Freed African Americans and Their Struggle for Civil Rights


By Hasan Kwame Jeffries, The Ohio State University

Civil rights for African Americans was an area in which freed people, white Northerners, and white Southerners saw things differently. Securing civil rights was a central component of African Americans’ freedom rights agenda, and they insisted that the Federal government do what was necessary to ensure they could enjoy them.

Illustration of African Americans voting
Even after slavery was abolished, securing civil rights for every African American, such as the ability to vote, was extremely hard because of racism. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

The South Wouldn’t Let Go of Racism

White Northerners believed that freed people were entitled to some civil rights, but not all. And they were committed to preserving those civil rights that they felt African Americans deserved, at least for a while. White Southerners were unequivocal in their opposition, carrying forward their enslaver mentality. 

Acting on this impulse, they enacted legislation immediately after the war designed to curb African Americans’ civil rights. These new statutes, known as Black Codes, enshrined racial discrimination in law. Among other things, they included more severe penalties for crimes that whites associated with African Americans, such as theft of property and vagrancy. 

Image of President Johnson
President Andrew Johnson’s veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was overridden by congressional Republicans. (Image: Jesse Harrison Whitehurst/Public domain)

African Americans immediately objected to the discriminatory measures, and congressional Republicans reacted swiftly, moving to nullify the Black Codes by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and overriding President Andrew Johnson’s veto of the bill. The act would serve as the blueprint for the Fourteenth Amendment.

Black Codes in Every State

Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment contained three primary provisions. The first granted citizenship to all persons “born or naturalized in the United States”, including those who had been enslaved. The second prohibited states from abridging “the privileges or immunities of citizens” or depriving “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of the law”. 

And the third provision prohibited states from denying “to any person … the equal protection of the laws”. Congress passed the amendment in June 1866, and the states ratified it two years later. The Fourteenth Amendment was a boon to those who championed basic civil rights for African Americans. 

But it did not mean that white Northerners were willing to embrace African Americans as equals because they were not. Many Northern states had their own Black Codes, nearly identical in form and function to the racially discriminatory laws that surfaced in the South immediately after the war. In fact, the Southern states looked to their Northern counterparts for inspiration for these laws.

The enthusiasm that white Northerners showed for the broad civil rights protections offered by the Fourteenth Amendment did not extend to laws designed to prevent specific forms of social discrimination, such as segregation in public accommodations. White Republicans in Southern legislatures offered little support to their Black counterparts when they introduced measures to keep railroads and restaurants open to everyone regardless of race.

This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Fifteenth Amendment and Voting Rights

Voting rights was the one area where African Americans and Northern whites found clear common cause. Freed people wanted the ballot, knowing that it was essential to their becoming full and equal members of society, and white Northerners wanted them to have it, knowing that it was essential to strengthening the party of Lincoln.

The Fifteenth Amendment, the third of the Reconstruction amendments, went a long way toward meeting both objectives. Ratified on February 3, 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment declared that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Still Not Equal

This cleared the way for Black men to vote. And vote they did. Black men cast ballots en masse for themselves and on behalf of Black women, who wouldn’t receive voting rights protections until the Nineteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1920. And even then, very few Black women were able to vote until the 1965 Voting Rights Act became law.

But white Northern support for Black voting rights did not mean white Republicans saw Black Republicans as equal partners. White Republicans welcomed Black votes but not Black voices. When it came to policymaking, they showed little interest in executing African Americans’ freedom rights agenda. Their failure to embrace Black politics weakened Black political power, depressed Black enthusiasm for the Republican Party, and created an opening for white Southerners to reassert control over the region.

African Americans Didn’t Get What They Deserved

Image of African American slaves working on a cotton plantation
Even though African Americans had endured years of slavery, its abolishment didn’t secure civil rights for them; instead, white Southerners created a world as close to slavery as they could. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

African Americans should have had land, but they ended up sharecropping. They should have had access to education, but they ended up with a handful of overcrowded one-room schoolhouses. They should have had political power, but they ended up with a valueless vote. And they should have had protection from racial terrorism, but they ended up having to defend themselves.

To be sure, the dark days of slavery were over. But African Americans deserved more from freedom than just being able to say, “Well, at least we’re not slaves.” It didn’t have to be this way. Federal officials could have done more to help African Americans secure their freedom rights. They could have redistributed abandoned and confiscated land. 

But white Northerners saw no need for reparations, and within a few short years, they saw no need to uphold the law either. Reconstruction was disappointing; it featured too many broken promises. But what came next was devastating. In the years ahead, white Southerners created a world as close to slavery as the law would allow.

Common Questions about Freed African Americans and Their Struggle for Civil Rights

Q: What was the difference between white Northerners and Southerners concerning Black civil rights?

Regarding securing civil rights for African Americans, white Northerners believed that some civil rights for African Americans were necessary but not equivalent to the civil rights of a white person. On the other hand, white Southerners still carried their enslaver mentality.

Q: What were Black codes, and where did they exist?

Those who didn’t believe in securing civil rights for African Americans after the Civil War tried to change the legislation of their states such that it would curb the civil rights of African Americans. These laws, known as Black Codes, existed in Northern and Southern states.

Q: Why was Reconstruction disappointing?

Reconstruction could have been a phase after the abolishment of slavery in which African Americans could secure civil rights for themselves. Instead, Federal officials did less than they could have, leading to many broken promises and freedom that meant not being slaves, at best.

Keep Reading
Movement for Emancipation and Abolition of Slavery in Early America
The Freedom of Slaves and Contraband Camps
The Fight for Black Equality in America