By Rachel Lichtman
A new book by USC Price Professor Jeffery Jenkins and co-author Assistant Professor Justin Peck of Wesleyan University explores the rise and fall of civil rights legislation in Congress between 1861 and 1918, when discrimination against African Americans was rampant and efforts to legislate equality slowed and ultimately stopped. Through extensive research and insights, the authors show how institutions can be tools of both liberation and oppression.
We asked Jenkins about his recent book and how it pertains to civil rights policy today.
How did you become interested in studying pre-modern civil rights legislation?
Much of my research deals with Congress and political parties across time, often with an emphasis on how and when changes occur. Typical histories of civil rights in America often talk about what happened after the Civil War – during Reconstruction – and what happened in the 1950s and 1960s, but rarely mention what was done (or not done) between these periods. I wanted to answer that question.
Tell us about the significance of the timeframe you chose: 1861 to 1918.
Justin and I argue that there have been two civil rights eras (or “arcs”) in American history, where civil rights legislation gained in favor, were passed into law, and eventually fell out of favor – and thus eroded. The first civil rights era covers the 1861-1918 era and forms the basis of this first book. Over these nearly six decades, civil rights politics went from being a central preoccupation for members of Congress to almost entirely disappearing from the agenda. By the second decade of the twentieth century both political parties wholly abandoned black civil rights in the name of national reconciliation and political opportunism. The second era covers the 1919-1990 period and is the basis for the second book, which we are now writing. We’ll explain how civil rights once again became important for members of Congress.
What did your research uncover?
We found that Republicans in Congress, aided by the political activism of Black citizens in the states, enacted laws – like the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments – to establish an inclusive, multiracial democracy in the United States. More specifically, we explain how and why the “Grand Old Party” (GOP) created and enforced legal reforms extending freedom, citizenship, and voting rights to former slaves — and how former slaves, in turn, acted on those rights by voting, running for office, and demanding their fair share of government aid.
But beginning in the 1870s, the GOP’s political weakness in the South, as well as the shifting political preferences of Northern voters, allowed the white majority in the former Confederacy to degrade and ignore these reforms in ways specifically designed to deprive African Americans of their rights. Our analysis provides an explicitly “Congress-centered” perspective on this transformation by exploring the Republican Party’s role in undermining the multiracial democracy it originally helped to build.
Why did Republicans in Congress shift away from African American civil rights legislation?
When Republicans controlled Congress, and when a majority of them believed their political fortunes were contingent on the support of Black voters, they passed civil rights initiatives. However, as Union troop levels in the occupied former Confederate states dropped after 1868, white elites in the South orchestrated a systematic campaign of violence and political terrorism against Black voters.
Federal authorities fought Southern white reactionaries for a time, but violence and intimidation were ultimately successful in dampening Black political participation and culminated in the “redemption” of Southern state governments.
The constant “drama” coming out of the South—often covered in lurid detail by partisan newspapers—amid a nationwide economic downturn in the 1870s ultimately turned the Northern white public against civil rights. The progressive disenfranchisement of Black voters in the South and the Northern public’s efforts to refocus attention on economic issues pertinent to their concerns persuaded many Republicans in Congress to neglect and even undermine the policies they had once advocated. By the second decade of the twentieth century, the Republican Party had almost entirely abandoned its historic support for the protection and extension of Black civil rights.
Taken together, conflict within the Republican Party regarding the use of federal power to protect the Black minority and electoral trends driven by shifting white attitudes in the North explains the rise and fall of what we call the “first civil rights era.”
We show how, by the turn of the twentieth century, a broad consensus had emerged both in Congress and in the nation that Southern state governments should be allowed to exist essentially as a separate nation. We also note that an exclusive focus on the era’s end obscures the significant achievements that were made in the early postwar period. That is, for a time, African Americans’ lives in the South improved greatly, the Republican Party operated as a true interregional coalition, and a normal (though fragile) period of two-party politics in the South seemed to have begun.
What sorts of things did you look at and analyze?
We moved chronologically through the decades, recounting debates in Congress, elucidating what issues were on the national agenda, identifying the final outcome for all relevant policy proposals, exploring evidentiary sources – like introduced bills, legislative proceedings and debate, roll call votes, and media (newspaper) coverage. We gave special attention to issues that prompted roll calls, as those actions were able to effect meaningful change and often highlighted the intra-Republican conflicts that had such an influence on civil rights policy.
Why focus on Congress rather than presidents or the courts?
Congress was the preeminent branch of the national government during the period in question and was formative in defining and enforcing civil rights protections. In order to understand the behavior of a president or the Supreme Court during those years we had to first understand how and why Congress enacted the policies it did.
Focusing on Congress also allows us to explore the ways politics and policy were linked, and the relationship between legislators’ ideas and interests. Their positions and statements were published in newspapers and otherwise communicated to constituents, both reflecting and influencing public opinion. When written into policy, their ideas helped shape future politics on civil rights.
What insights do you, and your book’s conclusions, have for the civil rights conversations of today?
I think one big insight is that civil rights policy is never settled. Even when a law is enacted, the story doesn’t end. Additional laws can be adopted that strengthen and expand those rights; and, likewise, efforts can be invested on eroding – or even eliminating – those rights. As we complete the second book, I think a big part of our focus will be on how various types of civil rights policy (especially voting rights) have become contested terrain. For example, liberals want to make it as easy as possible for people to vote while conservatives want to establish more stringent parameters. Another big takeaway is that federalism is an underappreciated aspect of civil rights policy. One thing that has hindered the enactment of national civil rights policy is 1) the strong history we have on decentralized decision-making in the U.S., and 2) the value we place on making policy “close to home.” So much of the battle on voting rights policy today is conducted at the state level, with “red states” and “blue states” pursuing different paths. The strong states’ rights interests that shaped civil rights policy in the late-19th century and the mid-20th century are still operative today. Additionally, recent decisions by the Supreme Court have eroded federal voting rights law and opened up new ways for states to fill that power vacuum. Congress has mostly abdicated and let states make their own decisions.
Provost Professor of Public Policy, Political Science, and Law
Judith & John Bedrosian Chair of Governance and the Public Enterprise
Director, Bedrosian Center
Director, PIPE Collaborative