Just as black slaves took the initiative to
emancipate themselves when circumstances allowed, so
free and freed blacks organized politically in order
to secure their basic rights and liberties within
American society. During the Civil War, in October
1864, a group of free black men met in Syracuse, New
York. They passed resolutions endorsing the
abolition of slavery, legal equality regardless of
color or race, and black manhood suffrage. They also
established the National Equal Rights League (NERL)
to fight racial barriers in the Union states.
Although they faced an uphill battle, members of
the NERL and other civil rights activists achieved
some success. In 1865 John Rock became the first
black lawyer admitted to practice before the U.S.
Supreme Court; Illinois repealed its black code;
Massachusetts enacted the first law granting equal
access to public accommodations; and a few cities
desegregated their streetcar service.
After the war, this activism spread to the South.
In 1865 and 1866, hundreds of delegates attended
black conventions in the Southern states. The
conventions demanded equal rights and condemned
anti-black violence, but their central concerns,
like the NERL, were on gaining equality under the
law and voting rights. Southern blacks argued that
those goals were in line with traditional American
principles, particularly as embodied in the
Declaration of Independence.
This illustration is of a session at the National
Convention of Colored Men. Their stated purpose was
"to inquire into the actual condition" of
blacks in America. A committee of twelve called upon
President-elect Ulysses S. Grant, offering their
support and best wishes and urging him to continue
to be vigilant in the fulfillment and administration
of equal rights. Grant pledged to them the equal
protection of the law.