The Union’s victory in the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment ended the practice of slavery, but they did not bring social or economic equality to African Americans. The 14th Amendment, proposed by Congress in 1866, stated that anyone born in the United States was a citizen and entitled to equal protection under the law (although it excluded Native Americans who had not renounced tribal membership). Nearly every Southern state refused to ratify the new amendment, however, and violence against Black residents was widespread across the former Confederacy.
During this time and throughout Reconstruction, the federal government took action to confirm and protect the civil rights of African Americans. Southern states were divided into five districts controlled by the military and were required to ratify the 14th Amendment before they could rejoin the United States. The 15th Amendment was approved, guaranteeing male citizens the right to vote. Federal troops enforced voting rights, and Black congressional representatives were elected. A government agency called the Freedmen’s Bureau was established to give freedmen, or formerly enslaved people, a way to lodge complaints about violence or unfair labor contracts. In 1877, however, Reconstruction came to an end when President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew federal troops from the South.
With Reconstruction over, Southern leaders worked to make sure whites kept their economic and social advantages. Freedmen who were successful or took leadership roles in their communities faced increased violence from terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Even though they had the legal right to vote, Black men were effectively disenfranchised with political tactics like poll taxes and violent intimidation. Although slavery had been outlawed, African Americans were still denied full freedoms and rights.
Starting in the late 1800s, many states passed new laws (which came to be known as Jim Crow laws) that enforced segregation. Jim Crow laws permeated virtually every aspect of Black peoples’ lives. Jim Crow laws limited where they could live, go to school, shop for goods and services, receive healthcare, and go to the bathroom -- among many other aspects of life. While the law technically required separate facilities to be separate but equal, in reality, they were rarely equal. Jim Crow laws resulted in Blacks living as second-class citizens.
One such law from Louisiana was challenged in the 1896 Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson. The Court ruled that white and Black Americans could be segregated based on race, as long as equal facilities, services, and opportunities existed for both. Out of nine Supreme Court justices, only Justice John Marshall Harlan dissented, or disagreed, writing the following (Our Documents, n.d.):
Primary Source Excerpt
Type: Supreme Court Decision: Plessy v. Ferguson
Author: Justice John Marshall Harlan, writing for the dissent
Slavery as an institution tolerated by law would, it is true, have disappeared from our country, but there would remain a power in the States, by sinister legislation, to interfere with the blessings of freedom; to regulate civil rights common to all citizens, upon the basis of race....
The idea of “separate but equal,” supported by the Supreme Court, would be used for decades to justify segregation in public facilities such as schools.
Just as abolitionists had challenged slavery before the Civil War, activists spoke out against the threats, lynchings, and segregation of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Let’s take a look at two of those activists and how they used communication to work toward their goals.
Washington also believed that white and Black Americans should work together to achieve progress, as we can see in this excerpt from a speech he gave in Atlanta in 1895 (Washington, 1895):
Primary Source Excerpt
Author: Booker T. Washington
In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress. There is no defense or security for any of us except in the highest intelligence and development of all.
This speech is called the “Atlanta Compromise” speech because of Washington’s view that white and Black Americans should join forces for progress. Many civil rights activists disagreed with Washington’s ideas about cooperation, though. Let’s now examine a primary source that was written in direct response to Washington’s ideas.
Du Bois himself would call for a strategy that included much more willingness to confront and agitate in the face of injustice.
Below is an excerpt from an essay he wrote in direct response to Washington’s speech (Du Bois, 1903):
Primary Source Excerpt
Author: W.E.B. Du Bois
Again, in our own land, the reaction from the sentiment of war time has given impetus to race-prejudice against Negroes, and Mr. Washington withdraws many of the high demands of Negroes as men and American citizens. In other periods of intensified prejudice all the Negro’s tendency to self-assertion has been called forth; at this period a policy of submission is advocated. In the history of nearly all other races and peoples the doctrine preached at such crises has been that manly self-respect is worth more than lands and houses....
The writings of both Washington and Du Bois are primary sources that are relevant to our topic. Both address the state of civil rights during the era of Jim Crow segregation. Washington’s full speech gives an overview of African American economic realities, as well as information about how Black and white Americans were interacting following the Civil War. Du Bois’s essay provides different insight into the minds of the African American community at the time. Both are accurate representations of each man’s thoughts and experiences. Du Bois’s essay was even written as a critical response to Washington’s speech, so these sources clearly provide two different—but related—perspectives on the same time period and events.
The fight against slavery and segregation, as well as the ongoing reality of oppression and racism in the United States, is a fundamental part of our nation’s narrative—and it’s critical that we remember, understand, and learn from the past so we can address inequality and oppression in our society today.
Source: Strategic Education, Inc. 2020. Learn from the Past, Prepare for the Future.
Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903). Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others. History Matters. www.historymatters.gmu.edu/d/40
Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). (n.d.) Our Documents. www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=52
Washington, Booker T. (1895, September 18). Speech at the Atlanta Exposition. Internet History Sourcebooks Project, Fordham University. sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1895washington-atlanta.asp