At the end of the civil war in 1865, troops from the north were planted in southern confederate states to ensure the freedom of chattel slaves. Since the north won the war, thus keeping the Union intact, the south was required to relinquish their forced free labor. In conjunction with this, amendments to the Constitution were added, namely the 13th, 14th , and 15th Amendments. The 13th Amendment allowed for the freedom of slaves, except as a punishment for crime. While there are several sections to the 14th Amendment, it mainly granted citizenship to any person born or naturalized in the United States, including formerly enslaved people, and guaranteed all equal protection under the law. The 15th Amendment granted Black men the right to vote.
The exception to the 13th Amendment is of notable importance. It makes an exception to freedom for anyone convicted of a crime. This was a compromise inserted in the Constitution based on Confederate demands. It allowed the southern states to make up laws, known as the black codes, that would criminalize ex-slaves so they could be re-enslaved. This time, however, it was “lawful” and deemed punishment for the commission of a crime. What did it matter if the crime was being unemployed (even though just freed) or talking to a white woman (which often resulted in lynching). Local jurisdictions were able to make their own laws against freed slaves which varied in each jurisdiction. Given the resistance to allowing slaves their freedom, one can only imagine just how ridiculous those laws could have been.
The 14th Amendment was designed to provide freed slaves, like all other citizens, equal protection under the law. However, it was, and still is, obvious that Black people are not afforded equal protection. During Reconstruction, this was evident by the imposition of the black codes, followed by Jim Crow laws.
The 15th Amendment which gave Black men the right to vote was probably the most advantageous, even if short lived. By 1877, when the northern soldiers left the south, Reconstruction basically ended. Black people had gained progress mostly in word, but not in deed. However, thanks to the 15th Amendment, a few Blacks were actually elected to Congress. Unfortunately, once the northern soldiers left, the Ku Klux Klan supplanted them and worked vigorously to reverse any progress gained.
So, after 250 years of slavery, Blacks endured another 100 years of vigorous Jim Crow laws which were designed to not only humiliate Blacks but restrict any progress toward real freedom. It wasn’t until 1964 and 1965 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act that some relief was felt. Now congress was not able to enact laws to deny all Black people the right to vote. The Civil Rights Act afforded Blacks many more freedoms, including the right to an equal education. During this time, blatant racism seemed to quiet down. This era could be considered a period of Reconstruction part 2, or Reconstruction 2.0, as described by radio talk show host Joe Madison. The open use of racial slurs lessened over time as did overt acts of racism in general society. Many schools had been integrated, affording Blacks an opportunity to gain a decent education and then onto higher learning. The submersion of racism allowed for many African Americans to join the middle class and gain a modicum of respect. Some went on to become national heroes and made marks on this society beyond anyone’s wildest dreams and against insurmountable odds.
Things seemingly progressed so much that, low and behold, the United States of America, in 2008, elected a Black man as President!! No one would ever have thought it. Black people were in a state of shock, followed by an overwhelming sense of pride. The Supreme Court was so “impressed”, they gutted a huge section of the Voting Rights Act, assuming that racism was over, based on the election results. This act paved the way for those wanting to stay in power and in control, to begin plotting on how best to do that. These plots began chipping away at democracy itself.
Yet, during this time of seemingly lost racism, undercurrents of it flooded policies and laws that were designed to straddle the success of Blacks and keep the restraints intact. No, racism had not gone away, it only went underground. Housing discrimination was, and still is, prevalent; drug laws were enacted with the intent of targeting Blacks; law enforcement, as a daily function, consistently targeted African Americans; hiring practices were often discriminatory; and covert racism existed everywhere. Then, because of laws designed to afford Blacks more access to equal education and jobs under affirmative action, whites and other races challenged these laws claiming reverse discrimination. So, because this country made an effort to equalize the playing field for Blacks who had suffered a whole history of horrific dehumanization, slavery, degradation and humiliation, other races cried foul. Whites who enjoyed privilege in every area of life, and other races who may have experienced comparatively minimal systemic discrimination, were now crying reverse discrimination. Once again, the chance at equity was being challenged.
Now, this country stands at a crossroad. Where we go from here has yet to be permanently determined. However, the vision looks bleak. We are clearly situated to repeat history when the first phase of Reconstruction ended. Once the soldiers left the south, all bets on equity and fairness were off. Now that voting rights have been gutted, it appears all bets are once again off. The future of Black rights as well as the future of democracy hangs in the balance. If this country allows democracy to fail, there is no telling how that will impact white Americans. African Americans understand that however white Americans are impacted, Black Americans will be impacted an order of magnitude more.