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A Lasting American Tragedy

Historians still debate the cultural and economic causes of the sectional conflict that led to the Civil War, but without the slavery issue, it is unlikely to have occurred in the first place. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of 1865, officially banned the practice of slavery, but these laws did not end the oppression of African-American people, especially (but not exclusively) in the post-war south.

During the Reconstruction era immediately following the war, the tide seemed to have turned for the freed slaves. Blacks began to assert their civil rights, voting for the first time, serving in elected office, enjoying a new social mobility. By 1876, however, whites had retaken political over the southern states and began a century of brutal repression of the black population. Although no longer slaves, blacks often had little access to education or economic advancement. They had a legal right to vote but frequently faced violence and intimidation when they tried to exercise that right. Random violence and lynching (illegal hangings of blacks by angry mobs of whites) became widespread. In many states, the races were kept separate by segregation laws: separate restaurants, separate sections in theaters, separate toilet facilities, with the black always getting the least desirable choices.

Faced with persecution in the south that seemed to have no end, many blacks moved to the cities of the north in search of economic opportunities and a freer life. They faced discrimination in the north and conflict with northern communities, sometimes leading to violent “race riots,” and yet nothing like the total oppression they had faced in the south. In many American communities today, blacks and white live together in relative stability. In others, conflict is ongoing.

The civil rights movement began during the 19th century, but it took off full steam in the 1960s under the inspired leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The movement experienced much resistance and a good deal of violence in the south, including the assassination of Dr. King in 1968, but it was eventually successful in ending the region’s institutionalized racism. The movement faced, and continues to face, more subtle challenges in the north, where social and economic conflict rather than legal issues lie at the root of most interracial difficulties.

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