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Legal and Political Manipulations After the Civil War

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The Supreme Court Gives a Thumbs-Up to“Separate But Equal” Accommodations

Laws permitting, and even requiring, [the races'] separation in places where they are likely to be brought into contact do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other, and have been generally, if not universally, recognized as within the competence of the state legislatures…. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.

—From the majority decision in Plessy v. Ferguson

But a Lone Dissent Foreshadows a Later Legal Breakthrough

In respect of civil rights, common to all citizens, the Constitution of the United States does not, I think, permit any public authority to know the race of those entitled to be protected in the enjoyment of such rights …. [T]here is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens…. The thin disguise of `equal' accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead anyone, nor atone for the wrong this day done….

—From the dissent of John Marshall Harlan, the only Supreme Court justice voting to strike down the Louisiana law at issue in Plessy v. Ferguson. This dissent laid the intellectual foundation for the Court's later decision to overturn Plessy in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

Poll Taxes, Literacy Tests, and “White Primaries”

In order to gain readmittance to the Union after the Civil War, the states of the old Confederacy had to agree not to exclude African-Americans from the election process. Agree they did—but white southern politicians, led by the ever-creative example of the state of Mississippi, developed a host of innovative legal traps, the practical effect of which was—hard to believe though this may be—the effective denial of voting rights to African-Americans.

African-Americans attempting to register to vote in the South were disqualified for any number of reasons. They were turned away because they could not summarize arcane sections of the state Constitution to the satisfaction of the registrar; because they had failed to pay poll taxes; because they could not pass elaborate “literacy” or “understanding” tests; and because they failed to meet a host of other farfetched standards that somehow didn't stop whites from exercising their voting rights in large numbers. State legislatures also arranged for special “white primaries” from which African-Americans were excluded, a particularly blatant violation of constitutional principles.

These state laws made a mockery of both the recently enacted Fourteenth Amendment and the solemn vows of southern political leaders to enfranchise all citizens in accordance with the demands of the U.S. Constitution. The latest hypocrisies issuing from the state legislatures must have confirmed the darkest suspicions of newly freed African-Americans (and increasingly isolated northern liberals) that the law was merely another game played by whites, exclusively for the benefit of whites.

From Slavery to Serfdom

The Thirteenth Amendment formally outlawed slavery. Yet President Andrew Johnson helped southern states to reenter the Union with regulations in place that ensured working lives for African-Americans that were, to say the least, deeply reminiscent of the lives they'd lived as slaves.

Emancipation or no emancipation, African-Americans found themselves bound by law to land they were prohibited from owning. They found themselves deeply in debt. They found themselves reporting to racist white storekeepers and planters who cheated them mercilessly. This may not have been slavery, but it was certainly a long way from freedom. If ownership of human beings was no longer permissible, the legal entrapment and exploitation of African-Americans was still, apparently, the American way.

The laws were corrupt because the government had been reclaimed by racist white supremacists; the most economically powerful white northerners had, after 1877, gone along with the power grab. As Henry Adams, an African American Union veteran put it when testifying before Congress:

“… the whole South—every state in the South—had got into the hands of the very men that held us slaves.”


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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History © 2003 by Melba J. Duncan. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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