Civil Rights and Reconstruction

  • Banned slavery & involuntary servitude, unless convicted of a crime
  • Congress has power to enforce 
  • Birthright citizenship
  • States can’t deny privileges/immunities, due process, equal protection
  • No public office for insurrection or rebellion, aid or comfort to enemies
  • Congress has power to enforce
  • Right to vote not denied or abridged “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”
  • Congress has power to enforce

Key Concepts

Reconstruction Amendments 

Ratified between 1865 and 1870, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, known as the “Reconstruction Amendments,” ended slavery in the United States, ensured birthright citizenship, as well as due process and “equal protection of the laws” under the federal and state governments, and expanded voting rights by prohibiting discrimination based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The Reconstruction Amendments also granted Congress the power to enforce the amendments’ provisions through federal legislation. The 14th Amendment eliminated the three-fifths rule in Article I, Sec. 2, cl. 3, and punished any state that did not permit male citizens twenty-one years old or older to vote by reducing the state’s proportional representation. This amendment also barred those who “have engaged in insurrection or rebellion” or “given aid or comfort to the enemies” of the United States from public office, unless Congress voted to remove this prohibition. The Reconstruction Amendments were essential to reuniting the United States during Reconstruction, and confederate states were required to ratify the 13th and 14th Amendments to be readmitted to the union. 

Civil Rights Legacy

The Reconstruction Amendments provided the constitutional basis for enforcement and implementation of Reconstruction and passage of federal legislation such as the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875 and the Enforcement Acts of 1870-71 to end slavery, ensure full citizenship, civil rights, and voting rights to freed African Americans and to address growing violence and intimidation against freed African Americans in the South. However, in U.S. v. Cruikshank (1875), the Supreme Court dismissed the use of Enforcement Acts against individuals, and, in the Civil Rights Cases (1883), the Court declared that the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which had barred racial discrimination in public accommodations, was unconstitutional. In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Court upheld segregation laws, establishing the “separate but equal” doctrine. The end of Reconstruction in 1877 and these Supreme Court decisions paved the way for racial violence, disenfranchisement through literacy tests, and Jim Crow segregation in the South, but it also inspired legal challenges to discrimination and segregation including Brown v. Board of Ed. (1954), a Civil Rights Movement, and a Second Reconstruction a century later with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Civil War & Reconstruction

Deeper Dive

From History in a Nutshell series produced by This video provides a brief description of slavery in the United States, the path to Civil War, and the end of slavery and Reconstruction period, including ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. Here is a helpful interactive lesson plan for discussion of the Reconstruction Amendments from PBS LearningMedia, which teachers could use separately or in conjunction with students watching this video.

From CrashCourse (in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios). This video discusses Reconstruction after the Civil War, its goals, gains for African Americans, reasons why it failed, as well as the Reconstruction Amendments and election of 1876.

From the Civil War 360 series produced by the Smithsonian. This video examines the Draft Riots in July 1863 in New York City, a three-day destructive riot during the Civil War in resistance to conscription and targeting African Americans. Here is another video with discussion questions posted byPBS LearningMedia, which teachers could use separately or in conjunction with students watching this video.

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