Why didn't the abolition of slavery lead to racial equality in America?

The abolition of slavery in the United States of America is arguably one of the most significant events in history – but the aftermath failed black Americans.

President Abraham Lincoln’s actions during the Civil War had ensured that the slaves were emancipated, but his assassination in 1865 hit the movement for equal rights hard.

The century that followed would demonstrate that the freeing of slaves was only the beginning of a terrible struggle for equality for black people and freedmen.

Reconstruction, the period that followed the American Civil War, attempted to rebuild the south under the new progressive values of equality – but the president who followed Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, directed less energy directed towards integrating slaves and black people into society, and as such the project waned.

David Gleeson is a professor of American History at Northumbria University, and he believes more could have been done.

“I don’t think the effort was enforced enough,” says Professor Gleeson. “The federal government backed off, although having said that, the violence of the white opposition was a massive factor.”

He continued: “There was an opportunity there at the end of the war, with the south defeated. Andrew Johnson came in and talked tough, but then kind of dangled the prospect in front of ex-Confederates that ‘you accepted slavery’s over, you come back into the union and I don’t care what happens after that’.”

The result was that the new rights of black people in the south lacked protection, and a set of rules that came to be known as the Jim Crow laws pushed black people and white people apart through the notion of “separate but equal”.

These laws – which were passed towards the end of the 19th century but stayed in force until the 1960s – forced black people to use different, and often inferior facilities, such as public transport and restaurants in the former Confederate states.

Professor John Oldfield, of the University of Hull, is the director of the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation. He believes that the issue of integration for slaves and black people was always a secondary thought.

“My sense is that most congressmen’s first priority was to get the Union back together again – dealing with the freedman would come later,” says Professor Oldfield.

“That was the basis of Lincoln’s 10% plan, for instance. Had he lived he might just have pulled this off. His successor, Andrew Johnson, was the real problem here.”

Prof Gleeson explains that it was political turbulence that undermined the efforts of Reconstruction, and that perhaps with unity, the project could have made more ground.

“It’s the early 1870s where things begin to fall apart, (Ulysses S) Grant’s re-election,” he said. “The split in the Republican party, charges of corruption – the north becomes disinterested and the administration is discredited, the administration of radical reconstruction. The Republicans and the radicals are dividing, while the opposition is uniting.”

All this meant that, whatever good intentions people started out with, Reconstruction failed black America in ways that continue to be felt to this day.

Prof Gleeson said: “When I teach the Civil Rights movement, we often call it the second Reconstruction, and I ask my students, ‘well what does that mean about the first one?’ That it didn’t work really well.”

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