Jefferson Davis stated in the pre-Civil War years to a Northern audience, “You say you are opposed to the expansion of slavery… Is the slave to be benefited by it? Not at all. It is not humanity that influences you in the position which you now occupy before the country,” (Davis, The Irrepressible Conflict, 447). The Northerners had not freed the slaves for moral issues; the white majority did not have anything but its own economic prosperity on its mind. The African Americans gained their emancipation and new rights through the battling Northern and Southern factions of the United States, not because a majority of the country felt that slavery possessed a ‘moral urgency’. As the years passed and the whites began to reconcile, their economic goals rose to the forefront of their policy, while racism spread throughout the country and deepened in the South. Even with all of the good intentions and ideals expressed in the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, blacks watched as their freedom disintegrated through the late 19th Century as a result of the Supreme Court decisions that limited the implications of the new amendments.
After the passage of these amendments, two of the three branches of government disconnected themselves with the issue of black civil rights. Following Grant’s unenthusiastic approach to protecting blacks in the South, the executive branch gradually made its position on the issue clear in 1876. (Zinn, 199) When Hayes beat Tilden in the presidential election by promising to end the Reconstruction in the South, it was evident that the White House would no longer support any calls for the protection of blacks. The compromise of 1877 brought Hayes to office, but “doomed the black man to a second class citizenship that was to be his lot for nearly a century afterward,” (Davis, 160). The Radical Republican’s in Congress, who were responsible for freeing the blacks, were also responsible for letting their voices become silenced. This occurred as the other, more industrial, interests of the broad based party dominated their platform; leaving the blacks to face the wrath of the Southerners. A final blow to the hopes for national protection of African American civil rights was dealt with The Force Bill of 1890. In this bill, the Senate objected to the idea of Congress protecting African- American voters in the South through federal supervision of state elections. (McDuffie, 117) It was sign that Congress, and its northern constituents, had finally lost interest in the cause. As the opportunity for economic advancement increased after the Civil War, the North felt as though it had done its part and both the President and Congress hastily turned their backs on the new, colored American Citizens.
With the protection and support of Northerners lost, the blacks in the South were held hostage by white supremacists. Although the 13th Amendment stated that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude… shall exist within the United States,” a new agricultural system, the crop lien, kept the blacks under the control of their (former) ‘masters’. With unfair trade practices and a limited amount of capital being exchanged, the blacks in the South were not free to do as they pleased; once again they were caught in a system that profited the white Southerners. These whites also expressed their extreme racist tendencies through the acts of violence by the Klu Klux Klan. The Klan performed acts of extreme violence, targeting blacks and whites, who were considered to be Republicans or sympathetic to the black cause. Their success resulted in violence becoming a successful political tool in the Southern arena. Although the official title was gone, the whites had managed to reassert their status as ‘masters’ to the Southern Blacks through scare tactics and ‘economic policies’.
The Supreme Court between 1873 and 1898 expressed the weakness to resisting racism in all areas of the nation through its successive decisions. The Court prompted discrimination by implying that if blacks wanted legal protection, they would need to seek it from their state, not national, government. This legislation affected black citizen’s across the country, but was especially damning to the Southern blacks. The amount of racism thriving in the Southern states made any chances of the State support of Black rights virtually nil. The Supreme Court supported the Southerners’ push for black social subordination, when in 1883 the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was nullified. That decision limited the interpretation of the 14th Amendment, applying its jurisdiction over state actions only. The Court again limited the role of the 14th Amendment further with its decision on Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896).
“The object of the amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished form political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.”
The ‘separate but equal’ doctrine spread like wildfire across the South. When the Supreme Court reaffirmed its decision in the Cummings vs. County Board of Education (1899), public schools were officially allowed to segregate. The implications of the Plessy vs. Ferguson and Cummings vs. County Board of Education were substantial. The Southerners jumped at the opportunity to introduce ‘Jim Crow’ legislation. Although some saw stupidity in the situation and mocked it, “If there must be Jim Crow cars on the railroads, there should be Jim Crow cars on the street railways. Also on all passenger boats… If there are to be Jim Crow cars, moreover, there should be Jim Crow waiting saloons at all stations, and Jim Crow eating houses,” (Woodward, 67), the divided South soon became a reality. The Supreme Court had permitted the legal route for subordination of the Blacks to be opened; the new, now limited, amendments were no longer roadblocks, and the Southerners swarmed to their state governments to disenfranchise the Negroes and to ensure that a white, democratic control continued in the South. (Woodward, 71)
Since the late 1860’s, Southern states had attempted to remove the franchise from the black citizens. Once more, they were aided in their goal with the Supreme Court rulings that limited the implications of the 15th Amendment. The latest addition to the Constitution stated that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by United States or by any State on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.” (Norton, A-14) The Supreme Court recognized a weakness in this statement and knew that it lacked support from the Northern States (the majority of whom did not ratify it). In 1870, in US vs. Reese, the Supreme Court declared that the 15th Amendment merely listed certain grounds for denying suffrage and did not guarantee the right to vote. While, for the most part, blacks continued to vote in the North, blacks in the South saw an immediate attack on their franchise. White Southerners seized the opportunity and the infamous ‘The Mississippi Plan’ (1890) used literacy and high taxes to deter the Negroes from the polls. In 1898, Louisiana introduced ‘grandfather clauses’, exempting “sons and grandsons of those eligible to vote before 1867, the year the Fifteenth Amendment had gone into effect,” (Norton, 501). These measures, which were quickly adopted by all Southern states except Tennessee, turned out to be extremely successful. The white Southerners had effectively disenfranchised the African American by the turn of the century.
With the Northern ‘victory’ in the Civil War, African Americans were forever ‘freed from the bonds of servitude’. However, the freedom that they were released into closely resembled their years of servitude, filled with degrading poverty and little chance for advancement. Although the Radical Republicans had embarked on a costly Reconstruction plan and set up legislation meant to protect black civil rights, the blacks did not thrive. The Supreme Court successfully chipped away at any progress made by the Republicans. Rulings made in the later half of the 19th Century reduced the scope of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, and lead to the further subordination of the Black race by Southern State governments. Southern whites were allowed to set up a system that kept blacks as prisoners without any say on their future. The social practices, including segregation, curfews, violence and disfranchisement that the Blacks suffered left them anything but free as the 20th Century dawned. The amendments to the Constitution had been made, but the whites did not take the time after 1866 to abolish the prejudice that came with slavery, giving testimony to theory that the North engaged in the Civil War for economic, not moral reasons. The application of racism after the Civil War was just as rampant, but much more subtle than before the Civil War, making it much more difficult to confront, and resulting in a century of unequal education, inferior treatment and segregation.