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African American Politics during Reconstruction

At the end of the Civil War, one of the most drastic and blatant matters was the millions of freed slaves whom required immediate attention for integration and securing liberty, and even life itself. There are several factors that came to be of importance to the African Americans, the majority of whom were adamant to see their freedom realized. Education became synonymous with freedom, so schools were built. Many black and white northerners heeded the call for formal teachers’ presence within the south in order to get freedmen’s children educated. Another factor was the religious institution. Churches became sanctuaries of worship while allowing African Americans to feel safe and comfortable amongst each other without the scrutiny and prejudice of white parishioners. Church also became a place for politics to be discussed and taught. A third aspect of freedom that African American’s held in high regard was the issue of land ownership. Owning land was one of the clearest symbols of being one’s own master and many felt that if the acquirement of land remained elusive, that freedom was not truly attainable. The fourth area that both whites and blacks regarded as symbolic of true freedom was politics. Without the ability to engage in American politics and secure status within the legal system as the equal of whites, African Americans would never stand a chance at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Freedmen’s Bureau, organized by government leaders and led predominantly by white men, appeared helpful in theory but in reality, struggled against the vast majority of southern, and even many northern, whites whom opposed black equality and long continued to crave a white supreme America. The Bureau was tasked with aiding the recently freed slaves, as well as some defeated impoverished whites, with the goals of education, land ownership, political and legal rights, as well as basic human needs related to food, water, and medicine.[1] Black politicians also cared for the economic welfare of former slaves and made attempts to pass laws regulating wages and labor contracts, but these never passed because most white Republicans were not comfortable asserting such authority over employers.[2] Southern whites in particular made it difficult. Most white people did not accept black people as equal. The majority resented the backlash of slavery’s abolishment.

When it comes to African American involvement in politics, there was little hesitation to get involved following the Civil War. The thought that voting could be available to the recently freed slaves incited much conversation around its importance. During October of 1864, a convention held in Syracuse, New York found 145 black leaders, many of them well known to the American public, attending and voicing their expectations to be given full political and legal rights the same as the whites.[3] Congress, against President Andrew Johnson’s desires, pushed for the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. The former provided that former slaves were citizens of the country and that citizenship should be protected by the state in which they resided, and the latter provided and protected the right to vote of all male American citizens.Although the federal enforcement of the amendment was poor it opened the door for blacks to become more involved and have a much louder voice than they had even before imagined. Black men were finally able to gain election, yet white men still made up the majority of the Republican party, even in the South despite the heavy black population and whites made up almost the entirety of the Democratic party. But in communities like South Carolina where large black populations remained, hundreds of black men found themselves elected to government offices for the first time in American history. Some of those elected include Mississippi Senators Blanche K. Bruce and Hiram Revels, and South Carolina Senator Joseph Rainey. Several others served in the House of Representatives, as lieutenant governors, and state house representatives. A black man named Jonathan J. Wright served as a supreme court justice for seven years in South Carolina, while Francis L. Cardoza served as the state’s secretary of state and treasurer. Dozens of others served in various public roles such as sheriff, superintendent, mayors and coroners.[4]

Discrimination against black politicians was rampant. Whites, especially in the South, attempted to discourage blacks from their positions in every way possible, even refusing to provide them services such as hotel, restaurant, or transportation accommodations.[5] Black politicians worked hard to fight against the discrimination that also affected the general (black) public, however they were often faced with opposition, even from their white fellow Republicans. They attempted to pass civil rights bills protecting black patrons, but these were vastly shot down. In the midst of growing intense violence people in the south reached out to the Federal government several times to send help but help rarely came. In the years following the Civil War, and for many decades to come, blacks received little interference from the government, nor even the Freedmen’s Bureau, in the violence that pursued them, and white attackers and murderers were often not held accountable at a legal level for the atrocities committed against blacks.[6] Despite local and militia efforts to prevent the Ku Klux Klan from gaining strength their efforts often backfired. The Colfax Massacre demonstrates how intense and violent the issue of voting and legal rights was in the South. Immediately following the Civil War blacks continued to attempt to assert their right to vote and faced immense opposition. During a standoff between Democrats and Republicans on the outcome of a Louisiana election the situation became so extreme in Colfax that over 105 black people were killed.[7] Eventually, in 1870, Congress finally made an attempt to help curtail the Klan’s violence by passing Enforcement Acts which asserted their intention to take more control over the states. It called for the disallowance of disguises, federal punishment of those that interfered with a citizen’s right to vote or serve in a public position and provided protection for the general civil rights of citizens.[8]

The ultimate outcome of black leaders attempts to improve the welfare of and provide protection for those formerly enslaved was dismal. At every turn it seemed Democrats, and more often than not, white Republicans fought them and refused their proposals. The diversity of the black politicians in terms of personal background and common good belief also was to the detriment of moving forward in a productive manner. For example, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 outlawed racial discrimination in public businesses, however the Supreme Court invalidated it in 1883.[9] An unfortunate mentality that gained popularity as the fight for freedom and equality continued on is that whites in the whole country began to feel frustration and less patience. Their attitudes concerning the demands for legal rights and protection turned sour as they increasingly desired to begin a focus on events and topics other than civil rights. Therefore, the biggest obstacle to black liberty and equality was in fact white people.


Hine, Darlene Clark, Hine, William C, and Stanley Harrold. 2018. The African American Odyssey, Volume 2.

Foner, Eric and Olivia Mahoney. 2003. America’s Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War. Online Exhibit. http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/exhibits/reconstruction/index.html


[1] Darlene Clark Hine, William C Hine, and Stanley Harrold, The African American Odyssey, Volume 2, (2018): 317.

[2] Hine, Hine, and Harrold, The African American Odyssey, Volume 2, 347.

[3] Hine, 328.

[4] Hine, 345.

[5] Hine, 347.

[6] Hine, 328.

[7] Hine, 358.

[8] Hine, 354.

[9] Hine, 356.

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