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Was The Reconstruction Era Successful?

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A Failed Era: Reconstruction and Broken Promises of an Equal Future for America Following the Civil War

Following The Civil War in the late 1860s, the United States was unsuccessful in rebuilding itself during Reconstruction because members of white society succeeded to revert the roles of freed African Americans citizens back to slaves. Through sharecropping, black codes, and violence incited by the KKK, it is clear that African Americans did not have equal representation among white people. To be considered successful for the time, the Reconstruction period would have needed to establish that white men and black men are equal. However, by the end of Reconstruction, African Americans were eventually forced to surrender the few rights they held as citizens ultimately making the period unsuccessful.

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Sharecropping was a vicious cycle that proved to be an effective alternative for former plantation owners to keep African Americans working with little compensation throughout the 1870s. Following the Emancipation Proclamation, African American freedpeople typically could not afford the cost to move to start a new life and often resorted to sharecropping: a more subtle form of slavery that allowed landowners to keep African Americans in debt after loaning them the resources to farm. For example, one sharecropping contract states: “The sale of every cropper’s part of the cotton to be made by me when and where I choose to sell, and after deducing all they owe me and all sums that I may be responsible for on their accounts, to pay them their half of the net proceeds” (Grimes Family Papers). African Americans had no control over their livelihoods. A typical farmer would have complete control over where they are able to sell their crop, but this is not the case with sharecropping. African Americans performed the majority of the work only to share half of the profit among themselves while the other half went entirely to the sharecropper. This is a blatant form of racism as the sharecroppers were entirely aware of the unfair situation, but knew they could get away with it because African Americans could not stand up for themselves due to their limited education and rights. “By the time sharecroppers had shared their crops and paid their debts, they rarely had any money left. Often they[African Americans] were uneducated and could not argue with landowners or merchants who cheated them” (Goodenough). They were constantly growing in debt to the white farmers and could not afford what it took to leave to start a new life. This unfair work resulted in a cycle that forced the newly freed people into unknowingly staying with the sharecroppers in hope of paying off their debts. Sharecropping clearly shows that it was normal for the majority of African Americans to be segregated from educated, white society. Still, it is important to understand why society thought this behavior was appropriate. This normalization of segregation can be traced backed to black codes which were put into effect in Opelousas, Louisiana directly following the Civil War.

Black codes, issued in Opelousas, limited the rights of African Americans and stripped away their equality, demoting them back to a slave status when near this town. One black code states: “No negro or freedman shall reside within the limits of the town of Opelousas who is not in the regular service of some white person or former owner.” This law made it so that only people who were with another white person could enter the town without facing consequences. Essentially, the only purpose of the black codes was to limit the rights of new African American citizens because white society was not willing to recognize the legitimacy of their new citizenship (CrashCourse). Another section states: “No freedman shall sell, barter, or exchange any article of merchandise or traffic within the limits of Opelousas without permission in writing from his employer.” Much like sharecropping, this section of the black codes made it impossible for African Americans to function in Opelousas independently without the help of a white person. When a law is set in place that prevents African Americans from trading in society, this is clearly a form of inequality. Calling African Americans “citizens,” would be far from true given so many basic rights that much of white society holds is not shared to the newly freed people. Yet, these established laws are not the worst of what came to new African American citizens. Following the Civil War, groups of people began terrorizing African Americans through the KKK.

When it seemed like African Americans were going to integrate into everyday life with their new so-called “freedoms,” white supremacist groups like the KKK were actively seeking ways to terminate the new freedoms of African Americans in society by terrorizing them. In one instance, a member of the KKK sent a threatening notice to an African American politician saying: “We nail all, radicals up in Boxes and send them away to KKK – there is 200 dead men returned to this country to make you and all the rest of the radicals good Democrats and vote right with the white people” (“A Klu Klux Klan Threat”). Threats like these were very common for African American politicians during Reconstruction. While America was making a step towards equality through including black men in government, these people were threatened regularly and to a much greater extent than their white counterparts. The KKK went as far to harm 10% of these politicians and kill seven (History.com Staff). Considering no serious action was taken against the KKK as a whole, it is clear that this blatant display of racism in the name of white supremacy contributed to why Reformation was unsuccessful. Additionally, a majority of white society felt that African Americans should step down from politics, instead of empowering them to stay committed to their governments. In 1874, Thomas Nast released a political cartoon showing anarchy among politicians mainly caused by African Americans. The general public was growing concerned with the representation of African Americans in politics and Nast portrayed them as barbaric while the white politicians seem much more calm. Considering that few Americans actually get to witness decision making such as in the cartoon, Nast was able to persuade public opinion from giving African Americans representation to restoring white supremacy in courts in order to ease tensions between concerned Americans. Ultimately, African Americans were not re-elected to government and America’s civil rights focus was pushed away in favor of rebuilding the nation with less tension between Republicans and Democrats.

The Reconstruction Era proved unsuccessful due to the inability of white society being able to provide equal rights for African American citizens following the Civil War. Sharecropping served as a replacement form of slavery that prevented African Americans from equally cooperating with members of white society. Black codes was a complete rejection of equal citizenship and were put in place to blatantly discriminate African Americans. The actions of the KKK allowed for white society to push out African Americans from politics. By the end of Reconstruction, white and black citizens did not achieve any form of lasting unity and equality, ultimately making the period unsuccessful.

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