Life for African-Americans following the Civil War

Emancipation (1863)

The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1st 1863, two years before the end of the American Civil War conflict. It was not a law passed by Congress, but a proclamation made by Lincoln, who had the constitutional authority to do so because he was commander in chief of the armed Union forces.

The document proclaimed the freedom of slaves in the ten states that were still in rebellion and overall more than three million of the four million slaves in the country at that time. For the first time since their transportation from Africa, black slaves were legally free. Laws were also passed to make it illegal for people to be denied the vote or discriminated against because of the colour of their skin.

Despite these good intentions, black Americans still faced hostility, bigotry and persecution and all sides involved in the conflict faced another two years of intense fighting until the war ended in 1865.

Reconstruction – and segregation

When hostilities ended, a period of reconstruction was undertaken in the south. Most white southerners continued to believe that former slaves were inferior in every way and had to be kept in their place, being regarded as second-class citizens. For many white Americans, the question of equal rights for black Americans was unthinkable.

Although migration to the North and the West began soon after the Civil War ended, the majority of black Americans still lived in the southern states where white superiority was enforced and where slave culture was still remembered and embraced by white inhabitants.

The Jim Crow laws

A series of laws nicknamed the Jim Crow laws were enacted to keep the races separated and the black population under control. These laws enforced the strict segregation of black and white people:

  • Public transport, shops, hotels, theatres and libraries were segregated, with separate rooms and facilities for the different races
  • Marriage between blacks and whites was illegal
  • Black and white children were educated in separate schools
  • Black employees were paid less and were only allowed to have jobs of low importance, such as cleaners or household servants
  • In the South, residential areas were strictly separated according to race.

Racial violence and white supremacy

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was founded in 1866 and became a focus for white southern resistance to Reconstruction-era policies which aimed to establish political and economic equality for blacks.

After the Civil war, KKK members ran an underground campaign of intimidation and violence against Republican leaders and voters (both black and white) to try to restore white supremacy in the South, by preventing former slaves and freed blacks from entering politics. Black schools and churches were also targets for Klan attacks.

Klan activity increased in the early twentieth century with rallies, parades and marches that denounced immigrants, Catholics, Jews, blacks and unionised labour. The civil rights movement of the 1960s also saw serious Ku Klux Klan activity, including bombings of black schools and churches and violence against black and white activists in the South. See The Color Purple: Social and political context > The American Civil Rights movement.

The organisation’s membership crossed class lines and local law enforcement officials often either belonged to the Klan or refused to take action against it. Klan members arrested for violence were frequently acquitted because witnesses were unwilling to testify against them.

How religion was used to justify terrorism 

  • The Klan justified its terrorist activities in part through a stated intention of ‘re-establishing Protestant Christian values in America by any means possible’
  • Klansmen often conducted the ritual of setting fire to a large wooden cross to intimidate their targets and to demonstrate their ‘respect and reverence for Jesus Christ
  • The ritual of lighting crosses was often accompanied by prayer and the singing of Christian hymns
  • Hostilities were not only directed against black victims, but also against Jews and Roman Catholics.

Economic factors affecting African-Americans


After Reconstruction, African-Americans soon found themselves reliant for employment on the same people who were once their owners. Instead of being enslaved by plantation owners, African-Americans became sharecroppers, a system in which small farmers rented farm space, supplies and tools to harvest cotton.

The boll weevil and collapse of the cotton industry

Between 1910 and 1920 an insect known as the boll weevil damaged cotton crops throughout the South. As a result, cotton farming collapsed and many African-American farmers became unemployed.

World War I and the demand for workers

When the United States decided to enter World War I in 1917, factories in northern and midwestern cities faced extreme labour shortages. More than five million men enlisted in the army and the US government had also halted immigration from European countries. To make up the shortage in labour, agents from various industrial sectors arrived in the South to persuade African-American men and women to move north.

The Great Migration

The prospect of better educational and housing opportunities, as well as higher pay, persuaded thousands of black workers to relocate to northern cities over the next half century. From 1916 to 1970 millions of African-Americans moved from the rural South to the cities of the North, Midwest and West to seek better employment and to escape the unsatisfactory conditions, lack of employment and harsh segregationist laws in the South.

Although migrants were still forced to deal with poor working conditions and competition for living space, as well as widespread racism and prejudice, they began to create for themselves - and inhabit - the sphere of public life. The Great Migration also began a new era of increasing political activism among African-Americans, who found a new place for themselves in civic activity in the cities of the North and West. African-American churches played a significant role in this development.

Black migration slowed in the 1930s during the Great Depression, but increased during the Second World War (in which America was involved from 1942-45).By 1970 the South was home to less than half of the country’s African-Americans, with only twenty five per cent living in the region’s rural areas.

The Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement was an attempt to secure for African-Americans equal access to - and opportunities for - basic privileges and rights, as citizens of the United States. The roots of the movement began in the nineteenth century and peaked in the 1950s and 1960s.

African-American men and women, along with whites, organized and led the movement at national and local levels. They pursued their aims through the courts, by negotiation, petitions, and non-violent protest demonstrations. The Civil Rights Movement was the largest social movement of the twentieth century. It also influenced the women's rights movement and the student movement of the 1960s in the United States. Civil rights addressed three main areas of discrimination: education, social segregation, and voting rights. For more detail, see The Color Purple: Social and political context > The American Civil Rights movement.

The role of black churches in the civil rights movement

Black churches were often the only organisations where African-Americans had a measure of freedom from white control, enabling congregations to develop political and social leadership and to look after the interests of the black community.

African-American congregations were active in developing schools, banks, insurance companies and low-income housing. Black pastors were paid by their churches, not by white-led institutions. This meant that they could undertake roles in addition to being clergy, such as being community leaders, social justice activists and leaders of civil rights organisations.

The SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference)

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed in 1957, with the aim of advancing the cause of civil rights in America in a non-violent manner. Originally called the ‘Southern Negro Leaders’ Conference on Transportation and Non-violent Integration’, the name change to Southern Christian Leadership Conference emphasised the spiritual nature of the organisation by including the word ‘Christian’.

The Revd. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr King was a Baptist minister and an advocate for peaceful racial equality, who led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was also a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored (sic) People (NAACP).

King was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of non-violence and used them in his fight against racial discrimination, leading many non-violent protests for civil rights with other black civil rights ministers such as Ralph Abernathy (King's closest associate), Bernard Lee, Fred Shuttlesworth and C.T. Vivian.

On August 28th 1963 at an historic march in Washington DC for jobs, freedom, racial equality and the end of discrimination, Martin Luther King delivered his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. The following year he received a Nobel Peace Prize for his work in opposing racial inequality through non-violence.

King also protested against America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Dr King was assassinated on April 4th 1968 on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee.

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