But this is not true for black Americans. They won, then lost, fundamental rights at the hands of the Supreme Court. It would take decades to reclaim even some of these rights. Understanding that history may well be the key to helping America deal with another daunting chapter of rights granted and then denied.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, during Reconstruction, the United States enacted a series of laws to elevate the proximity of 4 million former slaves. The 14th amendment enjoy equal protection before the law and 15th amendment granted black men the right to vote. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875 which prohibited racial discrimination in public places. Black elected officials and some white elected officials have worked together to ensure equality through state and local laws throughout the South.
Just as these coalitions began to push for change, white Americans in the South began a violent campaign in the late 1860s this overthrew biracial governmentstook power for white Democrats and flouted federal laws protecting black rights.
At the start of Reconstruction, many wealthy white Southerners who were able to seize power adopted what was called a “cooperative” approach. They claimed their violence was aimed at ending alleged corruption among black politicians and promised that any restrictions they placed on black rights would be limited. But this supposedly moderate view gave way to extreme measures aimed at ending all participation of blacks in political and social life equal to that of whites.
Ultimately, this extremism was reinforced by the Supreme Court.
Instead of reinforcing the newly won rights of black Americans, the conservative the court effectively terminated them. In 1876, the court ruled that the 15th Amendment did not grant anyone the right to vote. In a grouping of five decisions known as the “Civil Rights Cases”, the court in 1883 struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and ruled that the 13th and 14th Amendments did not give Congress the power to prohibit private acts of racial discrimination. On the contrary, the court held that black people should look to the states for protection. In 1896, the court ratified pure and simple segregation in Plessy versus Ferguson.
The effect of this era on the political representation of blacks is undeniable. In 1870, Alonzo J. Ransier – one of South Carolina’s first black congressmen – became the state’s first elected black lieutenant governor. As a high-level elected official, he helped secure the educational, electoral, and civil rights of former slaves. By the time Ransier is dead by 1882 he was a forgotten street cleaner and most of those hard-earned rights were gone.
The parallels with abortion rights are now clear: a decades-long assault on previously established rights has shattered them, upheld by a conservative Supreme Court.
The rights of black citizens would not be regained until more than 50 years after the Plessy decision, when, in the midst of the civil rights movement, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional in Brown v Board of Education, and Congress also passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. than the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
However, the experience of Black Reconstruction has suffered from two obstacles that the abortion rights movement may be able to overcome.
First, the Supreme Court’s civil rights work was met with the exhaustion and indifference of white moderates in the 1880s, who actually renounced after 20 years of trying to secure black rights against reactionary white Southerners. This must not be the case today. A majority of Americans support at least some access to abortioneven in most red states. This level of public support should buttress Congress’s attempts to codify Roe vs. Wade. Even if such legislation fails, the effort can avoid a loss of interest in the cause and keep it in the mind of a sympathetic public.
Civil rights during and after Reconstruction also faced the hurdle of voter suppression. Paramilitary groups and extremists, including the Ku Klux Klan, kept black voters away from the polls. On the other hand, while some anti-abortion activists have used violence, abortion rights supporters are not systematically disenfranchised as a group. They should use their political power in anti-abortion states to elect representatives who are committed to protecting reproductive choice.
The Supreme Court ruled that the Dobbs decision focused on abortion and no other rights. Black history with Reconstruction suggests otherwise – and appears to be predictive. Emboldened by attacks on abortion rights, several conservative politicians have voiced their support for a nationwide ban on abortion, the limits of contraception, recriminalize gay sex and ban same sex wedding one more time.
All Americans who consider an expansion of rights essential to our republic would do well to ignore the voices feigning moderation on the other side. Reconstruction teaches us that when extremist movements tell you where they are going, you should believe them. America should not backtrack on rights again.
Christopher M. Richardson is a former American diplomat and co-author of the “Historical Dictionary of the Civil Rights Movement“.