The Emancipation Proclamation ostensibly freed all slaves living in areas controlled by Southern rebels. Nevertheless, on January 1, 1863, when the Proclamation came into effect, no African American slaves actually received their freedom. The recalcitrant Confederate states obviously ignored President Abraham Lincoln’s order. Then, the Civil War pushed to a close in 1865. Lincoln and his congressional Republican allies hoped that a Union victory would bring a permanent refutation of slavery. On December 6, 1865, the nation ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery. Yet, by the end of the 19th century, most former slaves worked on plantations and could not vote, much as they always had.
To make the spirit of the Emancipation proclamation national and permanent, President Abraham Lincoln persuaded Congress to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. This legislation made slavery and other forms of involuntary servitude illegal in the United States, except as a punishment for convicted criminals. Henceforth, African Americans, and all others living within the boundaries of the nation, would be free.
Slavery had become the main labor source in the South. After the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves, Southern plantation owners lost their workers. They began to conspire, through the political process, to render the Thirteenth Amendment ineffectual in protecting African Americans. To force the former slaves to work, elite Southerners instituted a series of Black Codes. These laws applied only to African Americans. The Codes took advantage of the recently freed slaves' lack of financial resources. When arrested for such crimes as vagrancy, African Americans would receive prison sentences that required bail. Most freed slaves were unable to pay the amount and had to work off their fines on plantations. The Black Codes were initially constitutional because the Thirteenth Amendment’s wording allowed servitude for those convicted of criminal charges. Nothing in the Amendment spoke to the requirement for the convictions to be fair.
Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments
Congressional Republicans expressed anger over the Black Codes. They believed these laws instituted another form of slavery. To make it unconstitutional to write laws that targeted African Americans, Congress passed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified on July 9, 1868, granted African Americans citizenship in both the nation and their respective states. Now citizens, African American males received the right to vote through the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified on February 3, 1870.
Civil Rights Cases (1883)
President Rutherford B. Hayes removed federal troops from the South in 1877. In effect, African Americans no longer had direct protection from the White House and Congress. Nevertheless, the federal courts remained an avenue open to those who felt their civil rights were violated. The Supreme Court closed this last window of hope in 1883 with the Civil Rights Cases decision. The Justices held that the wording of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments denied state governments, not private individuals, from violating civil rights. To win a federal lawsuit, African Americans now would have to prove that the perpetrator was a government official. Private individuals could henceforth violate African American rights, and did so until the 1960s.
- Library of Congress: 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
- Encyclopedia of Black Studies; Molefi Kete Asante and Ama Mazama
- A History of American Law; Lawrence M. Friedman
- Library of Congress: 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
- Library of Congress: 15th Amendment to the Constitution
- Oyez: The Civil Rights Cases
- Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images