Webisode 7. Introduction
What is Freedom?
The end of the Civil War, which meant economic and ideological ruin for the former Confederacy, meant new expectations for liberated African-Americans. The work of the Freedmen's Bureau and the passage of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments fed the hope that African-Americans would gain equal rights. However, the sudden death of Abraham Lincoln, placed Southern Democrat and former slaveholder Andrew Johnson in the presidency. Johnson wanted to allow the South to return to its old ways. Congress, dominated by Radical Republicans, strongly disagreed. The conflict between Congress and President Johnson led to his impeachment. He retained his office by one vote.
During the decade of Congressional Reconstruction, Congress divided the South into five military districts. It required Southern states to hold conventions with both black and white delegates to rewrite their state constitutions to comply with the Constitution. Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment granting African-American men the right to vote. Additional acts sought to counteract effects of white supremacy groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. During this period, the first African-American men were elected to the House of Representatives and Senate, and more than six hundred African-Americans served in state legislatures. Johnson's successor, Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant, was an ineffective president; the corruption of his appointees immobilized his administration. In the disputed election of 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes promised to withdraw federal troops from the South. An election commission awarded him all the disputed votes and thus the presidency. Hayes made good on his promise.
Withdrawal of federal troops and marked the end of Reconstruction. African-Americans saw their nascent freedoms eradicated. Black codes severely limited the rights of African-Americans. In 1896, the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson dealt the final blow to their hopes for equality for almost a century. The Court ruled that the Constitution cannot make people color-blind and gave approval to the separate but equal concept. Only one justice dissented. Justice John Harlan wrote, "Our Constitution is color blind." His words fell on deaf ears. A flood of Jim Crow laws followed. In the words of orator Frederick Douglass, the African-American under Jim Crow was not the slave of "the individual master, but the slave of society."
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