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The Postâ€“Slavery South, 1865
Though the Union victory in the Civil War gave some 4 million slaves their freedom, significant challenges awaited during the Reconstruction period. The 13th Amendment, adopted late in 1865, officially abolished slavery, but the question of freed blacks’ status in the post–war South remained. As white southerners gradually reestablished civil authority in the former Confederate states in 1865 and 1866, they enacted a series of laws known as the black codes, which were designed to restrict freed blacks’ activity and ensure their availability as a labor force. Impatient with the leniency shown toward the former Confederate states by Andrew Johnson, who became president after Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, so–called Radical Republicans in Congress overrode Johnson’s veto and passed the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which basically placed the South under martial law. The following year, the 14th Amendment broadened the definition of citizenship, granting —equal protection” of the Constitution to former slaves. Congress required southern states to ratify the 14th Amendment and enact universal male suffrage before they could rejoin the Union, and the state constitutions during those years were the most progressive in the region’s history.
The 15th Amendment, adopted in 1870, guaranteed that a citizen’s right to vote would not be denied —on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” During Reconstruction, blacks won election to southern state governments and even to the U.S. Congress. Their growing influence greatly dismayed many white southerners, who felt control slipping ever further away from them. The white protective societies that arose during this period—the largest of which was the Ku Klux Klan (KKK)—sought to disenfranchise blacks by using voter fraud and intimidation as well as more extreme violence. By 1877, when the last federal soldiers left the South and Reconstruction drew to a close, blacks had seen dishearteningly little improvement in their economic and social status, and what political gains they had made had been wiped away by the vigorous efforts of white supremacist forces throughout the region.
"Separate But Equal", 1896
As Reconstruction drew to a close and the forces of white supremacy regained control from carpetbaggers (northerners who moved South) and freed blacks, Southern state legislatures began enacting the first segregation laws, known as the —Jim Crow” laws. Taken from a much–copied minstrel routine written by a white actor who performed often in blackface, the name —Jim Crow” came to serve as a general derogatory term for African Americans in the post–Reconstruction South. By 1885, most southern states had laws requiring separate schools for blacks and whites, and by 1900, —persons of color” were required to be separated from whites in railroad cars and depots, hotels, theaters, restaurants, barber shops and other establishments. On May 18, 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its verdict in Plessy vs. Ferguson, a case that represented the first major test of the meaning of the 14th Amendment’s provision of full and equal citizenship to African Americans. By an 8–1 majority, the Court upheld a Louisiana law that required the segregation of passengers on railroad cars. By asserting that the equal protection clause was not violated as long as reasonably equal conditions were provided to both groups, the Court established the —separate but equal” doctrine that would thereafter be used for assessing the constitutionality of racial segregation laws. Plessy v. Ferguson stood as the overriding judicial precedent in civil rights cases until 1954, when it was reversed by the Court’s verdict in Brown v. Board of Education.
Washington, Carver & Du Bois, 1900
As the 19th century came to an end and segregation took ever–stronger hold in the South, many African Americans saw self–improvement, especially through education, as the single greatest opportunity to escape the indignities they suffered. Many blacks looked to Booker T. Washington, the author of the bestselling Up From Slavery (1900), as an inspiration. As president of Alabama's Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, Washington urged blacks to acquire the kind of industrial or vocational training (such as farming, mechanics and domestic service) that would give them the necessary skills to carve out a niche for themselves in the U.S. economy. George Washington Carver, another former slave and the head of Tuskegee's agriculture department, helped liberate the South from its reliance on cotton by convincing farmers to plant peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes in order to rejuvenate the exhausted soil. By 1940, peanuts had become the second cash crop in the South. Like Washington, Carver had little interest in racial politics, and was celebrated by many white Americans as a shining example of a modest, industrious black man. While Washington and Carver represented a philosophy of accommodation to white supremacy, another prominent black educator, the Harvard–trained historian and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, became a leading voice in the growing black protest movement during the first half of the 20th century. In his 1903 book Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois spoke strongly against Washington's advocacy of industrial education, which he saw as too narrow and economically focused, and stressed the importance of higher education for African Americans.
NAACP founded, 1909
In June 1905, a group led by the prominent black educator W.E.B. Du Bois met at Niagara Falls, Canada, sparking a new political protest movement to demand civil rights for blacks, in the old spirit of abolitionism. As America's exploding urban population faced shortages of employment and housing, violent hostility towards blacks had increased around the country; lynching, though illegal, was a widespread practice.
A wave of race riots—particularly one in Springfield, Illinois in 1908—lent a sense of urgency to the Niagara Movement and its supporters, who in 1909 joined their agenda with that of a new permanent civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Among the NAACP's stated goals were the abolition of all forced segregation, the enforcement of the 14th and 15th Amendments, equal education for blacks and whites and complete enfranchisement of all black men (though proponents of female suffrage were part of the original NAACP, the issue was not mentioned). First established in Chicago, the NAACP had expanded to more than 400 locations by 1921. One of its earliest programs was a crusade against lynching and other lawless acts; those efforts—including a nationwide protest of D.W. Griffiths' silent film Birth of a Nation (1915), which glorified white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan—would continue into the 1920s, playing a crucial role in drastically reducing the number of lynchings carried out in the United States. Du Bois edited the NAACP's official magazine, The Crisis, from 1910 to 1934, publishing many of the leading voices in African American literature and politics and helping fuel the spread of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s.
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