After the Civil War, Congress championed the cause of newly freed African Americans by enacting the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment provided citizenship and equal protection under the law. The Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed black men the right to vote. Other legislation to enforce these amendments followed.
However, between 1873 and 1883 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a series of decisions that set back federal efforts to protect the civil rights of African Americans until 1957, when the first civil rights law since Reconstruction was passed. In the South, where ninety percent of African Americans lived, state constitutions were amended to legalize disenfranchisement. The Ku Klux Klan resorted to beating, lynching, and burning homes to reinforce white supremacy. Black labor was bound to the land as peonage and sharecropping replaced the antebellum plantation system of slavery. In both the North and the South, African Americans were segregated by law and by custom in schools, public accommodations, housing, transportation, armed forces, recreational facilities, hospitals, prisons, and cemeteries.
In 1896 the Supreme Court sanctioned legal separation of the races in its ruling in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which stated that separate but equal facilities did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. Science, history, and popular culture bolstered racial policy by promoting the myth of Negro inferiority. By the turn of the twentieth century, African Americans found themselves reduced to a color-caste system almost as oppressive and destructive as the chattel slavery they had endured. A new wave of racial violence swept the U.S., erupting in a torrent of lynchings and race riots. The worst of these riots occurred in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908.
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