The Reconstruction Years and Civil Rights


“The Civil War was not a mere strife for territory and dominion, but a contest of civilization against barbarism”

The reconstruction years cover the period immediately after the end of the Civil War in 1865 until 1877. The south lost the war and its social structure based on the slave system. Its people, white and black, suffered a radical social and economic revolution with the emancipation of four million slaves.

Reconstruction Policies 1865

Reconstruction policies were set up by President Abraham Lincoln and implemented by the new state governments in the former confederate states. When Lincoln was assassinated on April 1865, President Andrew Johnson continued his policies. State governments that included colored people were formed. Reconstruction programs included public schools, raising taxes, investing in infrastructure such as roads and railroads. The reconstruction was slow and painful.

Douglass’ role during the Reconstruction period

Emancipation was not Douglass’ final goal. He continued to be engaged and involved in racial and social issues during the reconstruction period and beyond. Douglass traveled the country extensively giving lectures on racial issues and kept advocating for equality and civil rights. His most famous speech of that time was “Self-Made Men” which he delivered more than fifty times. In it he describes how self help freed him from slavery.  Douglass wanted newly emancipated African Americans to prove themselves by accepting responsibility without excuses, all they needed was the opportunity to stand on their own two feet. However poverty and a culture of dependence stood on its way. He believed that once African Americans could demonstrate success and accomplishment, civil and political rights would no longer be an issue, it was the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.

In 1866 Douglass wrote a letter to President Johnson as a reply to his speech. In it he recommends the amendment to the Constitution to give colored people full citizenship by granting them the right to vote. From that moment on the issue of suffrage did not rest, it was taken to the Senate where it found strong supporters. It was not until 1870 under President Grant that the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. It protected and gave the right of suffrage to colored citizens. Withing the following decade and as blacks controlled the majority of votes in the southern states and prospered, violence, murder and intimidation emerged to prevent them from voting. White supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan emerged as well as desegregation and disenfranchisement that affected the South for generations.

“If the Negro knows enough to fight for his country, he knows enough to vote; if he knows enough to pay taxes for the support of the government, he knows enough to vote; if he knows as much when sober, as an Irishman knows when drunk, he knows enough to vote”

In 1866 the City of Rochester selected Douglass as its representative in the Republican Convention, a great honor to him as the first African American selected to attend. Frederick became involved in politics supporting the presidential campaign of Ulysses Grant.

As part of the reconstruction process in 1865 the government set up the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company known as Freeman’s Bank. The bank was set up to help newly emancipated slaves save, invest their earnings and promote financial independence. In 1872 when Frederick Douglass became its president the bank was already involved in speculative investments. Freedman’s bank lasted until 1874 when its increasing debt and investment in real estate could not be met. Depositors were partially compensated.

In 1771 Frederick was appointed as member of the Council for the Government of the District of Columbia. This was the beginning of the application of the concept of proportionate representation in government as one third of the population was African Americans. The next year he and his family moved to Washington DC following a suspicious fire to his house in Rochester.

Equal Rights Party

In 1772 Douglass became the first African American to be nominated for President of the United States under the Equal Rights Party. Although Victoria Woodhull received the majority of votes she suggested Douglass as her running partner. Douglass declined the offer. He continued to campaign for women suffrage.

Douglass continued to serve in government positions advocating tireless for civil rights and combating social inequalities until the end of his life in 1895.

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