Looking Back at the Era of Reconstruction

In Montgomery, Alabama in 2016, Gregg Gun was walking home from a card game when police officer Aaron Cody Smith stopped him because he looked like a burglar from another case. He fit a description. Gregg was respectful and responsive but kept on walking home as the confrontation ensued, eventually running down the block out of fear. He was only a couple of minutes away from his house when Mr. Smith tased him three times, struck him with a metal baton and fired seven bullets at Gregg with his gun, five hitting him.

Gregg later died just steps from his home.

Gregg’s death is just one example of the discrimination that occurs against African Americans today. Police brutality has become a huge issue in American society, and we must think deeper in order to understand where these hate crimes stem from. Throughout history, laws, acts, and rules have been passed with the intention to solve problems of racial inequity. These enforcements have been powerful, but as we look back on the Reconstruction era, we must understand that they were quite loosely applied.

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As a matter of fact, it was the opinions and ideas of specific groups of people that had the upper hand over the rules put in place. For centuries, white people had been taught and treated as if they were at the top of society. Throughout slavery, they held the belief that African American people were naturally inferior to them—not equal in the slightest. And the actions put in place to “solve” discrimination against African American people were not a factor in stopping their prejudices whatsoever, showing us that laws are not the most important factor in overcoming discrimination, but rather internal motivations are.

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When looking back to around 150 years ago, it is impossible to ignore the painful routine of discrimination that began to originate. After the Civil War ended, there were countless organizations that targeted and violently intimidated people of African American descent. White supremacists wanted to maintain political power and preserve a white dominated society. In fact, as Henry Louis Gates describes in Dark Sky Rising (pg. 103), “The Klu Klux Klan. The Pale faces. The Knights of the White Camellias. The White League. The White Brotherhood. The Red Shirts…[were] just some of the white supremacist paramilitary organizations that emerged during Reconstruction.” Perhaps the most apparent, the Klu – Klux – Klan, was formed in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1865. Their primary objective was to weaken the rights and political power of African Americans and Republicans. Despite the fact that there were laws which had “ensured” black people’s rights, the Klu – Klux – Klan was openly violent and racist with no punishment.

Furthermore, one major event that stands out is the Memphis Massacre on May 1, 1866 during which nearly 50 people were killed. There was said to have been a soldier who had killed a white male policeman who was in pursuit of arresting a African American soldier. When this rumor spread, white commanders took black soldiers’ weapons away, and told them to head back to where they were staying. However, violence then ensured. Over a span of 3 days, 46 people were killed and 70 were wounded. Many churches and schools were burned to the ground by racist white supremacist groups, some even with the assistance of white policemen. Less than a month before the Memphis Massacre, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 had been passed. This act made it certain that anyone born in the United States was guaranteed citizenship, and under citizenship, had equal protection under the law, outlawing race-based discrimination. Yet, after this act was signed into effect, murderous riots such as the Memphis Massacre continued to set off terror and indescribable scatter within the black community. So, looking back, how could this happen if under the regulations of the Civil Rights Act of 1866? The truth is that even under these laws and acts, racism doesn’t cease to exist.

In fact, on February 26th 1869, the 15th amendment was passed granting the right to vote for African American men. For so many, this was the dawn of a new day. African Americans would now have the ability to express themselves and their opinions. Yet, despite the efforts of black voters, there continued to be “coordinated efforts of white supremacists who used violence and terror to try to deny them that right.” – Handout 14.2, pg 261. In an attempt to protect African American voters from violence and prejudice, Congress passed the Enforcement Act of 1870. The Enforcement Act instilled stiff penalties for anyone who tried to keep African Americans from voting/registering to vote or being involved in local politics. Yet, although these acts and penalties were in place, they were not enough to stop the discrimination by white people concerned with losing racial and political power. For instance, on April 13th, 1873, after the Enforcement Act was passed, tension between the Republican and the Democratic party led to an attack on Easter Sunday at the courthouse. Black men in the courthouse, after realizing the situation, began to flee the scene while members of the white league fired into the areas where African American men were still voting in. They also set nearby buildings on fire. Overall, the number of people killed was between 70 – 165 people, showing that even after the Enforcement Act, African Americans were still being abused and brutally attacked under the law.

The black vote continued to be suppressed even with the 15th amendment in place. However, African American men fought back. In fact, “For almost a generation after the end of Reconstruction, most eligible black voters in the South had exercised their right to vote, despite the coordinated efforts of white supremacists who used violence and terror to try to deny them that right.” – Handout 14.2, pg. 261. But alas, beginning in the 1890s, state houses passed legislation restricting the black vote. Under new laws, you needed specific living requirements and poll taxes to vote, which were usually not available to people of African descent. You also needed to pass a literacy test designed to test one’s knowledge of the constitution. It was always administered by a white election official, who could easily discriminate against black people with no repercussions. Grandfather clauses were also put in place which claimed that a voter was only capable of voting if their grandfather could vote. This targeted African Americans upfront in that many of their grandfathers had been slaves, and therefore could not vote. All in all, many laws passed within this new system were not fair to African Americans because they had just been starting their lives after slavery and they didn’t have a prior education. What this new system shows is that even under the 15th amendment, people were still being discriminated against.

The weakness of laws stems from not just the prejudice against African Americans as a whole, but women as well. Women were simply thought of as to not be made for voting. An example of the inequitable involvement of women in voting was in 1873. Susan B. Anthony was a women’s rights advocate and played an important role in the women’s suffrage movement. In 1872, she voted in the presidential election. She was arrested because she did not have the right to vote, being a female. She was also fined 100 dollars, put on trial, and convicted. Before her trial, she gave a speech in 1873 stating that, “ The only question left to be settled now, is: Are women persons? And I hardly believe any of our opponents will have the hardihood to say they are not. Being persons, then, women are citizens, and no state has a right to make any law, or to enforce any old law, that shall abridge their privileges or immunities.” – Handout 9.3, pg. 148. This leads us to beleive that in some situations, laws dont only not solve discrimination, they create it.

In conclusion, the definition of discrimination is, “the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex.” Black people throughout Reconstruction continued to be treated as a different category even with laws in place that made them equals. The routine of discrimination has echoed throghout history. With police brutality striking again and again currently, we can now connect it back to when acts, laws, bills, enforcement, and amendments, failed to protect black people from being killed, hurt, tortured and traumatized. Unjust discrimination still creeps into our daily lives, even if the rules made up below our own feet are telling us otherwise.

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Looking Back at the Era of Reconstruction. (2021, Dec 23). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/looking-back-at-the-era-of-reconstruction-essay

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