During the Second Reconstruction, African-Americans once again began holding various political offices, and reasserting and reclaiming their civil and political rights as American citizens. Unlike the first period of Reconstruction most African-Americans abandoned the Republican Party for the Democratic Party. A noteworthy feature of Second Reconstruction was the political realignment that occurred in 1965, which transformed the nature and composition of both the Republican and Democratic Parties, eroding the Democratic Solid South.
Post-World War II Civil Rights
Improving the status of blacks during the Second Reconstruction was a movement fostered by multiple facets of public life, including solidarity among the black population and the positive response of institutions for more progressive policies. The Second Reconstruction also marked an increased focus on the spiritual, which has been referred to as “the Negro community within American Protestantism.” Religious practices, black churches, and the formation of congregations from an anthropological perspective all became subjects of academic scholarship.
Traditional feelings of race began to dissipate after World War II among the generation which participated in the fight against Nazis and fascism. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802 had created a Fair Employment Practices Commission and prohibited racial discrimination in companies and unions related to national defense. The result was a pervasive presence of blacks in government: the number of black federal employees increased from 50,000 to 200,000 between 1933 and 1946, building upon the substantial black presence during World War II, in which over three million black men registered for the service. During the war, membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People increased sevenfold to 351,000 members. In addition, 12 percent of all voting-age blacks in the South were registered by 1947, a 10 percent increase from the 2 percent in 1940. During 1937 to 1938, there were 10 bills introduced in Congress focused on or related to civil rights; that increased to 72 bills by 1949 to 1950. Additionally, 83,000 black women and men between the ages of 18 to 24 were enrolled in universities by 1950, constituting 4.5 percent of their demographic. Similarly, there were many gains in job equality, as the “median income of nonwhite wage- and salary-earners had risen from 41 percent of the white median in 1939 to 60 percent in 1950; the percentage of male black workers in white-collar and professional jobs had risen from 5.6 in 1940 to 7.2 in 1950, and that of craftsmen and operatives from 16.6 percent of the total in 1940 to 28.8 percent in 1950.”
Key Executive and Judicial Events
In the executive branch, President Truman established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, which produced the October 1947 report entitled “To Secure These Rights”. The report recommended establishing a permanent Civil Rights Commission and the creation of a civil rights division in the U.S. Department of Justice. One year later, in 1948, Executive Order 9981 desegregated the armed forces. In addition, there were legislative victories during the Second Reconstruction. One of the most significant cases was the May 17, 1954 ruling of Oliver Brown, et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, et al. The Supreme Court declared that separate educational facilities “are inherently unequal” and violated the Equal Protection Clause stipulated in the Fourteenth Amendment. Additionally, the Supreme Court ruled, in Smith v. Allwright, by a vote of 8 to 1, to outlaw the white primary. In the 1960s, the Supreme Court issued a series of decisions for the collective set of cases known as the “reapportionment cases”. The cases called for representation in the legislatures to be dictated by population. The case Gray v. Sanders was responsible for establishing the principle of “one man, one vote.” Wesberry v. Sanders resulted in the nullification of Georgia’s unequal congressional districts, while Reynolds v. Sims resulted in state legislatures being equal in population, utilizing the Fourteenth Amendment to entitle each citizen to equal representation in state legislator elections.
Besides judicial victories, there were numerous laws passed that furthered the political standing of minority groups. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 established the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for two years and created a civil rights division in the Justice Department. The execution of the act, however, was limited, as it was difficult to enforce voting laws and take punitive action against those who violated the act’s tenets. Subsequently, new legislation was passed to solve some of the shortcomings of the act: the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act corrected loopholes in its predecessor and was far-ranging and extensive in scope: Title II prohibited discrimination in public accommodations, while Titles II and IV expanded this to state and municipal facilities, and Title V outlawed discrimination in programs receiving federal aid.
To correct voting practices, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Johnson on August 6, 1965. The act outlawed literacy tests as a requirement for voter registration, as well as allocated federal poll watchers that acted as oversight for areas with some history of discriminatory practices. In effect, it became a crime to impede a citizen’s ability to vote. The voting legislation had a measurable impact, particularly among those residing in southern states. 60 percent of all southern blacks were registered to vote by 1969, and by 1975, 1.5 million African Americans were registered to vote in the South. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 would be the concluding legislative milestone for the Second Reconstruction. Approved in March 1968, the act provided equal housing opportunities, outlawing discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing. In addition, the act also provisioned punitive action against violent or intimidating acts. As a result of the rights granted by these acts, African-American representation in the House of Representatives more than doubled between 1965 and 1971.
End of the Second Reconstruction
The primary mechanism by which people organized to preserve white supremacy and combat the Second Reconstruction was through Citizens’ Councils. These councils originated from Mississippi in the summer of 1954 and would spread to the South, acquiring nearly 250,000 members. The Citizens’ Councils of America, the confederation of segregation associations, were united in their goals, but operated under various names, such as the Southern Gentlemen, the White Brotherhood, and the Christian Civic League. In response to the racial integration verdict of Brown v. Board of Education, many southern congressmen drafted and signed the Southern Manifesto in March 1956. Indicating a retreat from civil rights activism, the document outlined the court’s “clear abuse of judicial power” and promised “lawful means” of resistance.
In the same way, however, that Reconstruction was followed by Redemption, some have also claimed that period following Second Reconstruction could be termed a Second Redemption characterized by more conservatism on the part of the federal government, and several Supreme Court decisions that weakened the scope of civil rights reforms, especially in the Northern States.
- Second Redemption
- Redemption (U.S. history)
- American Civil War
- American Civil Rights Movement
- Turner, John B., and Whitney M. Young Jr. “Who has the Revolution or Thoughts on the Second Reconstruction.” Daedalus 94.4, The Negro American (1965): 1148-63. Web.
- Wood, Peter H. “‘I Did the Best I Could for My Day’: The Study of Early Black History during the Second Reconstruction, 1960 to 1976.” The William and Mary Quarterly 35.2 (1978): 185-225. Web.
- Carleton, William G. “The Second Reconstruction: An Analysis from the Deep South.” The Antioch Review 18.2 (1958): 171-82. Web.
- Sitkoff, Harvard. “The Second Reconstruction.” The Wilson Quarterly (1976-) 8.2 (1984): 48-59. Web.
- Marable, Manning. Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction and Beyond in Black America, 1945-2006., 2007. Print.
- US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives. “The Civil Rights Movement And The Second Reconstruction, 1945—1968.” Web.
- Webb, Clive. Massive Resistance: Southern Opposition to the Second Reconstruction. 2005. Print.
- McMillen, Neil R. The Citizens’ Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction, 1954-64., 1994. Print.
- The End of the Second Reconstruction
- Eric Foner and Joshua Brown, Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2005, 225-238.
- Eric Foner, Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World. New York: Hill and Wang, 16-18.
- C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955).
- Kousser, J. Morgan, "The Supreme Court And The Undoing of the Second Reconstruction," National Forum, (Spring 2000).