Civil War Profiles: The long post-war road to Civil Rights legislation


“Black codes” was the name given to an attempt in several states to undermine the effects of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution enacted following the Civil War from 1865 to 1870. The amendments guaranteed the freedom, citizenship and voting rights of black people, whether they were newly emancipated, born or immigrated.

The codes limited the rights of blacks to own property, seek employment or have access to the courts, among other inequities. To counteract that discrimination, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in April 1866. The legislation was carried by an all-Republican vote.

Initially, Andrew Johnson, a Democrat who had assumed the presidency a year earlier, following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, vetoed the legislation. He questioned whether recently emancipated slaves would possess the qualifications necessary to entitle them to the privileges of citizenship.

The Senate, however, overrode his veto by a two-thirds majority on April 5, 1866, and the House followed suit four days later. Schuyler Colfax, speaker of the House of Representatives, and Lafayette S. Foster, president of the Senate, pro tempore, signed it into law.

Attempts to legislate equality of the races generated the growth of organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan that undermined such efforts. Founded in Tennessee in 1865, the KKK engaged in intimidation, property destruction, assault and murder to achieve its goals.

Another Civil Rights law came into being in 1870, mandating any citizen who was qualified shall be entitled to vote in all elections, without distinction of race, color or previous condition of servitude. Republicans passed that legislation, which reinforced the recent enactment of the 15th amendment to the constitution, with virtually no Democratic support.

In 1875, another major Civil Rights bill passed to fulfill the 1872 Republican presidential election platform of Ulysses S. Grant’s second term in office. It prohibited discrimination against blacks:

“All persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters and other places of public amusement … applicable alike to citizens of every race and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude.”

Much of the aforementioned progress toward equal rights went for naught as a result of an 1883 Supreme Court decision that declared the Civil Rights law of 1875 unconstitutional. It ruled that Congress lacked authority to outlaw discrimination by private citizens and organizations.

That decision fostered prejudice and segregation in the United States for more than 70 years. In a dissenting opinion, Justice John Marshall Harlan of Kentucky argued that the court was undermining the spirit of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.

The regressive Supreme Court decision would not be rectified until the Civil Rights Act of 1957, signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower despite a lengthy filibuster by Democratic Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. It prohibited interfering with the rights of persons to vote and was similar to the act passed in 1870.

Passage of the 1960 Voting Rights Act and growing support nationally led to adoption of the 24th amendment and the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. The amendment guaranteed the right of citizens to vote in a primary or other election for president or vice president without having to pay a poll tax.

The 1964 Act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. It also ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, the workplace and public facilities.

This article, derived from a variety of online sources, demonstrates that Civil Rights legislation has come full circle. The freedoms contained in the 19th century acts of 1866, 1870 and 1875 had to be reconstituted in the mid-20th century. Unlike in 1883, however, the Supreme Court upheld the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which has become the law of the land.

Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” a History & Military Book Club selection available at Bethany Beach Books or on Amazon.com. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or visit his website www.tomryan-civilwar.com.