Equality and Civil Rights: a Chronology of Black History di Giulia Tomasi Cont, Davide Pignata

Towards XX Century


Looking ahead

At the end od this section, you will be able to:

- understand what kind of role blacks had in the Reconstruction politics

- know what the Ku Klux Klan is

- identify the consequences of Reconstruction for black people

- know some important personalities of late 1800s

- become aware of the existence of some important Black Organizations

The political system of the South was in a state of confusion after the Civil War. The Republican-controlled Congress kept ex-Confederate leaders from holding office. Also, many southern leaders had been killed in the war. Finally, some white Southerners refused to participate in the new governments. These men were angered by the control that the federal government held over their lives and by its protection of the rights of blacks. Some Southerners, however, were willing for various reasons to take part in Reconstruction government.
Three groups were important in the new southern governments. The first group were Northerners who had settled in the South after the war. They were often accused of taking advantage of the South for their own benefit. A second group were southern whites who supported the Radicals’ plan for Reconstruction. Many ex-Confederates referred to these people as “scalawags” and accused them of being traitors. This group included many Southerners who had disapproved of slavery, opposed secession and remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War.
Blacks – free born and former slaves – were the third group to play a role in Reconstruction politics. Some like Francis L. Cardoza, who served as Treasurer and Secretary of State of South Carolina, and P. B. S. Pinhback, who was lieutenant governor of Louisiana, were well educated. Many, though, were former slaves and as such were poor, uneducated and lacking in political experience. However, blacks never controlled southern politics during Reconstruction. Northerners and southern whites held most of the important political offices. For examples, while blacks were a majority in the lower house of the South Carolina legislature until 1874, the upper house and the governorship were always controlled by whites. Blacks never controlled either house of any other state legislature. Every state, however, had blacks who held positions such as state legislators or heads of departments. Jonathan Gibbs, for example, was Secretary of State of Florida.
A few blacks held office at the federal level. Between 1869 and 1901, two blacks became U.S. Senators and twenty were elected to the House of Representatives. Hiram R. Revels and Blanche K. Bruce represented Mississippi in the U.S. Senate. South Carolina elected eight blacks to the House; North Carolina, four; Alabama, three; Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana and Virginia, one each. Of these, J. H. Rainey and Robert Smalls, the pilot who turned over a ship to the Union Navy in 1861, served for ten years each. Eight other black members of the House were elected for two and three terms.


Many white Southerners resented Reconstruction and organized secret societies as early as 1866 to fight it. Among these groups were the Knights of the White Camelia, the White League and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The Ku Klux Klan was the largest. It used terror to keep blacks and their white supporters from voting or holding public office.
Southern state governments outlawed the organizations but were unable to stop their activities. In 1870 and 1871, Congress passed a series of Force Acts. These acts gave the President the power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, use federal troops to keep order, and use federal officials to supervise elections. As a result of the Force Acts, hundreds of whites were arrested and brought to trial.


Reconstruction had both good and bad effects. The state governments set up under the congressional plan of Reconstruction adopted a number of reforms. Black and poor white males were able to vote and hold office for the first time. The new governments built hospitals, orphanages and places to care for the disabled. Roads, bridges and railroads were repaired. More rail lines were opened and existing railroad were extended.
Perhaps the most important result was the establishment of the first public school systems in most southern states. Before the Civil War, only North Carolina had free public education. By the early 1870s, Reconstruction governments had taken control of the schools opened by the Freedmen’s Bureau and set up more. At first, southern whites stayed away from the public schools because blacks attended. By 1885, however, most southern school districts had segregated whites and blacks in their own schools. Segregation is keeping groups separated from each other by law or custom.
Although Reconstruction governments introduced a number of reforms, some states had corrupt governments. Legislatures approved large sums for state house furniture, government printing jobs, and travel, but much of this money really went the legislators themselves. Some officials took bribes in return for doing favours for businesses. Often the money that was supposed to be used to help freed blacks was taken by dishonest officials and their friends.
Reconstruction did not help blacks to own land or to better themselves financially. It also did not help blacks protect their rights. During Reconstruction, the Republican-controlled Congress granted certain rights by law to former slaves. In practice, however, the secret white societies used fear to keep many blacks from exercising these rights. After Reconstruction ended, southern states used various legal means to deny formers slaves their voting rights. Poll taxes and literacy tests were two. A poll tax is a tax that has to be paid in order to vote. A literacy test determines whether a person can read and write.


Demands for economic, political and social reform became louder during the depression that struck the country between 1893 and 1897. Many city governments and some state governments responded to the challenge and made changes. Reform on the national level was more difficult. By the early 1900s, reformers were calling themselves progressives. A progressive is a person who favours reform, improvement and progress through government action.
Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to carry out the reforms of the Populists and progressives. He wanted what he called a “square deal” for everyone. He also believed that more care should be given to conserving natural resources. When he won the 1904 elections, he announced he would not run again. He felt this would free him to push for more reforms without having people think he was seeking personal power. As the leader of the Republican party, he chose the Republican nominee for President in the 1908 election: his secretary of War, William Howard Taft. Anyway, Taft did not continue Roosevelt’s “square deal” programs.
After Taft’s period, the Democrats chose Woodrow Wilson their presidential candidate. He had received national attention in 1910 for reforms he had begun as governor of New Jersey. Because of the Republican split, Wilson had little trouble winning. Shortly after he was inaugurated, Wilson called a special session of Congress to lower tariffs. The 1913 Underwood Tariff reduced the rates on many imports. He also strengthened antitrust laws.


Despite the 15th amendment, black men were not always guaranteed the right to vote. Poll taxes, literacy tests and fear of such groups as the Ku Klux Klan kept blacks from voting. In the 1890s southern states passed Jim Crow laws that restricted the civil rights of blacks. The laws were named after a black character in a song. These laws called for separate facilities for blacks and whites. For example, blacks could not stay in the same hotels nor eat in the same restaurants as whites.


In 1890, Louisiana passed a law providing for separate railroad cars for blacks and whites. Some blacks in the state decided to test the legality of the law. They hired a lawyer, Albion Tourgee, to plead their case. Then Homer Plessy, a black man, bought a railroad ticket and deliberately sat in a car for whites. The conductor asked him to move to a car for blacks. When Plessy refused, he was arrested.
The Louisiana courts upheld the law, and Tourgee took the case through the appeal system to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Plessy v. Ferguson, Tourgee argued that the law violated the 13th and 14th Amendments. The Supreme Court ruled that separate cars for blacks and whites were within the law as long as the cars were of equal quality. This case opened the way for more Jim Crow laws calling for “separate but equal” facilities. The Supreme Court ruling was not overturned until 1954.


One of the most influential black leaders of the late 1800s was Booker T. Washington. He encouraged blacks to concentrate on getting along with whites rather than on demanding equal rights. He was willing to put up with inequality and segregation in exchange for economic advancement. Blacks, he believed, could benefit more from practical, vocational education than from a college education.
W.E.B. Du Bois, a historian and sociologist, disagreed with Washington’s educational and political philosophy. He supported college training for blacks and feared that vocational schools would limit the development of higher education for blacks. Du Bois believed blacks should fight openly for their rights, especially for the right to vote. Washington’s influence began to decline in the early 1900s as Du Bois and other leaders formed organizations to help blacks.


In 1905, Du Bois founded the Niagara Movement. The group fought discrimination by demanding voting rights and desegregated schools. The members worked to elect candidates who promised to fight prejudice. At one time, the movement had 30 branches in U.S. cities. The movement failed to win the support of most blacks, however, and disbanded in 1910.
The year before, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) had been founded by some members of the Niagara Movement and whites to fight violence against blacks. Among its goals were the enforcement of anti-lynching laws and the end of job discrimination. Du Bois joined in 1910. He became editor of the magazine Crisis, which published articles about the racial situation and about successful blacks in the arts, business, science and other fields.
The National Urban League was established for both blacks and whites in 1911. Members conducted community projects that provided health care, housing, job training and placement, and voter education. They often appeared before legislative bodies to influence public opinion and make their causes more widely known. Both the NAACP and the Urban League are still active. When the General Federation of Women’s Club was founded in 1890, black women were excluded. As a result, Mary Church Terrell, Josephine Ruffin and Margaret Murray Washington organized the National Association of Coloured Women in 1896. The group set up clubs across the country. They helped organize schools and hospitals. The black clubs were eventually admitted to the General Confederation.

Looking back

- Which role did black people have in Reconstruction politics?

- Quote three distinctive features of Ku Klux Klan

- What is segregation?

- What was the Supreme Court decision concerning the case of Plessy v. Ferguson?

- Who was W.E.B. Du Bois?

- What does NACCP stand for?



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