Black Leaders During Reconstruction

Rise of Black Activism

Before the Civil War began, African Americans had only been able to vote in a few northern states, and there were almost no black officeholders. Following the Union victory, the black community organized meetings, marches, and petitions calling for legal and political rights. During the first two years of Reconstruction, blacks protested unfair treatment and demanded the right to vote and equality before the law.

These African American activists opposed the policies of President Andrew Johnson, which excluded blacks from southern politics and allowed state legislatures to pass restrictive “black codes” regulating the lives of the freed men and women. A Republican victory in the 1866 congressional elections led to a new phase of Reconstruction that gave African Americans a more active role in the political, economic, and social life of the South.

A Radical Change

During the decade known as Radical Reconstruction (1867-77), the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution granted African American men the status and rights of citizenship, including the right to vote. During the state constitutional conventions held in 1867-69, blacks and white Americans stood side by side for the first time in political life.

Blacks made up the overwhelming majority of southern Republican voters, forming a coalition with recent arrivals from the North and southern white Republicans. A total of 265 African-American delegates were elected; more than 100 of them were freed slaves.

Background & Risk of Leadership

Many Reconstruction-era black leaders had gained their freedom before the Civil War, through self-purchase or being freed upon an owner’s death. They had worked as skilled slave craftsmen or had served in the Union Army. Many black political leaders came from the church.

Reconstruction’s opponents objected to the political activism of the African American community. Southern whites used intimidation and violence to support white supremacy. The Ku Klux Klan targeted local Republican leaders and blacks. At least 35 black officials were murdered by the Klan and other white supremacist organizations during the Reconstruction era.

Source: Black Leaders During Reconstruction
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