The Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 proclaimed the official end of slavery but mere emancipation of formerly enslaved human beings didn’t attend to the details of how a person who had no rights could move into an active citizenship. The 14thAmendment ratified in 1868 guaranteed citizenship rights, but it was the 15th Amendment in 1870 that gave these rights their practical political muscle.
After almost 100 years of disenfranchisement, the 15thAmendment gave black men the right to vote. Though there was continued harassment at the polls from the KKK and others, the presence of Federal troops helped somewhat to protect voting rights and for the first time, there was black representation in both local and federal government.
1877—The Tilden/ Hayes Compromise
In the 1876 Presidential election, the race between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden was too close to call, partly based on violence, intimidation and voter fraud in three Southern states—South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana. A Congressional Committee was created that promised the Southern Democrats could take control over their own States if they conceded the election to Hayes. (Note: in those days, the Republicans, like Lincoln, were the liberal candidates and the Democrats the Conservative) They did, Hayes removed the troops and there was a swift and immediate rise in the power of the KKK, who stepped up their presence at the polls, intimidating and murdering blacks who try to vote without consequence. The progress of black representation in both local and national government during Reconstruction was effectively reversed.
Hayes himself seemed to have good intentions—he appointed Frederick Douglass to a post in Washington DC—but he severely underestimated the determination of the South to continue the terror of White Supremacy. He wrote:
“We have got through with the South Carolina and Louisiana problems. At any rate, the troops are ordered away, and I now hope for peace, and what is equally important, security and prosperity for the colored people. The result of my plans to get from those states and by their governors, legislatures, press, and people pledges that the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments shall be faithfully observed; that the colored people shall have equal rights to labor, education, and the privileges of citizenship. I am confident this is a good work. Time will tell...”
1890—Literacy Tests and Poll Taxes
Alongside continued violence and intimidation from the KKK and others, literacy tests and poll taxes were created to further disenfranchise black voters. The literacy tests asked obscure questions about the Constitution that they knew no one could answer and the poll taxes asked for money that they knew poor blacks couldn’t afford. Whites were exempt from both by grandfather clauses (since your parents voted, you can) and “proof” of “good, moral character (amounting to “you’re one of us.”). These continued in many places up until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Are you getting the picture? Those working for justice take one step forward, those obstructing it push them two steps back. More to come.