In the years immediately following the Civil War, most former slaves did not leave the South. Instead, they placed their faith in the federal government’s plan for Reconstruction. As the defeated Confederate states were rejoined to the Union, the freedmen hoped they would be able to enjoy the rights of American citizenship in a redeemed, Reconstructed South.
Initially, Reconstruction was amazingly successful. Three Constitutional amendments were ratified in quick order: The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) outlawed slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) gave full citizenship to former slaves, and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) extended the franchise to all male citizens, regardless of race or color. Southern Reconstruction governments also quickly established systems of public education for former slaves and their children.
These gains were not to last. As the party of Lincoln began to morph into the party of Big Business, Northern Republicans lost interest in southern racial conflicts; the last federal troops were withdrawn from the South in 1877. This officially ended the Reconstruction process, and things went bad very quickly.
Outraged by the loss of slavery, the former Confederates, now the Democratic Party, committed themselves to creating a strict racial caste system instead. They began by systematically destroying the Republican Party in the South. Republican leaders were run out of town, or murdered outright. Republican voters were threatened, beaten, and killed. Democrats destroyed Republican votes or stuffed ballot boxes with fake Democratic votes. As the North declined to interfere, Southern Democrats pushed black voters, and white Republican voters, out of the political system.
The Democrats used several methods to disfranchise black voters. One way was to require an annual tax of anyone wishing to maintain their voters’ registration; most blacks and poor whites did not have the necessary cash to pay for a vote that probably wouldn’t be counted anyway. Another method was to require registrants to read and successfully interpret the Constitution – to the satisfaction of the Democratic registrar – in order to be allowed to vote.
During the 1890s, thousands of black men and women were lynched by white mobs. No white southerner was ever convicted of any crime related to the lynchings, and few were even charged. Often, law enforcement officials themselves were involved in the murders. This was the ultimate form of disfranchisement: the unchecked, wholesale murder of black citizens, with no consequences for the murderers.
With disfranchisement complete, segregation laws were quickly passed throughout the South. By the end of the century, the white supremacist system known as Jim Crow was firmly established. African Americans in the South had no legal or political rights at all, and the dream of Reconstruction was over.