America waged a Civil War from 1861 to 1865, largely over the issue of slavery. The Union, or northern states, included abolitionists and anti-slavery advocates; meanwhile, the Confederacy, or southern states, attempted to secede from America to continue forcing African-Americans to work for no pay. The Democratic Party had been, since its founding in 1792, a power base for the slave-owning South. After the war, these men returned home to a devastated economy and a newly assertive labor force. Even more daunting for Democrats were two amendments to the Constitution that ended slavery and provided African-Americans civil rights. Proving equal to the task, the white Democratic South used legal loopholes to eviscerate the power of the so-called Civil War amendments until 1964.
The 13th Amendment, ratified on Dec. 6, 1865, made slavery and involuntary servitude unconstitutional anywhere inside the United States. There was, however, one exception. Forced labor remains constitutional in the United States as punishment for a crime.
Throughout the Democratic-dominated South, state governments enacted laws designed specifically to put African-Americans back to work. Though the South had lost the war, President Andrew Johnson, who took office after the assassination of Lincoln in April 1865, allowed former Confederate leaders back into the government with relative ease. These "Black Codes" applied to African-Americans living in southern states. African-Americans wandering without proof of employment faced charges of vagrancy, for example. African Americans arrested and convicted under the Black Codes could be, and usually were, forced to work on plantations. Since most African-Americans had until recently been unpaid slaves, few possessed money to pay the fines assessed for their "crimes."
In direct response to the Black Codes, the Republican-controlled Congress passed the 14th Amendment on July 28, 1868, to guarantee citizenship and civil rights to African-Americans. For the first time in the nation’s history, the government felt a need to define citizenship. All persons born or naturalized within the borders of the United States were automatically citizens both of the nation and the state in which they resided. African-Americans, who'd had a presence in America since 1619, generally fell into this category. Furthermore, the amendment prevented state governments from creating laws that apply only to specific groups. This provision theoretically made the Black Codes unconstitutional.
The 14th Amendment may at first glance seem an insurmountable obstacle to Democrats hoping to return the South to the status quo; however, skillful politicians found legal and extra-legal means to weaken the enforcement of the amendment. In the Civil Rights Cases -- five consolidated civil rights cases argued before the Supreme Court -- southern state governments, controlled by Democrats, won a victory at the expense of African-American rights. The Supreme Court ruled that the 14th Amendment precluded state governments, rather than individuals, from violating civil rights laws. Thus, extra-legal action, such as that of the Ku Klux Klan, that prevented African-Americans from enjoying their rights was beyond the power of the federal government to prevent.
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