Old Battles for the soul of the continent

The Civil War and its immediate aftermath brought revolutionary changes to African American legal circumstances, albeit briefly. The 1865 Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ended slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) contained a three-pronged remedy for African American civil exclusion. It dismantled the Dred Scott decision by extending citizenship to African Americans and extended due process protections, which eventually resulted in the Bill of Rights applying more broadly. It also extended equal protection guarantees, which became the foundation for the civil rights era rollback of Jim Crow rules generally described as segregation. Notably, the Three-Fifths Compromise met its end with the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Fifteenth Amendment (1870) guaranteed the right to vote to citizens regardless of race, color, or having previously been a slave. These amendments would seem to have introduced African Americans to full citizenship, except that the end of Reconstruction saw a massive retrenchment and tireless campaign of southern states and some northern states to intimidate and newly disenfranchise former slaves. The federal government did not abandon postwar gains immediately. Deploying Attorney General Amos T. Akerman and Solicitor General Benjamin H. Bristow, President Ulysses S. Grant attempted to quell the violence against Republicans and African Americans in the south. Federal policy was to prosecute crimes vigorously.

However, no modern federal investigative force existed, and limited funds were at hand in the postwar period. Administration of cases was difficult, with judges
literally riding the circuit and expanding court dockets, producing numbers of untried cases in the thousands. Moreover, southern partisans mounted spirited defenses of accused Ku Klux Klan militants, often producing large sums for defense expenses and procuring top attorneys. At the local level, federal officials were under threat in their homes when living in the communities where crimes were committed or where sympathies ran with the mob. With militants often occupying respected positions in the white community, the situation was even more difficult. These problems, coupled with dwindling national support for Reconstruction, doomed government efforts.

Scroll to Top