Radical Reconstruction

The policies set in motion by the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which came to be known as "Radical Reconstruction," led to a social revolution in the South. Black men jumped at the chance to vote and have a say in their state governments. In fact, more blacks than whites registered to vote in five Southern states. But many of these new voters showed a willingness to vote for white candidates. South Carolina was the only Southern state in which black delegates outnumbered white delegates at the constitutional convention.

In general, the delegates in the Southern states cooperated in making their constitutions more fair for all citizens. Most states guaranteed equal civil rights for whites and blacks, established fairer tax systems, reformed prisons and reduced the sentences for certain crimes, granted greater rights to women, reformed hospitals and institutions for the insane, and increased assistance for the poor. Every new state constitution created a public school system that was open to children of both races, although schools were still segregated. The Southern states also eliminated laws that required people to own property in order to vote or hold public office. Historians have remarked on the fairness of the new constitutions created by the delegates. "The constitutions drawn up by these bodies were revolu tionary only by the standards of conservative white supremacy which had prevailed in the South," Trelease wrote. "Most of them were modeled on Northern state constitutions and, in many aspects, on earlier Southern documents."

According to Congress's formula, a majority of registered voters in each state had to approve the new constitution in order for it to take effect. Alabama was the first state to hold its election. Many white voters who opposed the changes decided not to vote as a form of protest. As a result, the new constitution was approved by a majority of the people who actually voted, but not by enough people to pass. Congress quickly changed its rule so that the new constitutions could take effect when they were approved by a majority of the people who cast votes. Elections for the new state governments were held at the same time as the votes on the new constitutions. Once again, the changes were less radical than some people anticipated. Black men played a role in the government of each state, but usually a minor one. Blacks became school principals, sheriffs, mayors, and legislators for the first time in much of the South. But there were still no black governors, only two black U.S. senators, and twenty black U.S. representatives during Reconstruction.

Most of the Southern states— with their new governments and constitutions—were readmitted to the Union in 1868. (Tennessee had been readmitted in 1866, after it had ratified the Fourteenth Amendment. Georgia, Mississippi, Virginia, and Texas had trouble passing their new constitutions and were not readmitted until 1870.) To ensure that the new state governments would remain in power, the U.S. Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1868. This amendment guaranteed black voting rights and prohibited the states from restricting them. It was ratified by the states two years later.

Black people still lacked economic and social power in the South. For example, many black families could not afford land of their own and remained sharecroppers. But they finally held some political power. "For the first time in their lives, many felt they had a place in their state. They could vote for their leaders and thus have a say in laws and taxes," William Loren Katz wrote in his book An Album of Reconstruction. "But this democracy depended on cooperation between whites who had always been told they were superior, and black people who had always been told they were inferior. How long would it hold up?"

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