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To recap: For a brief period after the Civil War African-Americans really did enjoy a taste of the rights promised them under the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, and under federal laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1875. (This period was known as Radical Reconstruction.)
What's the Word?
The period of Radical Reconstruction refers to the time in southern history after the conclusion of the Civil War (1865), but before southern Democrats discontinued social and political reforms and began a broad program of systematic repression of African-American southerners (roughly 1875).
But, as you'll recall, powerful racist politicians, based both in the North and South, saw to it that the change was not a lasting one.
What's the Word?
The Civil Rights Act of 1875 guaranteed the “full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theatres, and other places of public amusement … applicable alike to citizens of every race and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude.” The U.S. Supreme Court later declared the Act unconstitutional. Congress would remain silent on the question of civil rights for the better part of a century.
The Jim Crow period can be traced to the result of the bitterly disputed presidential election of 1876. After months of chaos, the outcome of the 1876 presidential election was finally determined in early 1877, thanks to the back-room deal that secured the White House for Rutherford B. Hayes and effectively ended Radical Reconstruction.
Thanks to works of fiction like Gone with the Wind, only one side's version of what happened during the period of Radical Reconstruction has really captured the popular imagination: the side that focuses on things like notorious, opportunistic Northern politicians and high taxes on Tara.
What was airbrushed over in Scarlett's story? A couple of minor details, including the first free exercise of the right to vote by African-Americans in the United States, the establishment of a state-supported free school system, and the repeal of racially discriminatory state laws.
White southerners wouldn't stand for any of this. When it became clear that they couldn't win elections by making (implausible) promises to African-American voters, they began a campaign of abuse and intimidation of African-Americans that included, among other developments, the founding of the terrorist Ku Klux Klan group.
Customs and Traditions—of Terror
After the end of the era of Radical Reconstruction in 1877 came a long period of northern tolerance for overt discrimination and violence against African-Americans, typically couched in language of respect for (white) southern customs.
It was in this period of national acquiescence to racist “traditions” that African-Americans first encountered a new set of formal rules and regulations designed to perpetuate white supremacy.
For the laws of the Jim Crow era to function, the vast majority of white Americans, North and South, had to go along with them. They had to make a conscious choice to accept legally sanctioned racial prejudice, blatant electoral abuses, and the clear, deadly signals the laws sent that virtually any abuse of African-Americans would probably go unpunished.
White America went along for the ride. In one way or another, of course, it had been doing so for years.