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English 1003
November 3, 2000

The Reconstruction, a time most people would call a rebirth, succeeded in few of the goals that it had set out to achieve within the 12 years it was in progress. It was the reconstruction’s failure in its objectives that brought forth the inevitable success in changing the South, as well as the countless African Americans living in it as well as the countless African Americans living in it at the time. There were three goals the reconstruction set, and failed to achieve, as well as emphasizing the profound effect it had on the south, and an entire race. In the South the Reconstruction period was a time of readjustment accompanied by disorder. Southern whites wished to keep blacks in a condition of quasi-servitude, extending few civil rights and firmly rejecting social equality. Blacks, on the other hand, wanted full freedom and, above all, land of their own. Inevitably, there were frequent clashes. Some erupted into race riots, but acts of terrorism against individual black leaders were more common. During this turmoil, Southern whites and blacks began to work out ways of getting their farms back into operation and of making a living. Indeed, the most important developments of the Reconstruction era were not the highly publicized political contests but the slow, almost imperceptible changes that occurred in southern society. Blacks could now legally marry, and they set up conventional and usually stable family units; they quietly seceded from the white churches and formed their own religious organizations, which became a central point for the black community. Without land or money, most freedmen had to continue working for white masters; but they were now unwilling to labor in gangs or to live in the old slave quarters under the eye of the plantation owner. The governments set up in the Southern states under the congressional program of Reconstruction were, contrary to traditional clichés, fairly honest and effective. Though the period has sometimes been labeled “Black Reconstruction,” blacks never dominated the Radical governments in the south. There were no black governors, only two black senators and a handful of congressmen, and only one legislature controlled by blacks. Those black who did hold office appear to have been about equal in competence and honesty to the whites. It is true that these Radical governments were expensive, but large state expenditures were necessary to rebuild after the war and to establish--for the first time on most southern states--a system of common schools. Corruption there certainly was, though nowhere on the scale of the Tweed Ring, which at that time was busily looting New York City; but it is not possible to show that Republicans were guiltier than Democrats, or blacks than whites, in the scandals that did occur. If the Civil War was fought to set black slaves free, then Reconstruction proved to be a fight to limit their freedom. Former slaves gained political power during the late 1860s, but any power gained was all but gone by the end of the 1880s. Blacks were given liberty in name only for the most part. They were not allowed to develop nor use the skills necessary to take advantage of that liberty in America’s unique system of democracy and capitalism. For most African Americans living in the south during the Reconstruction era, life changed dramatically from enslavement, to a life of limited rights. Even though the reconstruction offered them a few unreliable rights, it failed to offer them the equal amount of social, economic, and political freedoms. It was these three contributing factors that participated in changing the south. The freed slaves who rallied and protested for civil rights as well as justice started the Reconstruction. In addition to this, Radical Republicans from 1865 to 1877 temporarily wiped out each state in the South’s system of government. All of the “black codes”, a series of laws that forced blacks to sign labor contracts requiring them to work at a job for a full year, laws that permitted employers to whip black workers, and laws that allowed states to jail unemployed blacks and hire out their children, that violated or contradicted the equality of any man were overwritten by civil rights bills pushed by the Radical Republicans. The first goal of the 12-year reconstruction was to build a lifestyle of social equality for all the African Americans living in the south. This was the first time the South had been forced to put the equality of all persons before the law. One of the first changes to South under went due to the Reconstruction were the rights given to them stating that they could establish an educational system for their children as well as for themselves. And gradually, towards the end of the reconstruction in 1875, in states like Mississippi, Florida, and South Carolina approximately half of all children went to school. With the same amount of knowledge available to African Americans as there was for whites, it led them to get slightly better jobs, with better pay. The main idea behind African Americans being given the right to a school system was a good one, as well as an important addition to the South’s new government. However it subconsciously began the insatiable chain reaction of segregation. Segregation existed in all the public universities, except in New Orleans and the University of South Carolina. Instead of following the African Americans into an already established schooling that the whites set up and attended, their 14th Amendment rights were violated, and they were placed in a separate school. As much as the Reconstruction failed to change in equal educational rights, it failed in civil rights as well. A person can easily say that the only successful social achievement that came out of the Reconstruction was the 14th Amendment. Stating that “ state shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of laws; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” (This was the first national definition of citizenship in American History, and it attempted to protect civil rights against state interferences.) Most white southerners overlooked the 14th Amendment, and saw it as an insignificant amendment. And as result of the dismissal of the 14th Amendment most private, and public companies like steamboats, hotels, and railroads either refused to serve blacks or set up separated facilities. The Second goal that the Reconstruction attempted to achieve was the redistribution of land to African Americans and poor whites. However the distribution of homesteads, or seizure of land, one of Thaddeus Steven’s ideas, met with little success. One reason was because the North and South resisted as much as it was in their power to delay or terminate the idea. In addition to this, most times the government was seizing land from Indian and Mexican nations, and then would later give most of it to railroads, land speculators, and small cultivators. Lastly the Reconstruction attempted to change African Americans lives one last time, by giving them political freedom. With the new constitutions they were able to work as sheriffs, mayors, justices, and take seats in the city council. Very few took seats in congress, and the senate, but there were still some African Americans who did. These new jobs dealing with the local government gave them the power to determine the rights entitled to all African American’s as well as their political future. The Reconstruction gave African Americans the right to an education, the benefits of hospitals, and they became part of the legal system as Sheriffs, police officers, judges and jurors. All these rights and benefits were given as a result of the new southern state constitutions created by blacks and whites together. However, like many benefits and rights given to African Americans during the Reconstruction, they soon disappeared. In relation to the legal system, after the Reconstruction “few blacks remained on local police forces or in state militias” and except for a few places “blacks no longer served on southern juries”. The South was transformed for African Americans during the reconstruction, but southern democrats quickly reversed many of the benefits gained during that time during the Redemption. The Reconstruction placed African Americans on a whole new standpoint economically and socially. African Americans went from slave laborer and piece of possession to an equal citizen who could own land, earn wages and make economic decisions. Sharecropping was also instituted during this time and it gave laborers on other peoples plantations “a share of the harvest”. These new jobs African Americans gained, from their political freedom, led them to the only right no one could ever withhold from them. The only goal that reconstruction followed through on was brought forth on March 30, of 1870. From the Reconstruction the 15th Amendment was proclaimed. African Americans were taking a major step towards economic equality during the Reconstruction. This, however, was all repressed by the redemption. Almost every economic and social benefit gained by the African Americans during the Reconstruction was lost during the redemption. The reason why the Reconstruction fell short was because near the end of a 12-year struggle from the Radical Republicans, their determination slowly faded. Towards the end of the Reconstruction era, most grew tired of the ideas behind it, felt that there was no progress and eventually gave in. To compensate for their struggles the Democrats came to an agreement in 1876. Democrats agreed to allow Rutherford B. Hayes to run for the 1867 elections. In return for this the Radical Republicans had to give up the ideas of the Reconstruction, as well as giving the South back it’s political power to self govern. At this point the Radical Republicans were deserting their struggles for the recently emancipated African Americans. Overall the reconstruction was a temporary gain for African Americans and eventually turned out to be a bust, although it did set the legal basis for events later to come, which did create equal rights for African Americans. Although the Reconstruction failed to achieve most of the goals it set out to accomplish, which was because of the determination of redeemers as well as the resistance from North and South’s, it was a rebirth for the nation as well as for the lives of most African Americans. In the long run, after the Reconstruction was over, things didn’t go totally back to the way it was before, African Americans had more rights than before the Reconstruction. But the hopes and dreams that many blacks thought they finally achieved during the Reconstruction were quickly crushed afterwards. Most importantly, the Reconstruction was the primary event in American History that led to a bigger change in their lives. The Reconstruction had its share of successes, just as it had its share of failures. It was the turning point in American History where life was supposed to start anew. African Americans gained and then lost the right to exercise voting rights, uses of hospitals, to become part of the legal system, to own land, to have political power, the right to a good education, and much more. After Republicans lost interest in supporting African American rights and Democrats regained political and economic control of the South, the racially segregated and capitalist government flourished again. The Reconstruction did, for a short time, transform the South for African Americans, but most rights and benefits gained during that time were lost to Democrats during the Redemption. The Redemption turned the Reconstruction into an economic, political, and social loss for most African Americans throughout the South. After more than 2 centuries of being emancipated, African Americans were given a new life. This phrase a new life was not the life of equality. However it was still a change from enslavement. This was the single and most important success of the Reconstruction. When it liberated African Americans in the South, it also replaced enslavement for segregation. When dealing with a historical event such as this one, a person has to look at what the Reconstruction has cost African Americans and what it has brought them in return, then they must answer the question “was it all worth while?”

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