Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement

Published 17 Feb 2017

The reconstruction era of 19th Century provided a platform for the civil rights movement that followed in the 20th Century and created history. The aim of the reconstruction plan was to provide economic and racial equality to all the American citizens by abolishing slavery and ensuring the basic human rights to all citizens. However, due to the social and political structure of the period, many were skeptical of these policies and so the reconstruction program failed. Nevertheless, the spirit of freedom still lived among the blacks and so the failure of reconstruction plans inspired them even more to speak up for their rights which in turn resulted in the civil rights movement that followed during the 1950s and 1960s. Reconstruction gave the black people a taste of freedom which they never had before and this gave them hopes of a better future. With the failure of the reconstruction plans their hopes were once again dismissed. And perhaps this gave them determination to fight those who were opposed to their freedom.

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Consequently, the black leaders became more assertive and aggressive during the 1950s and 1960s and this led to the introduction of the various legislations during the 20th century which demanded more rights to the black population.

The reconstruction plans were introduced after the end of the American civil war in order to pacify the people of the southern states. Therefore, various liberal promises were made to the black population of the southern states. The major issue of the civil war was the question of slavery, which was the point of contention between the planters and the emancipators. Hence, after the end of the civil war, it was expected that the racial and economic inequality would end due to the various measures that were taken by the provincial governments. (Fredrickson, 1975)

Keeping this in view various reconstruction plans were introduced. They led to the different legislations to provide political and economic rights to the blacks. In fact, these legislations became a model for the leaders of the civil rights movement in the 20th century. For example there is reference to introduction of plans such as President Lincoln’s declaration of Amnesty and Reconstruction which was issued in 1863, Wade-Davis Bill of 1864, and Johnson’s Plan which gave political rights to the southerners and assured amnesty to the white people. This attempt of Johnson shows that he was interested in protecting the interest of only the white population. His racist policies were a cause for the failure of the reconstruction. In fact, such racism inspired the leaders of the civil rights movement to demand for racial equality.

The second phase of reconstruction included reconstruction by the Congress, Washington’s birthday speech of 1866, the civil rights act, the fourteenth amendment, a supplementary freedmen’s bureau bill, the congressional election of 1866, the reconstruction acts of 1867, second reconstruction act of 1867, third reconstruction act passed in July, 1867, and the legislations that were passed from 1867 to 1875. The civil rights act of 1875 abolished discrimination in the public places. However, later the Supreme Court declared this right as unconstitutional. The provisions of this law acted as a base for the leaders of the civil rights movement of the 20th century. (Wikipedia, 2005) The 13th amendment abolished slavery. The 14th amendment was passed in 1868. According to this amendment all the people born in USA were given the status of citizens and they were guaranteed equal protection before law. This provision impressed the leaders of the civil rights movement as it guaranteed racial equality. This was an important document which, if implemented, would have led to complete liberation of the blacks. (National Park Service, 2005)

However, based on the 14th amendment the Supreme Court ruled that the legislature does not have the power to outlaw private actions which can be considered as discriminatory. Hence, the Supreme Court declared private discrimination as legal. The blacks raised their voices against this approach of the Supreme Court. They obtained success in their attempt during the 1960s when the court abandoned private discrimination. (PBS, 2003) Another important development was the introduction of the 15th amendment which was introduced in 1870. According to this amendment, all the citizens of America were given the right to vote.(National Park Service, 2005) In fact, these laws of the reconstruction era led to demand for voting rights, racial equality, and other civil rights during the 20th century.

However, various events and personalities directly or indirectly opposed the granting of civil rights to the blacks. Although the radical plans such as the civil rights acts were passed, they did not directly address the issues such as the racial and economic equality of all the citizens. In fact, in 1883, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1875 civil rights act was unconstitutional. This was a big jolt to the attempt to establish racial and economic equality between the whites and the blacks. Again in 1896, the Supreme Court ruled that states may provide separate educational facilities to the blacks and the whites and this again increased the racial inequality between the blacks and the whites. (Fairclough, 2003)

The American government tried to win over the whites of the southern states. Further, there existed various racial discrimination policies which affected the civil rights of the black population. Hence, racial equality became an important issue during the era of civil rights movement in the 20th century. During the reconstruction era, the American government compromised with the white elite class in the southern states in order to obtain their support for their policies. This once again led to the failure of the reconstruction plans. Indirectly, this instigated the black population even more to demand for equal rights. President Johnson was not sympathetic towards the congressional legislations and he vetoed some bills which intended to provide a few rights to the black population.(Wood, 1975) The Congressional Act of 1875 allowed the entry of the blacks to all the public places with the exception of the schools. This clause had an impact on the civil rights movement of the 20th century as the leaders of this movement demanded admission of the blacks to the schools. This created disparity between the blacks and the whites in the field of education. In 1877, there was compromise between the southern whites and the American government which led to the premature withdrawal of the military from the southern states. (Wood, 1975)

In fact, the end of the civil war resulted in the establishment of the superiority of the white Americans over the black Americans. Even when the politicians desired to introduce the new legislations to ensure economic and racial equality of the Americans in the southern states, this attempt was thwarted by the critics of reconstruction. (Skyminds, 2005)

Various factors led to the emergence of economic and racial inequality. President Andrew Johnson was hostile to the reconstruction plan. The Supreme Court did not support the pro black legislations which were termed as unconstitutional. Further various notorious “black codes” were introduced which restricted the free movement of the black population. The employment, sexual contact between black male and white female, and indebtedness were declared as illegal. This gave free hand to the white police to punish the black population and led to legal terrorizing of the black population. (Fairclough, 2003)

During the reconstruction era, the white population showed their hostility towards the blacks. This clash between the white and black races continued even in the 20th century. During the reconstruction era, the white militant organizations such as Klu Klux Klan were indirectly encouraged to attack the black population. Due to these factors, the government was compelled to end the reconstruction policy which further increased the gap between the white and black American population. (Fairclough, 2003) The white people made certain statements with racial connotations. The blacks were insulted and denigrated and they were considered by some racist white population as the beasts and not much sympathy was showed towards the poverty of the black population. (, 2005)

The failure of the reconstruction plan acted as a wake up call to the blacks. This allowed them to participate in the civil rights movement of the 20th century and they demanded more rights to establish the racial equality. In some places civil rights movement has been rightly termed as the ‘second reconstruction’.(PBS, 2003) At the same time, reconstruction program has been considered by some scholars as the first civil rights movement.(National Park Service, 2005) This demonstrates the close relationship between reconstruction plan of the 19th century and the civil rights movement of the 20th century.

The various African-American leaders responded to the failure of reconstruction. The leaders stressed on the educational, economic, and political rights of the blacks. The leaders learnt lessons from the failure of the reconstruction plan. They took firm steps towards the emancipation of the blacks during the 20th century. Booker T. Washington emerged as an important leader of the blacks. He stressed on the education of the African-American population and a slow and steady adjustment with the American mainstream. This is because of the fact that during the reconstruction era, the black codes did not allow the black children to study in the schools attended by the white students. (National Park Service, 2005)

One can find direct relationship between reconstruction program and the civil rights movement of the 20th century. Those legislations which were not implemented during the reconstruction era were enforced during the civil rights movement. The various legislations that were passed during the reconstruction had profound impact on the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s. For example, civil rights law of 1866 was an important step taken to ensure the freedom of the African-Americans. In fact, this law can be considered as more powerful than the legislations passed during the 20th century. The black leaders were also influenced by the amendments made to the constitution. (PBS, 2003) However, many of these legislations were not enforced by the authorities leading to the exploitation of the blacks. Nonetheless, the first step towards emancipation was taken during the reconstruction era itself. However, it took nearly another 100 years to fully realize the potentials of these legislations.

This happened with the emergence of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Further, the Supreme Court upheld the Civil Rights Law of 1964. This law prohibits discrimination of individuals in the public places. This has provided incentive to the participants of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The dream of racial equality which could not be fulfilled during the reconstruction era was made possible during the civil rights movement of the 20th century. Hence, one can notice a very close resemblance between the reconstruction legislations and the civil rights movement. (PBS, 2003)

In 1963 the leaders planned a march on Washington to introduce the civil rights legislations. Even after the assassination of John F Kennedy, these leaders continued their attempt and consequently the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. This can be considered as a great achievement of the black emancipation leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., and others. (Norrell, 2005) However, the black right activists still had to face great resistance from the racist white population particularly those people belonging to the southern states of America. The southerners tried to threaten the blacks and put pressure on them to abandon their movement for freedom and equality. There was the attack and assassination of many black leaders which led to further increase in the volume of the civil right movements. One can notice that several legislations have been introduced to ensure the racial equality. (CNN, 1997)

The reconstruction era made the black population realize for the first time that they too could enjoy living as a respected citizen in their nation. It gave them hopes for a future where they would not be insulted for their color. The legislations during the reconstruction era created awareness among the black population about their rights and taught them to seek for their rights. But with all its noble perspectives the reconstruction plans still failed. The leaders kept on making wonderful promises to the black masses and then broke almost all of them. The people were first made to dream and hope for better solutions and then every time their dreams were shattered cruelly. This routine, at one point, gave the people the will power to firmly demand for their rights and not give up till those demands were fulfilled. The false promises made them even more determined every time to fight and earn a respectful life. The result was the movement for the civil rights that followed.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s succeeded due to the existence of the reconstruction program during the 19th century. Thus the civil rights movement can be considered as the continuation of the reconstruction era. The scholars suggested that the blacks were only half emancipated during the reconstruction era and for full emancipation they had to wait till the coming of the civil rights movement. During the reconstruction era, there was the introduction of very progressive legislations which can be considered as ahead of their times. The legal documents such as civil rights act of 1866, and 13th, 14th and 15th amendment to the constitution provided great inspiration to the black activists during the 1950s and 1960s. Thus it may be concluded that without the reconstruction era and its failure the movement for the civil rights in the 1950s may not have gained the momentum required for its success.


  • Fairclough, Adam. (2003). “The Struggle for Equality: Civil Rights in America from Reconstruction to the Depression”.
  • Fredrickson, George M. (1975). A Nation Divided: Problems and Issues of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Minneapolis: Burgess Publishing Company.
  • Norrell, Robert J. (2005). “Civil Rights Movement in the United States”, retrieved online on 22-11-2005.
  • Wood, Forest G. (1975). The Era of Reconstruction, 1863-1877, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company.(1997). “The Civil Rights Movement”.
  • (2003). “Black Legislators: Special Features”, retrieved online on 22-11-2005.
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