What were the lasting effects of Reconstruction?

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The Civil War (1861–1865) was by far the bloodiest in the nation's history. Reconciliation of the North and the South was not an easy undertaking. Reconstruction (1865–1877) was, at best, only a partial success.

Abraham Lincoln had wanted to reconcile with Southerners and take them back into the Union as effortlessly as possible. But Congress opposed him, and Lincoln was assassinated in 1865 before he could implement his plan.

After Lincoln had been killed, there was a virulent quarrel between Congress and the man who had replaced Lincoln, Andrew Johnson. Congress wanted to punish the South and protect and aid its former slaves. In 1868, Johnson was almost impeached.

Public opinion in the North grew weary of Reconstruction. Although most Northerners wanted freedmen to play a role in the postbellum South, they were not willing to keep troops there in perpetuity to safeguard the rights of freedmen.

The South disliked the military occupation it endured during Reconstruction. Also, former slaves were subject to black codes and the Ku Klux Klan. After Reconstruction had ended in 1877, the South implemented systematic segregation which remained in place for a century. Blacks in the South were deprived of most of their rights.

Reconstruction did not bring the North and South together. The two sides still disagreed on what caused the war. The war had some beneficial results too: The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were an important legacy of Reconstruction. Slavery was dead. But there is still a lasting sense of division today. That division is evident in electoral maps showing how the North and South vote in presidential elections.

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The most significant lasting effect of Reconstruction was that the issues of racial equality and civil rights were effectively ignored at the national level for the better part of a century. Although Reconstruction was ostensibly concerned with these issues, it lacked the sustained political energy required to make a positive lasting impact on the lives of African Americans.

The changes that took place during Reconstruction were broad, rather than deep. African Americans in the Southern states were allowed to vote and run for public office, but the underlying racial prejudice against them remained; if anything, it was even stronger than it had been before the Civil War. Even the most ardent supporters of Reconstruction didn't believe in racial equality; their attitudes towards race were disturbingly similar to those harbored by the vast majority of Southern whites.

As Reconstruction was a political measure which did not address the underlying issues, it was completely reliant on sustained commitment from policy-makers in Washington. Inevitably, this proved to be an inadequate foundation for Reconstruction. Over time, interest in the policy waned in the Northern states; people were tired of the issue and wanted to move on; and to put the matter bluntly, there were no votes in it for either party.

Gradually, then, African Americans in the South were abandoned to white supremacist state legislatures, who set about re-introducing the substance of slavery through the back door, by way of the segregationist Jim Crow laws. The actions of Southern governors and legislatures were matched at the Federal level by the indifference of senators, congressmen, and Supreme Court justices. The systemic injustice and repression that arose from this toxic combination festered on for the next hundred years or so, until with the Supreme Court, in the case of Brown v Board of Education (1954), and the US Congress, which passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Federal authorities finally began fulfilling the promise the Reconstruction project begun, but never fully completed, almost a century before.

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