Americans have always had a weakness for legends and tall tales. None, though, was as pernicious or enduring as the myth of Reconstruction, the dozen years after the Civil War (1865-1877) when Constitutional amendments and acts of Congress extended equality, citizenship, and the vote to four million human beings freed from slavery. New, more democratic state governments arose in the former Confederacy; 2,000 black men were elected or appointed to positions from county sheriff to United States Senator; and a rush for education brought people of all ages to one-room country schoolhouses as well as the doors of new black colleges including Howard, Fisk, and the Hampton Institute. “The curtain is now lifted. The dismal death-cloud of slavery has passed away,” exclaimed Frederick Douglass. “Today we are free American citizens. We have ourselves, we have a country, and we have a future in common with other men.”
But such remarkable advances soon hit a wall over the question of whether emancipated freedpersons would enjoy not just a release from feudal bondage, but equal treatment and equality of opportunity, as well as the dignity of citizenship. The answer, once the defeated South regained its equilibrium, was a stern “No!”
Reconstruction’s “glorious failure” only 12 years after its inspired start was then compounded for decades by the biased accounts of journalists like James S. Pike and the inaccuracies of historians William A. Dunning, James Ford Rhodes, Claude Bowers, as well as blockbuster films including The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939), that depicted a postwar South unsettled by carpetbaggers and rootless black people and punished by heartless federal misrule. “The North won the Civil War,” Equal Justice Initiative founder and executive director Bryan Stevenson has observed, “but the South won the narrative war.” W.E.B. Du Bois’s monumental corrective, Black Reconstruction in America, appeared in 1935, but not until Rayford Logan’s post-Reconstruction exploration, The Betrayal of the Negro: From Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson, and the work of John Hope Franklin and Kenneth Stamp, saw publication in the 1960s, did a fairer and more accurate version of Reconstruction begin to emerge. By then many of Reconstruction’s long-neglected laws were, like heirlooms from the nation’s attic, being dusted off for use in the modern civil rights movement.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s new book, Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, is an accompaniment to the two-part PBS series, Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, that he executive produced and hosts. Gates cites both the Du Bois and Logan books, which he read as an undergraduate, as inspiration. “Few American historical periods are more relevant to understanding our contemporary racial politics,” he writes. “Think of the fundamental questions that the study of [Reconstruction] forces us to consider: Who is entitled to citizenship? Who should have the right to vote? What is the government’s responsibility in dealing with terrorism? What is the relationship between political and economic democracy?”
As Gates suggests, the country has never ceased fighting a war between Reconstruction’s eager stride toward a bi-racial democracy and Redemption, the white South’s fierce resistance to it. Refashioning the devastation and defeat of the war as a valiant Lost Cause, fought for noble reasons by honorable men, the region vented its fury at the “Oberlin girls” who came South to teach black children to read and write; black participants in state legislatures and constitutional conventions; and the Freedmen’s Bureau (officially the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands), the nation’s first attempt at a vast public assistance program, created in 1865 to aid the formerly enslaved people as well as poor whites and to help stabilize living and working conditions in the postwar South.
One key element favored by radical Republicans in Washington was the distribution of abandoned or confiscated plantation land to the freedmen, that “they should own the land that once owned them,” based on General William T. Sherman’s Field Order 15, issued before the war’s end (the source of the promised largesse of “40 acres and a mule”). The tremendous emotional enthusiasm for this prospect made the grief over its abandonment all the more painful when President Andrew Johnson, ignoring the cries of the freedmen, rescinded the plan. There would be some local attempts at land redistribution, often organized by black political or church leaders, but ultimately it proved a missed opportunity, and an enormously consequential one, for the sharecropping system left African-America families hugely vulnerable in their cash dealings with the whites whose land they farmed, and the lack of property denied them a chance to gain wealth and independence.
In 1866 whites in Tennessee founded the Ku Klux Klan, a terrorist organization that spread rapidly across the region and which sought to disarm blacks (even of their fowling pieces) and intimidate black voters and their families. Klan harassment within a few years had become so blatant the federal government was obliged to step in, President Ulysses S. Grant declaring martial law in parts of South Carolina and Mississippi in 1871-72. Hundreds of Klansmen were arrested by federal marshals and brought to trial; many others fled or went underground.
In this action, however, Southern conservatives glimpsed a ray of hope, for they noted the reluctance in the North for Grant’s ordered intervention. Brazen Klan terrorism had brought a strong response, but a more deliberate effort to slow or obstruct the federal program might work to quietly sour Northern commitment, and cause political support for Reconstruction to wane even among those whites who had initially promoted it.
Enter Redemption, the quasi-religious crusade to redeem the South from Yankee “bayonet rule,” manifested in huge pageant-like rallies featuring banners, fervent prayers and speeches, and hundreds of boisterous men on horseback, singing, laughing, cheered on by whole villages, happy in their reclamation not only of their land but of their pride. Election day trickery, such as poorly labeled ballot boxes, shuttered polling places, and interminable voting lines, also became a substitute for Klan terrorism, a pattern that took on new subtlety in the 1890s, when white-controlled legislatures introduced obstacles such as “the understanding clause,” which required barely literate voters to demonstrate to a white registrar their understanding of a paragraph from the state constitution.
Outnumbered Republicans were forced to open their political meetings to “divided time” rallies, in which speakers from both parties spoke in turn. Redeemer Democrats taunted black political rivals to their faces, argued for home rule and against civil rights, and mocked white Southern traitors, the scalawags, who had foolishly taken the government’s side. Such affairs often ended in more than just harsh words, and in the worst instances devolved into raids by armed whites into black communities, where they burned, looted, and killed. “What can we do?” pleaded a frightened black eyewitness who ran the entire ten miles from a “divided time” riot in Clinton, Mississippi to Jackson, the Republican-held state capital. “It looks like Judgement.”
Margaret Ann Caldwell remembered that in 1875, when whites killed her husband Charles, a Mississippi state senator, along with his brother Sam, a group of inebriated “White Liners” came by train from Vicksburg and “they all marched up to my house, and went in to where the two bodies laid, and they cursed them, those two dead bodies, and they danced and threw open the melodeon, and sung all their songs, and challenged the dead body to get up and meet them, and they carried on there like a parcel of wild Indians.”
Federal troops did occasionally arrive in time to halt the worst violence, but the task, given the vastness of the region, the isolation of rural precincts, and the relatively small number of soldiers and horses available, meant the white forces could operate with impunity. President Grant was wary of reigniting the Civil War and sensitive to the perception that he thought only of solutions involving armed force. As the Redeemers had anticipated, the repeated factional eruptions over control of ‘the late insurrectionary states’ ground down Northern will and put Reconstruction’s prospects in doubt. By late 1875 the Grant administration was advising Adelbert Ames, the Republican holdout governor in Mississippi, that “the whole public are tired of these annual autumnal outbreaks [of election-time fraud and political violence] in the South, and the great majority are ready now to condemn any interference on the part of the Government.”
Indeed, the North had its own share of problems at the time and many whites there, after so many years of secession, discord, and war, yearned for sectional reconciliation; this meant agreeing to set aside the insistence on equal rights for the freedmen and ignoring almost all the laws enacted on their behalf. Finally, in the disputed election of 1876, a compromise by southern Democrats to seat Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as president was made in exchange for the removal of all federal troops from the South. They would not be seen there again until 1957, when President Dwight Eisenhower ordered them to Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas to enforce the public school desegregation ruling in Brown v Board of Education.
“What confounds me,” says Gates, “is how much longer the rollback of Reconstruction was than Reconstruction itself; how dogged was the determination of the “Redeemed South” to obliterate any trace of the marvelous gains made by the freedpeople, especially the prodigious number of black men who exercised the right to vote and the emergence of a black political leadership class within a few years of emancipation.”
One glance at newspapers of the period reveals the other issues commanding the North’s attention—an influx of immigrants, a weak national economy, conflicts between settlers and native tribes on the western frontier; and labor disputes and fears of communistic or radical subversion among workers in American cities. It was no coincidence that in the summer of 1877, the year the federal government abandoned black Americans to their fate, a spontaneous strike by railroad workers shut down the nation’s transportation and freight systems, a feat that stunned both industry and government authorities. In what became known as the Great Upheaval of 1877, soldiers opened fire on crowds of protesting men, women, and children; and whole districts of Baltimore, Chicago, and particularly Pittsburgh were beset by violence and arson, awakening the country to the fact that a restive world of slum-dwellers, the unemployed, and abused workers had gained the means for serious social disruption.
One of the less-noticed but sorrowful events of the period was the collapse in 1874 of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company, an institution headquartered in a proud building on Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue, a shrine to the potential of black thrift and entrepreneurship. It claimed Abraham Lincoln as a patron saint and was presided over in its final troubled year by Frederick Douglass, who, too late, invested his own money to try and save it. The bank had been undone by petty corruption, over-expansion, and the reckless financial policies of its white trustees, and deposits, many representing small personal accounts, were wiped out. Well into the 20th century, long after the bank had closed, inquiring letters continued to arrive from disappointed customers.
The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments had, respectively, outlawed slavery, granted citizenship, and extended the right to vote to the freedmen, while the Reconstruction Acts and the Enforcement Acts sought to establish new Southern state governments, safeguard blacks’ exercise of the franchise, and erect legal prohibitions against the Klan. But the so-called Capstone of Reconstruction was the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which provided equal access in public accommodations and transportation to black citizens. What good were promises of equality, or the vote, after all, if one could not in daily life enjoy the same access as whites on trains, in hotels, theaters, restaurants, and stores? Through the efforts of black Congressmen like Robert Brown Elliott of South Carolina and the bill’s great champion, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, the law was passed and signed by President Grant. However, its protections, controversial from the start and irregularly enforced, were short-lived; it was gutted in 1883 by the U.S. Supreme Court, whose majority ruling included the notorious admonishment:
When a man has emerged from slavery and by the aid of beneficent legislation has shaken off the inseparable concomitants of that state, there must be some stage in the progress of his elevation when he takes the rank of a mere citizen, and ceases to be the special favorite of the laws . . .
It was black elected officials like Elliott who represented to whites Reconstruction’s most egregious threat, for black voters constituted a majority in many areas, and whites feared nothing more than having to live under what they perceived as black political dominance, or, as it was said, “under the splay foot of the negro.” In a familiar formula, they tended to exaggerate the devious manipulations of black political “operators,” even as cartoons and editorials portrayed the same officials as clueless ignoramuses. Reconstruction was not called “the era of good stealing” for nothing, and blacks were likely as guilty of petty corruption as any white politician, although probably less so overall, since they had to be especially vigilant of their conduct. And as the first official representatives of a long-enslaved people, their testimonies proved revelatory to sympathetic white ears, offering a perspective few whites knew, in oratorical cadences most had never heard.
Robert Smalls, an enslaved crew member of a Confederate vessel, had stealthily commandeered the boat one night, sailed it out of Charleston harbor, and turned it over to the Union navy; Hiram Revels, a senator from Mississippi, came to Washington amid much fanfare to occupy the seat abandoned by Jefferson Davis; Joseph Rainey brought to the floor of a disbelieving Congress vivid accounts of the Klan’s threats to his own life; Blanche K. Bruce, Senator from Mississippi, a popular Washington fixture close to President and Mrs. Grant, was prescient in citing the need for federal flood control of the Mississippi Delta. Finally, there was Elliott, who so thoroughly eviscerated the Confederacy’s former vice-president Alexander Stephens in House debate over the Civil Rights Act, his speech became the subject of a popular chromolithograph, “The Shackle Broken—By the Genius of Freedom.”
As Gates notes, these men were exceptional, yet in an important sense also typical of a people that, so recently emerged from bondage, had made remarkable strides toward civic and political engagement. When the black officials were assailed by resentful Southerners, however, they had little to fall back on, as they were often identified with white Northern Republicans who were themselves inconsistent or whose powers had weakened, and they had no home state political machines to turn to. None had been so naïve as to expect the postwar reforms which they embodied to go unchallenged, but few anticipated how thoroughly Redemption would undermine their progress, or seek to destroy them personally. (Researchers with the WPA who in the 1930s went south to interview formerly enslaved African-Americans reported that yellowing copies of old lithographs celebrating the black spokesmen of Reconstruction—Douglass, Elliott, Revels, among others—still adorned the walls of sharecroppers’ cabins.)
When the last Southern black congressman, George H. White of North Carolina, was voted out in 1901, both houses of his home state’s legislature passed resolutions of thanksgiving. He had been the first member of Congress to introduce a federal anti-lynching bill. Standing alone in the well of the House chamber in Washington, White gave a valedictory address that offered “a brief recipe for the solution of the so-called American negro problem”—that the black American “be given the same chance for existence, for earning a livelihood, for raising himself in the scales of manhood and womanhood that are accorded to kindred nationalities.” He concluded:
This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the Negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress, but let me say Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised and bleeding, but God-fearing people, faithful, industrial, loyal people, rising people, full of potential force . . . The only apology I have for the earnestness with which I have spoken is that I am pleading for the life, the liberty, the future happiness, and manhood suffrage for one-eighth of the entire population of the United States.
Another seven decades would pass before black Southerners Andrew Young of Georgia and Barbara Jordan of Texas were elected to Congress, in 1972.When the last Southern black congressman, George H. White of North Carolina, was voted out in 1901, both houses of his home state’s legislature passed resolutions of thanksgiving.
White, taking matters into his own hands, soon founded the town of Whitesboro, New Jersey as a black enclave where homeowners would be free of discrimination and unfair real estate practices. One of his business partners was the black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, who famously quipped, “Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and others lived during the Reconstruction period.”
What does Reconstruction, as explored in Henry Louis Gates’s book and PBS series, have to tell us?
Few people seriously expected the election of Barack Obama to usher in a post-racial America, but his ascent to the presidency could not but seem an indelible marker of progress in race relations. Such confidence grew from a faith, never unanimous among Americans, yet for many years broadly assumed—that the successes of the modern civil rights movement and the laws and policies it inspired, though not comprehensive, and certainly not attained without suffering, had moved the country in the direction of equality of opportunity.
Today, in place of such guarded optimism, we confront a world in which the very idea of racial progress has been taken hostage by the forces of reaction, and where the consequences of decades of racist policies are as starkly evident as the cellphone video of the latest police killing. When election officials in Florida, Georgia, or North Carolina force voters in minority districts to wait for hours in line before casting a ballot, send “poll monitors” to intimidate voters, they are reviving methods used by their forebears a century and a half ago. Accounts of racial profiling and state violence toward blacks, the presumption of black criminality, and white panic at the appearance of black people in “white spaces,” would be largely familiar to Americans of the 1870s and 1880s, when newspapers carried almost daily stories of black citizens denied their rights, frequently in the form of white vigilantism.
Much as at the end of Reconstruction, when post-Civil War idealism was supplanted by whites’ bare-knuckle tactics of exclusion and violent repression, so do we find ourselves in 2019 looking on as hard-won gains from the New Deal, the civil rights and environmental movements, the crusades for women’s reproductive rights and gay liberation, remain under incessant assault. Voting rights, won county to county, courthouse to courthouse by black Southerners and civil rights workers in the 1960s—an effort crowned by the Voting Rights Act of 1965—have been gutted by the Roberts Supreme Court, yet conservative forces continue to seek ever more creative new ways to curtail them, using gerrymandering to target blacks and other minorities, as one North Carolina judicial opinion notes, “with surgical precision.”
“Jim Crow,” a term once thought to have been dispatched to a permanent retirement, has returned to represent the conditions of sentencing, incarceration, and post-prison life for many thousands of African-Americans; the president, a racist who largely owes his political ascent to his xenophobia and his challenge of Obama’s legitimacy and birth-citizenship, basks in the applause of the extreme right and Fox and Friends; at the same time debates over cultural appropriation, racial and ethnic exclusion, and free speech, roil college campuses and the arts. Ta-Nehesi Coates and others have drawn our attention to the unethical policies and restrictive covenants that have for decades denied black homebuyers one of the chief means by which other Americans have accrued wealth, while disparity in income levels between blacks and whites also remain a source of economic inequality. Meanwhile, the recently opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which memorializes the legacy of lynching in America, lays at the country’s doorstep the imperative to acknowledge that institutionalized racial violence has always been, and is, a national, not a regional legacy.
Gates adds significantly to our understanding of Redemption by highlighting the fact that late 19th-century black America, despite being, in Rayford Logan’s estimation, at its “nadir,” was not without a response. Just as Southern apologists rallied around the white Atlanta editor Henry Grady’s declaration in the 1880s of a “New South” (a place open for business, ready to move beyond slavery—but not the subjugation of the black community and black labor), so too did African-Americans, the children of Reconstruction, emerge as the “New Negro,” individuals like Du Bois, newspaper publishers William Monroe Trotter and T. Thomas Fortune, educators Booker T. Washington and Mary McLeod Bethune, spiritual leaders like Henry McNeal Turner, and activists Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell and James Weldon Johnson. Their efforts took form in the Afro-American League and Afro-American Council of the 1870s and 1880s, the Niagara Movement, the international anti-lynching crusade founded by Wells, the appearance of a vibrant black press in the New York Age, the Washington Bee, and the Boston Guardian, the establishment of the NAACP (1909), the 1915 boycott of The Birth of a Nation, and the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s.
He also outlines the ways in which scientific racism—shamefully voiced at leading universities and in the pages of otherwise respected periodicals—joined with demeaning decorative art and commercial packaging of “Sambo” and “Mammy” images to shape white America’s impression of blacks. “So popular were they with the public, so widespread was their utilization, in the South, the North, and beyond the nation’s borders,” writes Gates, “that virtually anywhere a white person saw an image of an African-American, she or he was encoded in one of these stereotypes as somehow laughably ignorant, subhuman, devoid of thought and reason, ruled by one’s senses, as would be an animal . . . When a white person confronted an actual black human being,” Gates explains, citing the scholar Barbara Johnson, “he or she was ‘an already read text.’ It didn’t matter what the individual black man or woman said or did, how much education he or she had, or whether they were from the North or the South, because negative images of them in the popular imagination already existed and were already fixed, imposed upon them like hoods or masks. This practice of xenophobic masking, as it were, still exists.”
The “glorious failure” of Reconstruction is a disquieting saga to get to know. A lost opportunity, and one that was for a long time intentionally misunderstood. Yet it is also a powerful story of idealism whose arc is in many ways as beautiful and inspiring as it is tragic. At its core is something of undeniable value—the courage of black Americans who “stood a brief moment in the sun” (Du Bois), and aspired, with white allies, to right the country’s greatest wrong. That this coalition has always been tentative in our history, or that the grand experiment of Reconstruction fell short, should not dim its essential genius. It lives on, in all of us, as potential, as possibility, for want only of fortitude.