After the Civil War, although slaves were freed, whites were still treating blacks unfairly. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution helped blacks get their equal rights. These amendments stated that slavery was illegal, any person born in the U.S. was a citizen in the U.S., and any male citizen could vote no matter what race they are. The Reconstruction Acts also helped blacks gain equality. These acts made sure the south let blacks be part of political decisions. After Reconstruction ended, though, other races and groups tried to stop blacks from using their new rights. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan threatened to keep them from being treated equally. Many blacks, like Homer Plessey, fought for same equal rights as whites.
The Thirteenth Amendment
The Thirteenth Amendment was one of three amendments passed after the Civil War. The amendment was put in the U.S. Constitution in 1865. The amendment stated that slavery was illegal. The Thirteenth Amendment made the Emancipation Proclamation (Abraham Lincolnís announcement to the seceded states that their slaves were now free) into a law. This gave Congress the right to make laws so that people could not have slaves.
When the slaves were freed, the slave owners had to pay more money to have their work done. Many slave owners hired their former slaves to do the work they once had to do for free. Some owners wanted the government to give them money
because they took their slaves away. The northern workers thought that the freed blacks would take their jobs for less pay. The white workers thought that people would be competing for their jobs, causing pay to go down and working conditions to be poor. The blacks still did not get a good education, though, so they could not get certain kinds of jobs.
After Abraham Lincolnís death in 1865, Andrew Johnson became president. Johnson announced that whites were the only ones who could take part in conventions to rewrite Southern Constitutions. A year after Johnson was elected, leaders in Congress passed a Civil Rights Bill. This stated that anyperson born in the U.S., except the Native Americans, was a citizen of the United States. Johnson tried to stop Congress from passing this bill, but it did not work. Congress still passed the bill stating that no matter what race a person was, they all deserved equal rights. The bill also said that the federal government would step in whenever a state would not follow this law.
The Fourteenth Amendment
The Fourteenth Amendment was officially put into the Constitution in 1868. It was written to make sure the freed slaves had their rights. This amendment stated that everyone in the United States, including the African Americans, were rightful citizens. They would also have the same rights as other people. Congress also passed this amendment to make sure states would not take away other peopleís rights like going to school, suing others in court, or voting on political decisions. Whites still had more rights than African Americans, though, and people in the South still treated them unfairly. Most of the whites did not want blacks to have the power to make changes.
Because blacks were still not allowed to vote and run for office, the Reconstruction Act of 1867-1868 stated that all blacks could participate in every political decision required for making the new Southern State Constitutions. This act was very important because it meant that the whites were not going to have all the power to make political decisions. No matter what race people were, the government signed everyone up to vote for all elections and decisions in the south. Across the South, voting participants tried to educate blacks about the American government and the benefits of citizenship.
By the end of 1867, most blacks were involved in a political organization. All women and children were excluded from the right to vote but were allowed to participate in other political events. Most blacks were taking part in the conventions to create new Southern governments, but most of them would not vote. This was because white Southerners threatened them with violence to keep them from voting.
To solve this problem, the Fifteenth Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution in 1870. It stated that the government could not deny any citizen the right to vote because of their race, color, or if in the past they were a slave. The amendment gave black men the right to vote. Some white people, mostly from the South, were very angry with this new law. After the Union Soldiers who protected blacksí rights during Reconstruction went away, the south made laws to make it hard for blacks to be able to vote. These laws were called Black Codes. One of these codes made blacks sign a labor contract to work for a full year. Another code was that unemployed blacks would be put in jail and the government would take their children to work for them. Also, if you were black, your boss could whip you. Other Black Codes required blacks to pass voting tests before they were able to vote. Blacks were still not educated enough to pass the voting tests. The tests were easier for whites because most blacks could not read or whites were even given easier tests. If they passed, they would have the right to vote. The tests given to blacks were purposely harder because whites didnít want them to be able to vote. The Black Codes kept black people from being treated equally. Because of the codes, many blacks were not allowed to vote and continued to be treated as poorly by their bosses as they had been when they were slaves.
Ku Klux Klan
One of the groups that threatened blacks was called the Ku Klux Klan. The Ku Klux Klan, better known as the KKK, was a group of white men who treated blacks unfairly all the time. They also were against any whites who helped blacks. This group punished the blacks, whites who were helping the blacks, and their families in a very cruel manner. For example, they would place a large burning cross on someoneís lawn, take people in the woods to be hanged, beat people with a stick, and burn peopleís homes down. To this day, there are still groups like the KKK, but the government no longer allows the kind of terrorism that took place during Reconstruction.
Plessy v. Ferguson
Even though the Reconstruction Acts allowed blacks to be involved in political events, discrimination was still going on. Starting in 1892, twenty seven years after the Civil War ended, Homer Plessey went to jail because he would not move from his seat on the train to another car that was only for blacks. Homerís ancestors were white and black, and his skin color was mostly white. He was considered black, though, because he had black ancestors. Since he was black, he would have to sit in the black cars. He refused to move to a black car and was sent to jail.
Homer Plessey went to court and said that if he went to jail because of what he did on the train, Congress would be disobeying the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. Many people believed it was ok for blacks and whites to be separated, if their facilities were equal. Some places where whites and blacks were separated were buses, trains, restaurants, and schools. Judge John Howard Ferguson said Plessey was guilty because the state had control over the railroad companies, not the U.S. Federal Government.
After Plessey was found guilty, he appealed his case to the Supreme Court of Louisiana. Then he took his case to the Supreme Court of the United States. Both times he was found guilty. The court said the law did not disobey the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. They also said he was just being treated separately, not unequally. The only person that was on Plesseyís side was Supreme Court Justice John Harlen.
Homer Plessey was put in jail, but the case was very important to other people. Many people believed the law that blacks and whites could be separated, but the facilities would be equal, was right. Although the Supreme Court said this, the separate facilities for blacks and whites were almost never equal. Blacks were still treated unfairly. Whites had better restrooms, more updated schools, and better busing service. For more than 100 years after the Civil War, blacks continued to be treated unequally.
The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments helped blacks a lot. Eventually, blacks had the same rights as whites, but it took over a hundred years and a Civil Rights Movement for the laws created during Reconstruction to be completely enforced. Everything from train cars to restrooms would someday be equal. Americans of every race would be able to vote and participate in all government decisions. Blacks worked hard and deserved equal rights, and eventually they would get them.
Athearn, Robert G. History of the United States Volume 8: The Civil War. New York: Choice Publishing, Inc., 1989.
Foner, Eric. "Reconstruction." World Book Encyclopedia, 1995.
Melissa, Jon, Becca, Matt, and Stephanie. "Top 10 Myths About the Civil War." Free At Last: The Civil Rights Movement in the United States. /JOll2391/civil_war.htm. Last Visited: February, 2002.