, medical, meals, or security because they can afford it, while at least 46 million people struggle to learn on an empty stomach in a crime-ridden area while relying on the government for food stamps, Section 8 housing, and welfare.10
Negroes wanted to learn the ways of the white man but were told no for a hundred years while being abandoned by the North and beaten by the South. They were given another opportunity for work on the “Big Government Plantation, ”10 or the option to join their brothers in the judicial system of the American Dream. The South was stuck in the 19th century tainted by a lack of business interest, immigrant investment, and a reliable government. Their liberties were reduced then and their opportunities squandered now in inferior schools, cultural beliefs, prison gerrymandering, and black mobs.10
Now there is the “acting white” mentality that pervades negro schools and neighborhoods. Researchers have found that students will get bad grades, or lie about good grades, and avoid museums and other educational opportunities where they have the chance to be seen by peers and family who may cut them off from their communities for going against the cultural ‘norm’11 — even though there are great stories of their ancestors and achievers today, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and President Barack Obama, showing their race as beautiful and intelligent through learning and love, not ignorance. It’s not helpful when the children of doctors and lawyers want to turn out like the rappers and athletes they see on the news with a negative image. This wasn’t always the case, as freedmen strived to be more like the white man — in church, school, cafes, and jobs — regardless of the religion, education, food, or vocation.
Is this the fault of white supremacist history rewriting the literature to show complete dominance, the old movies showing the South as a dreamy romantic bayou, or a personal agenda to maintain a status the whites felt was gifted to them by God? The literate masters used books, especially the Bible, to push their agenda — negroes weren’t human, they shouldn’t mix with whites, and they were too ignorant to be left alone.9 How were the fearful illiterate supposed to combat these prejudices without education, weapons, or land? They were told to work hard to earn God’s graces — and that’s what they did. Productivity has increased by 80% since 1979, but income for the working class has not.10
How many ex-slaves believed the laws of the white man and the opinion of God? How many accepted the unequal conditions as an improvement and dismissed the civil rights bills as impractical? 9 How many hours did they need to learn, how many good deeds done, and how many dollars earned to not be able to afford the comforts of the white man? How many generations need to know the struggle and the pain that their ancestors and their grandchildren will face begging to be accepted as more than a second-class citizen? How many people must die in order for change to take place?9
The Reconstruction Era was a very progressive and educational time — seen from a positive perspective. It showed the power of ambition and the amount of change a group could make when given the chance. It continues to impact current issues with laws made for equality then, changing and amending them. The courts continue to adjust laws and acts, such as section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, as they adapt to a new cultural mindset. Perhaps Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of not being judged by skin color but by character content can one day be so true as to deem these laws and the past they contain a stain on human history as we look back from our great pedestal of the future and all its equality.
The Reconstruction Era seemed to give and take away rights overnight with constant injustices. History, with such close ties to the present, is motivation to be educated, think critically, and always be kind; to not let the words of one person or book entice hasty judgments. Will the second quarter of the 21st century be the beginning of the third Reconstruction? Some may say there are no equality issues or that, “… We are rushing this issue of civil rights,” but Hubert Humphrey, a Democratic mayor from Minneapolis, said to the Democratic National Convention in 1948 that, “we are 172 years late.”5
*All images courtesy of Google.
1. Blaustein, Albert P. “Long Live the New Iraq!” Long Live the New Iraq! The Coalition Provisional Authority, n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017. <http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/cpa-iraq/ democracy/blaustein.html>.
2. “Constitution Annotated.” Congress.gov. Government Publishing Office, n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017. <https://www.congress.gov/constitution-annotated/>.
3. Staff, LII. “14th Amendment.” LII / Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School, 12 Nov. 2009. Web. 10 Mar. 2017. <https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/ amendmentxiv>.
4. Kahn, Carrie. “Republicans Push To Revise 14th Amendment.” NPR. NPR, 05 Aug. 2010. Web. 10 Mar. 2017. <storyId=129007120>.
5. Foner, Eric. “15/What Is Freedom?” Give Me Liberty!: An American History. 4th ed. Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton, 2014. 442-73. Print.
6. Swinney, Everette. “Enforcing the Fifteenth Amendment, 1870-1877.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 28, no. 2, 1962, pp. 202–218., www.jstor.org/stable/2205188.
7. Tischauser, Leslie Vincent. “Introduction.” Jim Crow Laws. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2012. xi-xv. Print.
8. Michael J. Klarman, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Economic Equality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004)
9. Madaras, Larry, and James M. SoRelle. “Did Reconstruction Fail as a Result of Racism?” Taking Sides: Clashing Views in United States History. 14th ed. Vol. 2. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2014. 35-55. Print.
10. Blake, John. “Parallels to Country’s Racist past Haunt Age of Obama.” CNN. Cable News Network, 01 Nov. 2012. Web. 11 Mar. 2017. <http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/11/us/obama- trump-white-backlash/>.
11. Mydans, Seth. “Black Identity vs. Success and Seeming ‘White’.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 24 Apr. 1990. Web. 11 Mar. 2017. <http://www.nytimes.com/ 1990/04/25/us/education-black-identity-vs-success-and-seeming-white.html>.
12. Staff. “About Section 5 Of The Voting Rights Act.” The United States Department of Justice. N.p., 8 Aug. 2015. Web. 11 Mar. 2017. <https://www.justice.gov/crt/about-section-5- voting-rights- act>.