In the years immediately following the Civil War, Reconstruction-era legislation granted African Americans full citizenship and voting rights. The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted equal protection under the law. Soon after it was ratified, and for decades to follow, this equal protection clause would be used to argue that segregation was unconstitutional.
In June of 1866, just after the Civil War, both houses of Congress passed landmark civil rights legislation that included the Fourteenth Amendment. After it is passed by Congress and signed by the president, an amendment to the Constitution must be ratified by at least three-quarters of the states to become law. Most southern states, which had seceded from the Union over the right to own slaves, refused to ratify amendments that would grant equality to African Americans. In response, the powerful congressional bloc known as the Radical Republicans proposed the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, which divided the South into districts controlled by martial law and required new state constitutions to be drafted before these states would be readmitted to the Union.
It wasn't until 1868, with new federally imposed legislatures in southern states, that the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees the civil rights of all citizens, either by birth or by naturalization, by providing for equality before the law. It also prohibits states from denying or abridging the fundamental rights of every citizen. The Reconstruction era witnessed a surge in male voter registration, school enrollment, and employment among African Americans, but it also galvanized resistance among white southerners.
The controversial presidential election of Rutherford B. Hayes and the Compromise of 1877 effectively ended Reconstruction. During the 1880s and 1890s, southern states, where 90 percent of African Americans lived, enacted laws and passed segregation ordinances designed to dismantle Reconstruction and restore white supremacy and control. Without the power of federal enforcement in many states, the Fourteenth Amendment had limited impact.
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