Even before President Abraham Lincoln changed the Union Army’s purpose of fighting the Civil War to the emancipation of slaves, it was met with great opposition from people, especially from the South. Due to the fact that the South had an agricultural economy and depended heavily on slaves for labor, it was considered a threat to remove their influence and expand the Northern factory system. Although the Civil War officially ended on April 9th, 1865 with a Union (North) victory, the Reconstruction started even before the end of the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln started his “wartime reconstruction” by passing the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction (1863), which granted full presidential pardons for the Confederate States only if 10% of the voters took an oath of allegiance to the Union and the US Constitution and accepted the emancipation of slaves. Although this proclamation was nullified due to congressional objections, it officially marked the start of the Reconstruction. The main challenges of the Reconstruction project were reunification, reconstruction of the South, and the integration of ex-slaves with freedmen. Because of strong southern opposition and weak leadership after Lincoln’s death, the Reconstruction project was halted and took a long time for people to acclimate to the new policies. As a result, the Reconstruction project was not a simple project that happened exactly as the victors intended; in fact, it faced many challenges that created both failures and successes, as can be seen through the legacy of that era.
While it was not enforced and deemed unconstitutional just a few years later, the 1875 Civil Rights Act was the last federal law protecting civil rights until 1957 and is an important success of the Reconstruction era. While its effects may not have been strong or long-lasting, it showed that there were American politicians who were willing to fight to achieve racial equality in the nation, such as Senator Charles Sumner, who first introduced this bill in 1870. Signed by President Ulysses Grant on March 1, 1875, this act protected the right of all Americans to access public facilities such as inns and theaters regardless of race and declared that all American citizens, including non-white citizens and ex-slaves, had the right to serve on juries. The 1875 Civil Rights Act symbolizes the effort of Congress to create a system in which all men could be equal under the law. This is similar to the Union’s goal during the Civil War and Reconstruction period, and shows that legal steps were taken to devise a society in which slaves were not merely free, but able to pursue the same opportunities as everyone else. Supporters of this law knew that only when all citizens, regardless of race or “previous condition,” can have access to all public facilities and carry out the same responsibilities (such as serving on a jury), could they truly be equal. In particular, by stating that non-white citizens and ex-slaves can serve on a jury, the 1875 Civil Rights Act laid the groundwork for eventually creating a justice system in which even black men could have a fair trial. Finally, the 1875 Civil Rights Act left a legacy of equality as parts of it were included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The basic principles outlined in the 1875 Civil Rights Act demonstrated how racial discrimination had no place in the newly unified country and led to the slow but crucial fight for equality and the landmark 20th century laws that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
While laws such as the 1875 Civil Rights Act tried to establish equality, laws like the Black Codes passed by the Southern opponents transparently differentiated between blacks and whites and therefore represents a failure of the Reconstruction. The Black Code of 1866, enacted by the state of North Carolina, outlined a series of policies against freedmen, mostly restricting them from having any economic or social opportunities. Although some parts of the document recognizes the rights of blacks such as in section 2 (“All persons of color who are now inhabitants of this State shall be entitled to the same privilege”), the document proceeded to clearly show that they were trying to return freedmen to the position of slaves without using the word “slave.” Additionally, the Black Code’s recognition of black rights was only used to meet Johnson’s reconstruction policy. The changes in the living conditions of the blacks were subtle because their freedom meant that they were responsible for their own lives, but the Black Codes prohibited them from acquiring land. This meant that while they were free in theory, in reality they were severely limited from accumulating any wealth. Additionally, the Black Codes allowed blacks to testify in court, but their punishments for crimes would be at a much larger scale than for whites who had committed the same crimes. For example, section 12 states that “... whenever they shall be convicted of any act made criminal, if committed by a white person, they shall be punished in like manner.” This shows discrimination against blacks because blacks could be, by law, punished at a greater measure for the same crimes due to their color. As several parts of the Black Code show, Southern opponents of the Reconstruction set extensive measures that ignored the guaranteed rights of the blacks, and they shamelessly continued their own policies to disadvantage black citizens.
Through the nation’s failure and success to forge equality, one lasting legacy of the Reconstruction period is black suffrage, or most notably, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While the 15th Amendment technically granted black men the right to vote, many areas (especially in the southern states) began adopting discriminatory practices such as literacy tests to prevent African Americans from being able to vote. This loophole allowed certain states to continue the exclusionary practices that the Reconstruction aimed to eliminate. However, the Voting Rights Act directly addressed this issue and put measures into place that would make it illegal for election officials to disenfranchise black voters--including banning the use of literacy exams. These measures ensured that black suffrage was no longer just a meaningless phrase, but rather a constitutional right that all men, regardless of race, could actually exercise. While many states did not enforce the Voting Rights Act right away, this law provided valuable grounds for black citizens to contest any discriminatory practices that may have been attempted during an election and has contributed to shaping the much more racially open society America has developed into today. The Reconstruction period, in its many attempts (both successful and not) to establish a foundation in which American society could provide a level playing field for all of its citizens, left a lasting legacy that directly led to the passage of laws such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1875 were deemed to be successful because they took great steps forward in trying to pursue more rights for freedmen and for the first time, officially recognized them as full citizens. Nonetheless, the Black Codes demonstrated Southern opposition in greater measures and were a notable failure of the Reconstruction era as they symbolize the backlash against efforts to provide equality to all. Despite the fact that the Union won the Civil War, their efforts during the Reconstruction took a long time to become adapted nationwide due to the former Confederacy’s vigorous opposition. However, the legacy of the Reconstruction is that it set the path for previously oppressed people to fight for their rights and eventually be able to stake a claim in the U.S. society without having to fear that their rights will be taken away by external factors such as unfair laws. Similar to the Reconstruction in the 1800’s, black people today still find themselves having to fight against harmful stereotypes and unfair treatment. For example, movements like Black Lives Matter fight against police brutality and discrimination against blacks that continue to exist, even though it has been 150 years since the Reconstruction era and federal law banned racial discrimination long ago. One crucial difference, however, is that due to the lasting legacy of the Reconstruction, people of all races and backgrounds are free to stand up and demand the equal treatment that is rightfully theirs.