The End of Reconstruction

It became clear that the problems of the South were not being solved by harsh laws and continued bitterness against former confederates. In May 1872, Congress passed a general Amnesty Act, restoring full political rights to all but about 500 Confederate sympathizers.

Gradually, Southern states began electing members of the Democratic Party into office, ousting so-called carpetbagger governments and intimidating blacks from voting or attempting to hold public office. By 1876 the Republicans remained in power in only three Southern states. In a bargain to resolve the disputed presidential elections, the Republicans promised to end Radical Reconstruction, thereby leaving most of the South in the hands of the Democratic Party. In 1877, Hayes withdrew the remaining government troops, abandoning federal responsibility for enforcing blacks’ civil rights.

The pendulum of national racial policy swung—formerly it supported harsh penalties against Southern white leaders, and now it tolerated new and humiliating kinds of discrimination against blacks. By the end of the 19th century, “Jim Crow” laws in Southern states segregated public schools, forbade or limited black access to many public facilities, such as parks, restaurants and hotels, and denied most blacks the right to vote by imposing poll taxes and arbitrary literacy skills.

Historians have tended to judge Reconstruction harshly, as a murky period of political conflict, corruption and regression. Slaves were granted their freedom, but not equality. The North completely failed to address the economic needs of the freedmen. The Freedmen's Bureau proved inadequate to the needs of former slaves—for institutions that could provide them with political and economic opportunity, or simply protect them from violence and intimidation. Federal Army officers and agents of the Freedmen's Bureau were often racists themselves. Blacks were dependent on these Northern whites to protect them from white Southerners, who, united into organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, intimidating blacks and preventing them from exercising their rights. Without economic resources of their own, many Southern blacks were forced to become tenant farmers on land owned by their former masters.

Reconstruction-era governments did make genuine gains in rebuilding Southern states and in expanding public services, notably in establishing tax-supported, free public schools for blacks and whites. However, Southerners seized upon instances of corruption and exploited them to bring down radical regimes. The failure of Reconstruction meant that the struggle of African Americans for equality and freedom was deferred until the 20th century.

Source: The End of Reconstruction
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