After the Civil War ended in 1865, Radical Republicans in Congress attempted to protect blacks’ rights by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1866 , which enabled blacks to file lawsuits against whites and sit on juries. To safeguard these rights permanently, states ratified the Fourteenth Amendment and enfranchised black men with the Fifteenth Amendment.
Congress also passed the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which outlawed racial terrorism, and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 , which prohibited racial discrimination in most public places. Radical Republicans also tried to use the Freedmen’s Bureau to redistribute confiscated southern plantation lands to blacks in order to put them on more equal footing with white farmers. In addition to these measures, Congress sent federal troops into the South to help blacks register to vote.
However, opposition from President Andrew Johnson, a conservative Supreme Court, and the white southern elite thwarted Radical Republicans’ attempts at protecting blacks’ rights. Johnson, for example, disbanded the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. Then, in the complex maneuvering of the Compromise of 1877 , Republicans traded the presidency (the election of Rutherford B. Hayes) for the premature withdrawal of federal troops from the South. This compromise effectively ended Reconstruction and set back the hope of equality for southern blacks for decades. Within a few short years, the powerful white elite had returned to power in southern legislatures and had reinstated its racist policies in the South.
During the last decades of the 1800s, life for southern blacks was harsh. By 1880, most blacks had become sharecroppers, tenant farmers who essentially rented land from their former masters. Even though most former slaves actually preferred the sharecropping system to wage labor, it kept them bound to their white landlords in virtual slavery.
In addition, local statutes called black codes kept blacks “in their place.” These laws made “offenses” such as loitering, unemployment, indebtedness, voting, and even having sex with white women illegal for blacks. State authorities fined and arrested blacks who disobeyed these laws, so the codes effectively made racism legal. Moreover, the black codes gave the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan even more of a motive and opportunity to terrorize blacks. As a result, almost all southern blacks at the time lived in abject poverty and had virtually no social or political rights.
Although northern blacks enjoyed more rights than southern blacks, they still suffered from severe racial prejudice. One South Carolina politician who believed in the “natural” racial superiority of whites claimed that the average black American was “a fiend, a wild beast, seeking whom he may devour.” Another social commentator likened blacks to wild animals that operated only on instinct. It is therefore not surprising that most blacks even in the North were able to obtain only unskilled jobs and lived in some of the poorest neighborhoods.
The few educated blacks in the South, however, strove to change the status quo. In 1881, former slave Booker T. Washington, for example, founded a technical college in Alabama for blacks, called the Tuskegee Institute. Washington quickly became one of the first black activists as he called on blacks to achieve economic equality with whites. A proponent of “accommodation,” Washington argued that social equality and political rights would come only if blacks first became self-reliant and improved their financial footing. Then, he argued, respect from the white community would naturally follow. On the other hand, Washington privately worked to improve blacks’ social standing, despite his publicly stated belief that “agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly.” He helped push for an end to segregation, for example, and supported organizations bent on securing political rights for more blacks.
Many black activists in the North, however, disagreed with Washington. His policy of accommodation, they argued, doomed blacks to an eternity of poverty and second-class citizenship. Leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois called for blacks to seek complete and immediate social and economic equality. Du Bois also called on blacks to develop a “black consciousness” distinctive from that of whites. In his seminal 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk , he argued that blacks needed to become more aware of their history, art, music, and religious backgrounds in order to understand themselves fully.
The Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 was a major setback for early civil rights activists. The decision declared that segregated public and private facilities for blacks and whites were “separate but equal,” effectively justifying Jim Crow segregation laws. The single justice who opposed the decision astutely remarked that the Plessy v. Ferguson decision would set back African Americans’ struggle for equality by decades. Just as significant, the Court also upheld the right of southern legislatures to levy poll taxes and give literacy tests—strategies that were meant to exclude blacks from voting. These decisions effectively legalized and spread racism throughout the North and South.