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Once freed, African Americans believed that the rights of a citizen were granted to them. They truthfully believed this because after a brutally fought war, basic rights such as education, land, and employment were so modest, they were undeniable. Even though they were proclaimed as free, their place is society remained unaffected. The Freedmen's Bureau became one of the earlier agencies to provide support for newly freedmen. The agency offered education, advice and protection to its members. The most significant asset of the bureau was education. The literacy rate of African Americans rose about twenty percent due to the organization. Some freedmen even attended colleges to earn degrees. Many white Southerners viewed the African American attempt at education as a waste of time. They condemned the efforts of their social improvement. With much criticism by racist whites and inadequate funds, the Freedmen's Bureau concluded by 1872 injuring African American hopes of social equality.
Another goal of African Americans was the ownership of land. To the freedmen, land ownership was equivalent to economic independency. However, they were mistaken. Economic independency was an unrealistic goal in the southern environment. As former slaves, African Americans were very familiar to the agricultural life style. As a result of Sherman's raids across the south, large plots of land were left uninhabited. Vast amounts of freedmen took the opportunity to occupy these lands. In 1866, Congress also passed the Southern Homestead Act giving African Americans access to public lands in five southern states. Contrary to what the freedmen believed, land ownership did not ensure financial success. Most land owned by African Americans was small and had an inferior value compared to white farms.
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While some freedmen stayed to work on farmland, others migrated to cities and towns. Their objective was to search for an occupation and their lost family members. Whites generally detested this movement because it reduced the labor force on farms. In the cities, African Americans also competed with whites for jobs and established organizations in hope of social and racial equality. African Americans typically inhabited the cheapest areas of the city. Most freedmen entered the cities untrained in any skill. Thus, they became a workforce of unskilled workers. The wages of the laboring class were sometimes below the subsistence level. Struggling with rent payments and putting food on the table, many viewed the laboring class of African Americans even worse than slavery itself.
As a result of special congressional elections, many chief confederate leaders returned to office. These newly elected southern legislatures formed a series of laws known as the Black Codes. These laws barred African Americans from certain jobs, attending a jury, and the possession of fire arms. Idleness among freedmen was also punished. The laws also gave the right to deprive African American parents of their children is they were deemed unable to support them. The Black Codes mock the newly won freedom of the freedmen. It acted as a heavy blow toward African American aspirations and ambition towards equality.
Fearing that the south would gain vast political power, the northern Republicans countered with a series of Bills that favored Black male suffrage and those that concluded the Black Codes. However, President Johnson vetoed these bills. As Congress became overrun with Republicans, they were able to override Johnson's veto with a 2/3 majority vote. Consequently, in 1866, the 14th Amendment was passed granting all African Americans citizenship. The 14th Amendment also prevented the states from violating the citizen's rights. The Amendment diminished the enforcement of Black Codes, but the violence towards blacks increased. The Military Reconstruction Acts of 1867 set rules for the readmission of the confederate states into the union. The Reconstruction Acts divided the south into five military zones, each headed with a Union general. The general would remain until a majority of eligible voters would vote on a new constitution that guaranteed universal male suffrage. Soon afterwards, the 15th Amendment was passed in response to the growing violence toward voting freedmen.
Freedmen even ventured into the political world. A network of political clubs known as the Union League was formed in order to campaign for republican candidates, and build institutions such as churches and schools for African Americans. African Americans became a major asset of the Republican Party generating a majority of the votes. Yet, they kept a low profile to prevent defiling the party's image. The League also recruited militias to protect the freedmen. Numerous freedmen even held political offices, becoming mayors, sheriffs, and other local office holding positions. White Southerners loathed seeing their former slaves with higher social standings.
Many white southerners were still persistent on maintaining their racial order even though laws have been passed to alter them. They became wretched due to the fact that their former slaves had gained numerous rights. These extremely racist white Southerners founded the Ku Klux Klan. The Ku Klux Klan was an organization that prevented African Americans from utilizing their gained rights by the use of terror and violence. Their violence and relentless murders are documented by Kathleen Gorman. She writes, "Felker and his Klan did not hesitate to murder freedmen who threatened Walton's social structure It was much more common for them to beat their victims." This statement by Gorman expresses the merciless and cruel actions taken by the Ku Klux Klan to ensure that the racial superiority of whites remained in the county of Walton. Klansmen confidently killed many freedmen for reasons such as knowing how to read and write. The Ku Klux Klan completely undermined the goals of abolitionists.
After decades of slavery, African Americans were finally emancipated after the Civil War. However, their inferior image remained in the white supremacist nation. South resistance rapidly demolished any African American ambitions. Although African Americans received the title of a citizen, their naïve dreams of complete equality were milestones away. In fact, it would take another century before their goals of equality and complete liberation are secured.
Goldfield, David. The American Journey: A History of the United States.
New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 1998.
Gorman, Kathleen. "A Klansman in Walton County."
Georgia Historical Quarterly LXXXI No. 4 (1997): 898- 914.
"Implementing Reconstruction, 1868-1873."
Emancipation and Reconstruction 74-101