How Freed Slaves and Their Posterity Were Denied the Right to Vote and Hold Public Office

“In Honor of Juneteenth”

Destroying the Hopes and Dreams of Freed Slaves

Forging compromises is an integral part of politics and governance.  The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were the products of countless compromises. Some compromises are distasteful, like the 3/5 compromised in the Constitution. But the worst compromise in U.S. history is the informal “Compromise of 1877.”


Republican President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation gave enslaved African Americans hope.  Their prayers for freedom were finally answered. Or so they thought.

The Emancipation Proclamation was an Executive Order. Its constitutional validity and legal efficacy were uncertain. Slavery was not constitutionally outlawed, and freedom was not statutorily guaranteed.

Months after the Union victory in April 1865, Blacks mobilized to make their dreams a reality.  They held meetings, sponsored parades, and circulated petitions calling for legal and political rights, including the all-important right to vote.

Reconstruction and Civil War Amendments

President Ulysses S. Grant and his fellow Republicans in Congress sponsored the 13th Amendment, prohibiting slavery and guaranteeing “liberty for all.” The Republicans were united in their support, and the Democrats were united in their opposition. Fortunately, the majority Republicans won. (Recall, the Republican Party was the anti-slavery party. That was its major platform. The Democrat Party was considered “White Man’s” Party.)

Congressional Republicans and President Grant also sponsored the 14th Amendment, giving African Americans citizenshipcivil rights, “equal protection,” and “justice for all.”  Again, the Republicans were united in their support, and the Democrats were united in their opposition. Again, the majority Republicans won.

Finally, the Republicans sponsored the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing Black males the right to vote.  Again, Republicans were united in their support, and the Democrats were almost as united in their opposition. Fortunately, the majority Republicans won.

Election and Republican Black Power

“The First Colored Senator and Representatives”
Joseph Raney, 1st Black Congressman
Hiram Revels, 1st Black Senator

Inspired and embolden by these Civil War Amendments, Blacks became a political tidal wave that swept through the South. Soon, 1517 Black Republicans were elected to local, state, and federal office, including the first African American U.S. Senators and U.S. Representatives.  In the first election, 15 Black Republicans were elected to the House and one Black Republican was elected to the Senate.

White Supremacist Democrats Fight Back

The Democrats fought back. 

They launched a massive public relations campaign. The southern Democrat press called the integrated legislatures “menageries” and “monkey houses.” They ridiculed former slaves as too “incompetent” to draft laws.  Black officials were branded as “ignorant,” “illiterate,” and “property less” “They lacked the education and the economic wherewithal to take part intelligently in government.”

The Democrats also fought back via the Ku Klux Klan, using intimidation and violence. The KKK targeted Black officials.  At least 35 Black representatives were murdered by the Klan.

President Grant Cripples the KKK

Having fought to free enslaved African Americans, President Grant pushed back.  The Republican Congress pass anti-KKK laws, and federal troops in the South enforced those laws and the Civil War Amendments. Grant crippled the KKK – for a time.

The Election of 1886 and the Compromise 1887

After the Republicans won the 1876 presidential election, congressional Democrats filibustered and refused to confirm the results. Without congressional confirmation, the country would be left without a president and vice-president. Chaos would ensue.

In 1877, the Democrats and Republicans reached a compromise. The Democrats agreed to allow the swearing in of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. And, the Republicans agreed to remove all federal troops from Confederate states, and let the South deal with the Blacks without northern interference.

This was a tipping point.  It was the worst political compromise in U.S. history.  It marked the end of the hard-won freedoms and civil rights for African Americans in the South.

The White Racist South is “Redeemed”

When the federal troops left the South, Reconstruction died.  So did all hope of enforcement of the Civil War Amendments. Nor was there any hope of enforcing anti-KKK laws.  

The Democrats were finally “Redeemed,” and the white supremacists returned to power. The official “white man’s party” was emboldened, and the “Negro dominated” Republican Party was demonized.  The Democrats were determined to “redeem” the southern states by any means, peacefulfraudulentviolent, and deadly.  

One Black leader lamented, “Every state in the South was now in the hands of the very men who held us as slaves.”

Disfranchising Laws

The southern legislatures passed “disfranchising” laws. They enacted:

  • Poll taxes, so only the well-to-do could vote.
  • Literacy tests, so only the well-educated could vote.
  • Grandfather clauses, so only those whose grandfathers had voted could vote.
  • Property requirements, so only those who owned land could vote.  

Hundreds of thousands of newly freed slaves were wiped off the voting rolls.

The slaves went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery“. (W.E.B. DuBois)

Jim Crow Discrimination Laws

The southern Democrats were not satisfied with denying the right to vote and removing political power from freed Blacks.  They went even further and enacted Jim Crow criminal laws to segregate society. For example:

  • “It shall be unlawful for a negro and a white person to play cards, dice, dominoes, or checkers together”
  • “No colored barber shall serve a white woman or girl.”
  • Blacks were not allowed to use the same hearse as whites.
  • White and blacks were segregated vis a vis fishing, boating, and swimming.
  • Blacks were penalized for changing jobs.
  • Access to the courts was limited to whites.
  • Public transportation, public restrooms, and public drinking fountains were segregated.
  • Schools were segregated.
  • It was a crime to employ white female nurses to care for black males.
  • Restaurants were segregated.
  • Interracial dating and marriage were crimes.
  • Public parks and swimming pools were segregated.

Erasing the Historical Record

As if disfranchising Blacks, and legally forcing them into an inferior second-class status weren’t enough, the southern Democrats tried to completely erase Black political leaders from the official historical records. “I am not going to include these Black legislators because it would be absurd to record the lives of men who were but yesterday our slaves and whose past careers embrace such occupations as boot blacking, shaving, table waiting, and the like.”

The Long-term Effects of the 1877 Compromise

With the Compromise of 1877, African American Republicans felt betrayed as they lost voting rights and political power. By 1905, nearly all Black men were effectively disenfranchised in the South.

Having finally been granted their freedom, their citizenship, their civil rights, especially their right to vote, the hopes of African Americans were crushed.  Their dreams turned to nightmares.

It took another 100 years for the voting and civil rights of African Americans in the South to be restored. The country is still feeling the tremors from those “dreams deferred.”                                  

                            What happens to a dream deferred?
                                       Does it dry up
                                       like a raisin in the sun?
                                       Or fester like a sore—
                                       And then run?
                                       Does it stink like rotten meat?
                                       Or crust and sugar over—
                                       like a syrupy sweet?
                                       Maybe it just sags
                                       like a heavy load.
                                       Or does it explode?

-Langston Hughes

( Sources: “Grant Takes on the Klan,” H.W. Brands, History Net,; “How Power Grabs in the South Erased Reforms After Reconstruction,” Becky Little, History, 20 Dec 2018;“Compromise of 1877,” “African Americans in the U.S. Congress,” “Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” “Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” “Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” “Jim Crow Laws,” “Redeemers,” “List of African-American U.S. Senators,” “List of African American U.S. Representatives,” “Hiram Rhodes Revels,” Joseph Rainey,” Wikipedia; “Black Officeholders in the South: Facing History and Ourselves,”; “Freedom’s Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders during Reconstruction,” Eric Foner;  “Black Leaders During Reconstruction,” The Editors,

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