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This image released by DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation shows Sally Field and Daniel Day-Lewis appear in a scene from "Lincoln."

David James, Associated Press

Injustice did not end when credits rolled

  • Article by: DAVID MORRIS
  • January 9, 2013 - 7:29 PM

"Lincoln" is a magnificent movie. But I left the theater wanting to know, in the immortal words of the late radio commentator Paul Harvey, "the rest of the story."

The film ends with celebrations after passage of the 13th Amendment ending slavery. But gaining true rights of citizenship for ex-slaves was a much more protracted affair.

In 1865, 10 of 11 confederate states did not provide suffrage or equal rights to freedmen. This was acceptable to Andrew Johnson, who assumed the presidency after Lincoln's assassination, but not to Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens, who insisted that Reconstruction must "revolutionize Southern institutions ..."

In 1866, Congress enacted the civil-rights bill that gave freedmen full legal equality. In response, every Southern legislature passed "black codes" taking it away. Congress then passed the 14th Amendment, prohibiting any citizen from being denied "equal protection of the laws." The confederate states, except for Tennessee, refused to ratify the amendment until required to do so as a condition of readmittance to the Union.

The Reconstruction Act also placed the former confederacy under military rule. In new elections, freed slaves could vote. The result? Republicans took control of nearly all Southern governorships and legislatures.

At the beginning of 1867, no African-American in the South held political office. Within four years, about 15 percent of all elected officials were black, although this was still far below blacks' proportion of the population. Biracial governments wrote new state constitutions and established public schools and charitable institutions. Literacy rates rose dramatically.

In 1870, Congress passed the 15th Amendment giving blacks the vote. A new civil war erupted, this time internal to the South. The Ku Klux Klan and other paramilitary organizations operated openly to overthrow Republican rule and suppress the black vote.

By 1877, largely as a result of intimidation, Democrats regained control of legislatures in every Southern state. Blacks were again stripped of the vote, this time through poll taxes and literacy tests. In 1896, in Louisiana, where the population was evenly divided between races, 130,334 black voters were on the voter rolls, about the same number as whites. By 1900, black registered voters had been reduced to 5,320; by 1910, to only 730.

In the 1940s, for the first time, the Supreme Court began to enforce the 14th Amendment by outlawing all-white primaries. In 1954, it declared segregated schools inherently unequal. In response, as civil-rights lawyer Michelle Alexander notes, five Southern legislatures passed new Jim Crow laws. White citizens councils formed in almost every town. The Ku Klux Klan reasserted itself.

But the advent of television, which allowed the whole country to see Southern police using fire hoses on peacefully protesting blacks, coupled with a massive civil-rights movement, led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Section 5 required states and counties with a history of voter discrimination to obtain approval from the Department of Justice before changing their voting laws. The percentage of African-American adults registered to vote soared.

As barriers to voting fell, blacks -- and increasingly, Latinos -- found themselves facing still another barrier to full citizenship: mass incarceration. In her book "The New Jim Crow," Alexander describes the key strategy used to disenfranchise minorities: the war on drugs, kicked off by President Ronald Reagan in l982. From l980 to 2000, prison and jail populations soared from 300,000 to more than 2 million. Two-thirds of the rise in the number of federal inmates and more than half of the rise in the number of state prisoners was for drug offenses, most for simple possession.

African-Americans are sent to prison on drug charges at a rate 20 to 57 times greater than that of white men, even though the majority of drug users and dealers are white, according to Human Rights Watch. Today, more than one in seven black men have lost the right to vote.

President Obama did win re-election last year, but the context of that victory is instructive. In South Carolina, Florida and Texas, courts invoked the Voting Rights Act to block efforts to reduce the minority vote.

Three days after the election, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear a challenge to the Voting Rights Act. Most observers predict the court will overturn Section 5.

By all means, see "Lincoln." But realize that almost 150 years later, the struggle to gain full citizenship for minorities continues.

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David Morris is director of the Public Good Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis.

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