America's Struggle For Liberty Between 1867-1927
In 1865, slavery was abolished throughout the whole United States of America. After a four-year war between the North and the South for granting freedom to black people, African American were no longer obliged to work for a master and were declared free people. However, it brought to light a new set of issues of how to define freedom and how African Americans could enjoy it in their economic situation. That new period in American history revealed that a proper exercise of freedom could be done only with certain economic freedoms. Otherwise, people become ‘industrial slaves’ in a similar way as they used to be plantation slaves. Although nominally African Americans were free, it did not mean that black people could utterly relish the fruits of their freedom. The fifty-year period after the Civil War had dramatic changes in the way how the concept of freedom was interpreted. African Americans went from living in rather favorable conditions under the Reconstruction government when they had voting rights and held offices till the mid-1870s to living in the atmosphere in segregation and racial discrimination on all levels by 1920 because of the issue of race was not addressed properly and unanimously.
The United States of America had a roller-coaster experience of fighting to equality and freedom for all people. After the war between the North and the South, a long period of official enslavement was over and through Reconstruction black people were granted some of the freedoms: “the laws and amendments of Reconstruction reflected the intersection of two products of the Civil War era – a newly empowered national state, and the idea of a national citizenry enjoying equality before the law.” The abolition of slavery allowed black people live in their families without separation, acquire guns, domestic animals, and liquor, and receive education. Besides, the Fourteenth Amendment proclaimed all people equal before the law, while the Fifteenth Amendment finally granted black people the right to vote in 1869. After that African Americans became naturalized citizens of the United States. If before only whites could be have resorted to the law and it concerned mainly the issues of property, after the Reconstruction amendments had been taken people of any race could claim their freedoms and look for protection from injustice. This pack of laws was vehemently opposed by the Democrats and, thus, it received the majority of votes from and was supported by the Republicans.
Having received the long-awaited freedom African Americans began exercising their rights. Being especially active in the South, they gathered political rallies and community gatherings to discuss how to get their rights in various fields, from wages and working conditions to their right to be present in law-making organs. Thus, black voters actively supported the Republican Party and were officeholders in many Southern states. However, against the popular belief, they never constituted a majority and, thus, could not have controlled the Republican politics. Foner says, “The fact that some 2,000 African-Americans occupied public offices during Reconstruction represented a fundamental shift of power in the South.” During the period of Reconstruction blacks were able to serve in the House of Representatives (fourteen persons), the Senate (two persons), and one black man became governor of Louisiana in 1872. While in a significant power, black Republicans had time to establish public school system in the South both for black and white children, even though segregated at a time. Additionally, new laws permitted equal citizen rights such as indiscriminate usage by public services – railroads, hotels, etc.
Apart from voting rights, economic independence is crucial to the notion of freedom. Republican government tried to solve the issue by developing the region economically through railroad construction. However, for successful fruition it required significant investments from the North and Northern investors were not really convinced that it was worth it. Thus, the South continued its weak economic existence, while the rest of the issues, such as public sector and citizen rights, were in very good condition.
This kind of uncustomary social and political activity on behalf of recently enslaved blacks was rather irritating for white population. The white hotly criticized the Reconstruction government and talked about “black supremacy.” Indeed, white supporters of the Republicans did not experience the expected improvement of their financial situation. Taxed rose and wages did not. However, the main reason was psychological: ex-slaveholders could not put up with former slaves enjoying their equal rights. As a result, violence was believed to be a proper response. The terrorist organization of the Ku Klux Klan began functioning during the Civil War and went into a full swing in the late 1860s. Its rampancy was stopped only by the federal intervention in 1871.
After the economic depression of 1873, Reconstruction was less and less supported by the North and the expectations of economic prosperity waned in the South. An ultimate defeat of Reconstruction occurred under the influence of the presidential elections when Republican Rutherford B. Hayes granted Democrats control over the South in return for respecting “Hayes’s right to office and … the civil and political rights of blacks.” Thus, Democrats gained controls over the biggest part of the United States and never kept their promise to respect the civil and political rights of blacks. The period of Reconstruction turned out to be the freest for black people and that degree of equality was experienced again only in the 1960s. After it the country returned to racial segregation and discrimination.
In his book Overthrow, Stephen Kinzer suggests that Americans’ understanding and beliefs about themselves and their roles on the map of the world was an underlying cause for many historical events. The white race believed to be domineering for a purpose and that purpose was to teach and rescue the less fortunate nations and races. They used to believe that they need to ‘conquer’ the West, refine Native Americans, and help other countries and nations that are less modern and live in a different way. Slavery was also justified by the ‘higher cause.’ Kinzer says: “It was logical that the rhetoric of imperialism would be heavily tinged with racism. What is more interesting is that anti-imperialists also used racist arguments.” Thus, racial inequality permeated all levels of the American society and because whites believed that white is a synonym for all the positive qualities such as good, handsome, beneficial, happy, and advanced. Therefore, it was immensely difficult for white people to adjust their notions and habits to the new reality of racial equality. However, the end of the nineteenth century was a time of fast changes and amazing speeds and both whites and blacks had to accommodate to it somehow.
Indeed, America kept growing and increasing its economic potential but economic conditions of many American citizens did not drastically improve. A divide between classes became more prominent: “The close link between freedom and equality, forged in the Revolution and reinforced during the Civil War, appeared increasingly out of date.” Before Reconstruction, only owners of property had voting rights. Therefore, civil freedoms equaled stable financial situation. With the industrial revolution the working class found itself in such awful living conditions that the only difference from slaves was that nominally they did not have an owner. However, in practice it turned out that poor people got into a vicious circle of working for peanuts sufficient to pay for bed and bread and sustain strength to begin another working day.
In the 1870s, the new government made its best to destroy all the good initiatives the Republican government managed to do during Reconstruction. They cut down on all subsidies and financing for the public sector. Obviously, schools suffered the most but also the economic sector was not able to gain its strength. Additionally, civil freedoms were significantly cut down. Segregation began its reign everywhere, black men were taken to prison for pettiest offences. Foner remarks, “African-Americans owned a smaller percentage of the land in 1900 than they had at the end of Reconstruction.” Due to extremely unfavorable conditions, by the turn of the twentieth century, black land owners were in very disadvantageous position because they could not sustain their farms and had to sell plots or lose them in debts. The job market was growing at the time but African Americans were still limited with low-wage positions. Black men could not occupy supervising positions while black women could not work in the offices and shops. In the northern cities black men were even rejected and white Americans or immigrants were preferred. The situation was changed only during the First World War when a lack of workers prompter owners to hire African Americans.
In the turn of the twentieth century, a new twist to the roller coaster of civil rights was added through a series of constitutional provisions limiting African Americans’ right to vote. It was done by establishing various barriers to voting such as a fee for each voting person, literacy tests, and a kind of examination where a voter had to answer question about the state laws before the commission. Additionally, segregation laws became more distributed and blacks were banned from visiting many public places on par with whites.
Kinzer writes that “paternalism was often mixed with racism.” It is evident through cartoons, funny pictures, and the general rhetoric that Americans believed that they were the titular ethnic group while other nationalities, especially those of color, were ‘savages’ and had to be cultured. Even though, by the 1910s, the US Immigration Commission acknowledged more than four dozens ‘races,’ such as Jews, Anglo-Saxons, and Northern and Southern Italians, it did not automatically mean that people of those ‘races’ were respected and treated equally. Anglo-Saxons were still believed to be the highest ‘race.’ At a time, there was an opinion that “American civilization” would soon be shaken by multinational society and other nations would push Anglo-Saxons out of their place in the social hierarchy because new immigrants did not stop coming while American females drastically decreased giving birth to white babies. No longer was it an opposition of white and black, but the issue of race became more diversified.
In the two first decades of the twentieth century, African American issues were not addressed adequately. Foner says, “The denial of voting rights underpinned the comprehensive system of inequality to which southern blacks were subjected.” While civil rights activists fought to get better working conditions and wages, their successes were applied largely to whites. Black workers could not participate in meetings and unions. Black women could not share the same job positions as white women, being mostly confined to domestic labor and cleansing jobs in offices. Segregation laws continued to be valid in all American cities and considered absolutely natural. Racial violence still occurred. In the 1920s, the issue of race was still unresolved. In some way, people were even more retarded on this topic than before. The Ku Klux Klan and its lynching returned and stopped only after 1925. The situation with the racial issue of the period was summed up by President Harding in his 1921 speech: “It would be helpful to have that word ‘equality’ eliminated from this consideration.” According to President Harding, the South could be taken as a model of how to deal with that issue. Although W. E. B. Du Bois’s organization NAACP had some influence and managed to win several cases in the early 1910s, racial justice stayed an impossible ideal.
The fifty-year period after the Civil War revealed that economic possibilities are crucial for civil rights and freedoms. After the abolition of slavery the majority of African Americans found themselves to be at the depth of the American society and by the 1920s they had not been able to overcome their poverty. The accomplishments of the Reconstruction government were cancelled by the Redeemers and a long struggle of civil rights activists in the first quarter of the twentieth century did not include the racial issues of black people. Although slavery was abolished, African Americans could not fully experience their freedom as they did not have voting rights, had low wages and were engaged in unqualified labor. Segregation and racial discrimination still were very widespread.