Prior to the Civil War, free blacks were denied the right to vote everywhere but in New York and several New England states. By the close of the Civil War, suffrage for African Americans had become a possibility throughout the country. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 imposed conditions on former states of the Confederacy for re-admission to the Union. Some of these conditions touched on black suffrage. For example, former Confederate states were required to call conventions to which blacks could be elected as delegates and devise new state constitutions guaranteeing voting rights to black men. By the end of registration for 1867, more than 700,000 southern black men had been added to the rolls. By 1872 there were 342 black officials elected to state legislatures and to the U.S. Congress. Despite such progressive legislation, not all black civil rights or suffrage measures succeeded. Constitutional amendments that would have prohibited states from imposing birth requirements, property ownership, or literacy tests, as well as giving the federal government complete control over voting rights were rejected.
Unfortunately, the progress of black voting rights can be characterized as a stumbling trajectory of success. There were gains, often followed by severe setbacks. For example, in 1870 and 1871 three Enforcement Acts were passed that strengthened the constitutional guarantee of black voting rights. Moreover, the year 1870 also witnessed the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. However, just a few years later, two Supreme Court decisions, United States v. Reese (1876) and United States v. Cruikshank (1876), weakened the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. By 1877, the Union was withdrawing federal troops from the South as a compromise with Democrats to allow the election of Rutherford B. Hayes as president of the United States. This move gave the largely racist Southern Democrats control over the lives of blacks including black suffrage. Accordingly, this and other like-minded groups launched a wave of repressive measures to curtail the freedoms of blacks in the South.