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8 Key Laws That Advanced Civil Rights

by Mehrunnisa Wani

The “peculiar institution” of slavery was abolished nearly a hundred years after the Declaration of Independence called for freedom and equality for all in 1776. But it took another century before landmark legislation would begin to address basic civil rights for African Americans.

This slow progress was the product of decades of work amongst anti-slavery constitutionalists, activists and abolitionists. They agitated in Congress, the courts and the streets. The fruits of their labor were not enacted immediately and were often foiled by a highly adaptable architecture of discrimination. Poll taxes and literacy tests hampered African Americans from voting in the aftermath of the Civil War. Likewise, the equal access promised in the 1960s did not mark the end of de-facto segregation.

Between 1865 and 1968, much was on the agenda: the abolition of slavery, extending legal protections for the emancipated and their descendants, birthright citizenship and ending segregation in public facilities.

1. 13th Amendment

When President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 in the midst of the Civil War, he was not ending slavery or declaring it illegal. The executive order was a wartime measure that promised slaves in the Confederacy their freedom should they make it to Union lines. It even purposefully overlooked slaves in those border states that had not joined the Confederacy. Instead, the 13th Amendment of December 6, 1865, abolished slavery.

Still, African Americans were vulnerable to subjugation. “The South was passing so-called black codes that effectively tried to re-enslave freed persons, creating a form of neo-slavery by criminalizing Black behavior,” says Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center of Constitutional Rights. “So, there were statutes that prohibited vulgarities or spitting, or if you did not have employment, you could be imprisoned and then leased as labor to whites in a form of debt bondage.”

2. Civil Rights Act of 1866

The first Civil Rights Act established that all those born in the United States were to be granted American citizenship. It was a radical notion for its time, seeking to grant birthright citizenship and all the associated rights and protections, helping to counter the black codes of 1865.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson, director of the Center for Civil Rights and Social Justice at Emory University says the Civil Rights Act of 1866 also sought to reverse the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1857 Dred Scott case that Black people weren’t U.S. citizens and had no legal rights. Opposition to the act soon followed.

“President Andrew Johnson vetoed the legislation on the grounds that it discriminated against whites. As early as the 19th century, advancement in the condition of people of color was seen or perceived to be an affront or harm to whites,” says Hutchinson.

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