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As the Depression of 1873 wore on into the mid-1870s, northern voters became decreasingly interested in southern Reconstruction. With unemployment high and hard currency scarce, northerners were more concerned with their own financial well-being than in securing rights for freedmen, punishing the Ku Klux Klan, or readmitting secessionist states. After Democrats capitalized on these depression conditions and took control of the House of Representatives in 1874, Reconstruction efforts stalled.
The Radical Republicans’ last successful piece of legislation in Congress was the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The bill aimed to eliminate social discrimination and forbade discrimination in all public places, such as theaters, hotels, and restaurants. The bill stated that blacks should be treated as equals under the law and that they could sue violators of the law in federal court.
Unfortunately, the act proved ineffective, as Democrats in the House made sure the bill was unenforceable. The act stated that blacks had to file claims to defend their own rights; the federal government could not do it for them. Many blacks were still poor and worked hard to make a living, and House Democrats knew that lawsuits would require money and considerable effort.
Meanwhile, Democrats were steadily regaining control of the South, as the already-weak Republican presence in region only became weaker as northerners lost interest in Reconstruction. The Depression of 1873, along with continued pressure from the Ku Klux Klan, drove most white Unionists, carpetbaggers, and scalawags out of the South by the mid-1870s, leaving blacks alone to fight for radical legislation. Democrats regained their seats in state legislatures, beginning with majorities in Virginia and Tennessee in 1869 and moving steadily onward to other states. Many Democrats used violence to secure power, and several Republicans were murdered in Mississippi in the 1875 elections. Blacks continued to be terrorized and intimidated into not voting. By 1877, Democrats had majorities in every southern state.
The shift of political power in the South was only one cause of the end of Radical Reconstruction. The other key factor was a series of sweeping Supreme Court rulings in the 1870s and 1880s that weakened radical policy in the years before. The first of these were the 1873Slaughterhouse Cases, so named because they involved a suit against a New Orleans slaughterhouse. In these cases, the conservative Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment protected U.S. citizens from rights infringements only on a federal level, not on a state level.
Moreover, in 1876, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Cruikshank that only states, not the federal government, could prosecute individuals under the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. As a result, countless Klan crimes went unpunished by southern state governments, who tacitly condoned the violence.
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