The Laws in the Reconstruction Era and the Civil Rights Movement The civil rights movement that started and grew through the years following the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 and with the help of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Patterson, 2001) marked an important period that accomplished more than ending segregation in cities and unfair rights; it led to the transformation of American social, cultural, and political life. The civil rights movement did not only demonstrate that the rights of African Americans should not be ignored but also showed how a nation as a whole had the power to change itself. The way the civil rights unfolded, gave others a chance to reach equal opportunity in the future. When one thinks of the words “civil rights” one often thinks of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech before the nation’s capital. Many can recall television footage of peaceful marchers being abused by fire hoses and police dogs. These and other images can be seen as a struggle and intense burst of black activists that characterized the civil rights movement of the mid twentieth century. Yet African Americans have always struggled for their rights. Many consider the civil rights movement to have begun not in the 1950s but when Africans were first brought in chains, centuries earlier, to American shores (Gillon & Matson, 2001). In particular, those African Americans who fought their enslavement and demanded fundamental citizenship rights laid the foundation for the modern civil rights movement.
The first slaves were brought to America in 1619 ( Gillon & Matson, 2001). Not until the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery following the Civil War did blacks gain their freedom (Gillon & Matson, 2001). But the newly freed blacks could not read or write and did not have money or property, and racism and inequality remain, especially in the South, where slavery had predominated for so long. To aid black assimilation into white society, federal and state governments implemented many democratic reforms between the years 1865 and 1875, the Reconstruction era (Gillon & Matson, 2001). The Fourteenth Amendment, for example, guaranteed blacks federally protected equal rights, and the Fifteenth Amendment granted black men the right to vote (Gillon & Matson, 2001).
Despite these and other measures to help the former slaves’ rights, the effects of the Reconstruction era were short lived. In the area of extreme southern white society, many did whatever it took to keep blacks from enjoying any of the benefits of citizenship. Some, for example, sought to keep African Americans from equal rights through harassment or intimidation. A number of racist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), used even more cruel methods including lynching and other forms of violence to terrify African Americans seeking to exercise their rights or advance their social position. As the constitutional guarantees of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments continued to slowly disappear, the Supreme Court struck perhaps the most crippling blow to the black struggle for equality: In 1896 the Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that blacks and whites could be legally separated as long as the facilities for each were “equal” (Chong, 1991). Facilities for blacks and whites were rarely equal. More importantly, the Supreme Court’s decision, by legally backing segregation, gave white society a powerful tool to keep blacks from enjoying the rights of citizenship. With the Supreme Court now reinforcing the South’s segregation practices, the environment of white racism gave birth to the Jim Crow Laws, southern customs and laws that kept parks, drinking fountains, streetcars, restaurants, theaters, and other public places segregated (Conklin, 2008). In response to Jim Crow, which by 1900 extended into all parts of public life, several leaders in the black community stepped up to debate political strategies to fight injustice and...
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