Reconstruction was the Federal Government’s effort to reunite the nation following the Civil War, and a group called “The Radical Republicans” sought to ensure that African-Americans had the basic civil rights of all Americans.

Conservative Democrats in southern states had passed “Black Codes,” which were little more than the former slave codes only slightly altered to ensure that African-Americans were effectively re-enslaved after the Civil War, and the “Radical Republicans” were having none of it, to put it mildly.

To combat the efforts of conservative Democrats to deny African-Americans basic civil rights, the Radical Republicans passed the Civil Rights Bill of 1866. The bill stated “That all persons born in the United States and not subject to any foreign power, excluding Indians not taxed, are hereby declared to be citizens of the United States; and such citizens, of every race and color, without regard to any previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude,” were American citizens who had the right to equal due process of law as European-Americans.

President Andrew Johnson, who was from Tennessee, was a Republican who had opposed the southern states seceding from the Union but still had strong southern sympathies. He promptly vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866.

Johnson’s veto was quickly overridden by the Radical Republicans in the United States Congress, and the bill passed into law, legally forcing Conservative Democrats to repeal the “Black Codes” that they had utilized to effectively re-enslave African-Americans. A brief period of voting and other civil rights began for African-Americans in the South.

Conservative Democrats quickly worked to circumvent the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and other efforts of the “Radical Republicans” to integrate the formerly enslaved African-Americans into the mainstream of American life by passing “vagrancy laws” that stated that any African-American who was traveling even short distances from their homes who did not have proof of employment, could and would be arrested for “vagrancy” and sentenced to a term of hard labor.

The hard labor was not on a prison farm, but local law enforcement in the South would have employers bid on the labor of African-Americans, with the highest bidder paying the local government “rent” for the convict labor.

This system effectively re-enslaved African-Americans who often left the plantations on which they had been enslaved to find loved ones who had been “sold away” to other plantations, or who for very valid reasons didn’t want to remain on the plantations where they had been enslaved.

Southern Conservative Democrats sought to ensure that racist European-Americans retained their political, social and economic dominance over African-Americans, and found “legal” ways around the Civil Rights laws passed by the “Radical Republicans” during Reconstruction.

It got to the point that by the mid 1870s, the Conservative Democrats in the South had effectively retained much of the same power they held over African-Americans before the Civil War. They effectively lost the military Civil War, but won the struggle for political, economic and cultural power during Reconstruction following the Civil War.

Grady Atwater is site administrator of the John Brown Museum and State Historic Site.

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