In order to understand the Second Reconstruction, we first need to study the First Reconstruction and see why it partially failed and why it partially succeeded.
The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was the last major legislative act of the First Reconstruction. It was a sweeping federal civil rights law that attempted to impose integration on the United States. It tried and failed to do what the Civil Rights Act of 1964 succeeded in doing.
The following excerpt comes from Eric Foner’s The Second Founding: How The Civil War And Reconstruction Remade The Constitution:
“The full import for black Americans of these early decisions remained uncertain in the mid-1870s. This became evident as Congress debated Charles Sumner’s Supplementary Civil Rights Bill, so named because it supplemented the economic and legal rights guaranteed in the Civil Rights Act of 1866 with a new set of entitlements. The bill proposed to guarantee equal access to a wide range of venues from transportation and inns to “theaters, and other places of amusement,” jury service, churches, and public schools, and to give federal courts exclusive enforcement power. These rights applied to “all persons,” not just citizens …
Nonetheless, the party’s national platforms of 1872 and 1876 included support for equality in “civil, political and public rights.” In his second inaugural address, President Grant called for the passage of Sumner’s bill. The idea of equal treatment in the public sphere regardless of race was certainly a forward-looking principle, and the bill challenged traditional federalism as fully as any other Reconstruction measure.”
Racial equality was ascendant in the late 1860s and early 1870s.
The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment established birthright citizenship and “equal protection of the laws.” The Fifteenth Amendment gave blacks the right to vote. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 established black citizenship and granted blacks basic civil rights. The Force Acts of 1870 and 1871 gave the federal government the power to crush the Klan. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 attempted to implement integration on a nationwide scale.
“The idea of public rights proved highly controversial. It was virtually without precedent in American law – Massachusetts had passed the nation’s first public accommodations act in 1865.”
Massachusetts passed the first state civil rights law in 1865.
Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts attempted to impose the Massachusetts law on the entire country in the Civil Rights Act of 1875. It was passed shortly after his death, but the Democrats won control of the House of Representatives in the 1874 elections. Reconstruction ground to a halt in an era of divided government that lasted until the Republican Party regained unified control of the federal government in the 1888 elections. The Force Bill of 1890 passed the House of Representatives, but was defeated in the Senate by a Southern filibuster.
“Introduced in 1870, the Civil Rights Bill languished in committee, occasionally passing one house of Congress but not the other, until its enactment early in 1875. Its passage occurred a few months after Sumner’s death and shortly after Democrats won control of the House of Representatives for the first time since before the Civil War, meaning that it would be impossible to win approval after the lame duck secession of the Republican-controlled Congress expired. In this sometimes bitter congressional debates, the recent constitutional amendments took center stage. Opponents, not all of them Democrats, condemned the bill as an unwarranted exercise of federal power based on “a forced construction of the Constitution.” Critics denied that the rights to serve on a jury, attend an integrated school, and be accorded equal treatment by private businesses were protected by the recent amendments, and warned of the dangerous consequences of racial mixing in hotels, restaurants, and places of amusement.”
A crucial difference between the 1870s and the 1970s was that the America of the 1870s became inward looking and the Northern majority was eager to move past the War Between the States and into the Gilded Age. The America of the 1970s was in the middle of the the Cold War during the Nixon presidency. Jews were ascendant over WASPs in the American elite. Mainstream conservatism also conserved the social revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s.
“Shorn of its provisions regarding schools, churches, and cemeteries, the Civil Rights Act finally passed Congress on February 27, 1875, less than a week before adjournment. Not a single Democrat voted in favor.”
The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was less ambitious due to Republican infighting.
It was struck down by the Supreme Court in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883 which held that the Fourteenth Amendment did not empower Congress to outlaw racial discrimination by private actors. This doctrine wasn’t overturned until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was challenged in court and the Supreme Court upheld it in Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States and Katzenbatch v. McClung in 1964. Once again, the crucial difference between the First Reconstruction and Second Reconstruction is that “conservative justices” on the Supreme Court sustained the latter.
“Elsewhere, however, black activists launched a vigorous campaign for state legislation. In the decade following 1883, seventeen northern and western states adopted such laws, many of which closely followed the language of the now invalid 1875 national statute. Implementation proved difficult, and most state courts ruled that separate accommodations “of equal merit,” including segregated schools, did not violate these laws. But their passage illustrated how equal public rights, once a fringe ideal, had entered the Republican mainstream.”
The demise of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 spelled the end of Reconstruction at the national level. The Democratic-controlled South moved to gradually create the Jim Crow system in the 1880s, 1890s and 1900s by exploiting loopholes that had been created by the Supreme Court in a series of key decisions from the Slaughterhouse Cases in 1873 to Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.
In the North and West, 17 states passed civil rights laws where the Republican Party was ascendant and remained committed to equal rights. Most Northern states along with Washington and New Mexico also repealed their anti-miscegenation laws before 1887. The First Reconstruction failed in the South and West, but survived in the North.