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Reconstruction: 1865–1877

End of Reconstruction

The presidential election of 1876 and Compromise of 1877 marked the official end of Reconstruction in the South.

The election of 1876 was one of the most contested and controversial presidential elections in United States history. Samuel J. Tilden, governor of New York, was the Democratic candidate. The Republican candidate was Rutherford B. Hayes, governor of Ohio. The Civil War and Reconstruction had put the country in an economic depression. Support for continued Reconstruction was waning even among Northern Republicans. Many among them felt it was necessary to compromise with Southern Democrats and end the federal occupation of the South. By 1876 only three states—Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina—had Republican governments. Democrats had succeeded in gaining control of the other Southern states.

Tilden held a clear lead in the popular vote on election day, and it appeared that he would win the Electoral College, as well. The electoral votes from the three Southern states still under Republican control were uncertain, along with one electoral vote in Oregon. Both candidates claimed victory in the contested states, and Congress eventually established the Electoral Commission to settle the matter.

Through a series of secret negotiations initiated by supporters of Hayes, an agreement was reached that would later be called the Compromise of 1877. A deal was struck between the two political parties that put Hayes in the presidency. In exchange, Hayes agreed to pull federal troops out of the three Southern states that remained federally occupied. This allowed Democrats to take over and effectively ended Reconstruction. All military occupation of the former Confederate states ceased, and politics once again were dominated by Democrats in the South. African Americans could no longer rely on federal protection of their civil liberties.

1876 Presidential Election

The close presidential election of 1876 triggered a political compromise that ended Reconstruction.

Jim Crow Era

Jim Crow laws were enacted across the South to restrict the civil rights and freedom of African Americans from 1877 to the 1950s.

In 1877 federal troops withdrew from the South, formally ending Reconstruction. This withdrawal also marked the beginning of the Jim Crow era. The Jim Crow era was the period from 1877 to the 1950s civil rights movement, during which Southern states passed laws restricting the freedom and civil rights of African Americans. Jim Crow laws were passed with the intention of promoting white supremacy and holding back African Americans. Pardoned Confederates who had taken public office enacted these Jim Crow laws and enforced racial segregation under the guise of providing "separate but equal" services and facilities. "Separate but equal" was a racial policy by which African Americans could be segregated from white people if the facilities and opportunities provided to both races were presumably equal. The policy institutionalized segregation, underscored black subordination to whites, and was enforced in most public places in the South, including schools, parks, and restaurants.

The 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson questioned the legality of this type of segregation. Plessy v. Ferguson tested the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause. The outcome devastated advocates of social justice. The final judgment upheld the right of states to enact laws that promoted racial segregation. The Supreme Court concluded that even though racial segregation may promote social inequality, the 14th Amendment only applied to legal equality. African Americans were forced to endure separate facilities and services inferior to those afforded white citizens in education, entertainment, housing, and virtually every aspect of daily life. This ruling stood until 1954, when it was overturned.

Laws designed to disenfranchise African American voters were enacted across the South during the Jim Crow era. Literacy tests were administered to African Americans. A literacy test required people to prove they could read and write before being allowed to vote. Establishing a poll tax—a fee charged to voters as a prerequisite for voting—was another way. To exempt anyone eligible to vote prior to 1876 or 1877 and their descendants from literacy tests and other obstacles to voting, legislators would insert a grandfather clause into the new law. This effectively restricted the rights of African American voters while preserving the rights of poor white people able to pay any required poll tax.

Rise of the Ku Klux Klan

The Ku Klux Klan, originally a social club for Confederate veterans, became a vehicle for violent resistance during Radical Reconstruction of the South.
Formed in 1866, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), grew into an extremist, violent group promoting Southern white supremacy in response to Radical Reconstruction in the South. Originally organized by Confederate veterans, the KKK's first leader is believed to have been General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Members of the organization sought to interfere with the civil rights of African Americans by terrorizing them and any white people who supported them. The members used violence and intimidation to restore white rule in several Southern states during Reconstruction. To hide their identities and frighten those they sought to terrorize, members wore white robes with pointed hoods and conducted raids by night. They often killed African Americans, as well as white people who opposed the KKK.

Intimidation of Blacks in the Jim Crow South

Political cartoonist Thomas Nast called attention to the postwar intimidation of African Americans by violent groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White League.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-128619
Concerned by the KKK's excessive violence, General Forrest tried unsuccessfully to disband the organization in 1869. Several laws, called the Force Acts, were passed by Congress in an attempt to rein in the group's activity. By the late 1870s most of the KKK had disbanded. Still, white supremacy was upheld by Jim Crow laws throughout the South. These oppressive laws allowed for legal and open discrimination and intimidation of African Americans, and a secretive terrorist organization was no longer necessary. Yet there was a revival of the Klan in the 1920s, mostly in opposition to Catholic and Jewish immigration. Membership swelled to an estimated 4 million. A decline during the Great Depression was followed by another surge in activity during the 1960s civil rights movement. By the turn of the 21st century, the KKK had an estimated 3,000 members—a decline of over 99 percent since the 1920s.