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In the tumultuous years following the United States Civil War, the federal government was faced with two conflicting challenges: to reincorporate the eleven states that had seceded from the Union, and to define and implement a strategy for ensuring the economic, political, and social rights of newly-freed black Americans.

Radical Republicans, with support from the United States Army and the Freedmen's Bureau, led the effort to pass and implement laws that ensured first-class citizenship for black people. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution (1868) affirmed that black Americans were citizens of the United States and entitled to due process and equal protection under the law. The 15th Amendment (1870) stated that the right of citizens to vote "shall not be denied...on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

Conservative white southerners, and their northern allies in the Democratic Party, opposed all efforts to extend human rights to black people. By 1877, the white southerners who wanted black people "re-enslaved" had won; the new "slavery" was Jim Crow segregation.