How Did Southern Whites Regain Political Power During Reconstruction?

A handwritten copy of the 13th Amendment at the New York Historical Society.
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At the conclusion of the Civil War, the 13th Amendment was passed and slaves in all areas of the U.S. were emancipated. Reconstruction was implemented in 1866 to integrate the southern states back into the Union and provide resources for newly freed slaves. Reconstruction continued until 1877 when President Rutherford Hayes was elected. His presidency allowed the South to regain political power and indirectly facilitated practices that prevented African-Americans and other minorities from enjoying the rights granted by the 13th Amendment.

1 The Tilden-Hayes Election

The end of Reconstruction occurred immediately after the disputed Tilden-Hayes presidential election of 1877. Although Samuel J. Tilden, a Democrat, won the popular vote, Rutherford Hayes, a Republican, won the election. To secure his win, Hayes promised the Democrats he would withdraw the last 3,000 federal troops aiding reconstruction in the South. These troops played an important role in enforcing the 13th Amendment in areas where there was much opposition. Without federal troops present, whites were free to employ a number of tactics to reduce the freedom of blacks in the South and gain political power.

2 The Defeat of the Republican Party

The Republican Party had lobbied for equal rights and voting rights for blacks during Reconstruction. Despite his membership in the Republican Party, President Hayes facilitated Democrats dominating public office in the South, and even reappointed many Democrats who had held political office during the Civil War. The South became virtually a one-party region, which led to the defeat of the Republicans and the Populists -- both allies of blacks, minorities and the poor. With very few objectors in a position of power, the practice of legal disenfranchisement spread throughout the South.

3 Legal Disenfranchisement

Legal disenfranchisement was the practice of excluding blacks and the poor from voting. The most common methods of legal disenfranchisement were imposing a poll tax, requiring literacy tests to vote and using grandfather clauses that excluded anyone whose grandfather did not have voting rights. Disenfranchisement laws were first passed in the states with the highest population of black residents: Mississippi, South Carolina and Louisiana. By 1910, disenfranchisement laws existed in every southern state.

4 Threats and Intimidation

In addition to legal disenfranchisement methods, violence and threats, often by white-protective groups, were used to keep the black population disadvantaged socially, politically and economically. Protected from prosecution by the Democratic majority, groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of the White Camelia targeted leaders in the black community. Frustrated by the states' inaction, to target these groups Congress passed a series of civil rights bills in 1870 and 1871 called the Enforcement Acts. These laws were intended to protect the right of blacks to vote, hold office and receive equal treatment under the law. Although some klansmen were convicted of crimes under these laws, the majority were never arrested or tried for their crimes.

Michelle Lee has been writing on the topics of culture and society since 2010. She has published articles in scholarly journals, such as "Social Problems" and the "Journal of Sociology," and also written articles for web-based companies. Lee holds a Bachelor of Arts in ethnic, gender and labor studies from the University of Washington.