The Reconstruction era was the period in American history which lasted from 1863 to 1877, when the Union won the American Civil War and attempted to reform society in the former Confederate States of America to abolish slavery and guarantee African Americans equal political and economic rights. Although the federal government amended the United States Constitution to ban slavery and guarantee citizenship under the Reconstruction Amendments, attempts to enforce black civil rights faced violent opposition from many whites in the Southern United States. The period ended with the restoration of white-supremacist state governments which curtailed African-American civil rights through racist Jim Crow laws and segregation until the Civil Rights movement.
- The Negro voter ... had, then, but one clear economic ideal and that was his demand for land, his demand that the great plantations be subdivided and given to him as his right. This was a perfectly fair and natural demand and ought to have been an integral part of Emancipation. To emancipate four million laborers whose labor had been owned, and separate them from the land upon which they had worked for nearly two and a half centuries, was an operation such as no modern country had for a moment attempted or contemplated. The German and English and French serf, the Italian and Russian serf, were, on emancipation, given definite rights in the land. Only the American Negro slave was emancipated without such rights and in the end this spelled for him the continuation of slavery.
- W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America (1935), p. 611
- These Negroes, they're getting pretty uppity these days and that's a problem for us since they've got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we've got to do something about this, we've got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference. For if we don't move at all, then their allies will line up against us and there'll be no way of stopping them, we'll lose the filibuster and there'll be no way of putting a brake on all sorts of wild legislation. It'll be Reconstruction all over again.
- As Reconstruction progressed, resistance grew to Republican attempts to assist freed slaves to attain full citizenship and economic opportunities. Many Southern whites resisted such efforts politically with membership in the Democratic Party and violently through groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. As Democrats gradually regained control of Southern state governments, Douglas advised blacks to remain loyal to the party of Lincoln because ‘the Republican party is the deck, all outside is the sea.’
- John R. McKivigan, Heather L. Kaufman, In the Words of Frederick Douglass: Quotations from Liberty’s Champion, Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 2012, pp. 25-26
- But Booth’s assassination of Lincoln was also part of a larger plot to throw the North into chaos. Thus the killing could be called equal parts terrorism and tyrannicide. What is clear is that Lincoln died a martyr to many Northerners and that his death complicated efforts to heal the Union. What followed has become known as Reconstruction, the period from 1865 to 1877 during which Northern Republicans, driven by anger over Lincoln’s assassination and the need to make wartime sacrifices meaningful, sought to “reconstruct” the South as an egalitarian society. Among historians, it is now commonly understood as nothing less than a revolution. Therefore the violence of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists was essentially a counterrevolution, one of the best historical examples of terrorism used in a fundamentally “conservative” cause, that is, with the goal of halting radical change. Most disturbingly, Reconstruction-era terrorism helped facilitate its perpetrators’ victory.
- Randall D. Law, Terrorism: A History (2016), p. 123
- White Democrats opposed Reconstruction not because it was a failure, but because it was working. Today almost all historians of Reconstruction hold that view.
- James W. Loewen, "How Two Historians Responded To Racism In Mississippi" (7 December 2014), History News Network
- The Fifteenth Amendment was passed by Congress and ratified during the Reconstruction Era, when the progressive wing of the Republican Party dominated Congress during the decade following the end of the U.S. Civil War. The Reconstruction era was noteworthy in that African American men were not only granted voting rights but even won several seats in Congress. Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce became the first African Americans to be elected to the U.S. Senate, representing the state of Mississippi. After their terms in office the next Black person elected to the Senate was Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, nearly a century later in 1967.
When Reconstruction collapsed with the withdrawal of Federal troops from the former Confederate states in 1877, the white supremacist wing of the Democratic Party dominated the South. Voting rights for Black men in the former Confederate states were rescinded in courts and in state and local laws, and those rights were further restricted by poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation, and fraud. The infamous “grandfather clause,” which restricted voting rights to men who were allowed to vote, or whose male ancestors were allowed to vote, before 1867 was also a popular method of disenfranchising African American men - because they were not allowed to vote before the 15th Amendment was ratified, the grandfather clause denied them their voting rights.
- National Archives, “Black Americans and the Vote”
- It should, however, already be clear that the building of an independent force is necessary; that Black Power is necessary. If we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it, and that is precisely the lesson of the Reconstruction era. Black people were allowed to register, to vote and to participate in politics, because it was to the advantage of powerful white “allies” to permit this. But at all times such advances flowed from white decisions. That era of black participation in politics was ended by another set of white decisions. There was no powerful independent political base in the southern black community to challenge the curtailment of political rights. At this point in the struggle, black people have no assurance—save a kind of idiot optimism and faith in a society whose history is one of racism—that if it became necessary, even the painfully limited gains thrown to the civil rights movement by the Congress would not be revoked as soon as a shift in political sentiments occurs.
- Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. Vintage Books. 1967. p. 78. ISBN 978-0-394-70033-5.