Reconstruction Part Two
“Every revolution has its counterrevolution – that is a sign the revolution is for real.” C. Wright Mills
The issues “central to Reconstruction are as old as the American republic and as contemporary as the inequalities that still afflict our society”.
Eric Foner Reconstruction:America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877
Recently I spoke with a Black friend about the Confederate statue that stands in the center of our square. “When you drive through town, what do you think when you see that statue?” “I feel limited. It says to me that there are limits to what I can ever accomplish.”
Those words would be very familiar to W.E.B. Du Bois. Dubois was born in 1868 in Massachusetts and was educated at Fisk University and a PHD from Harvard. One of the founders of the NAACP, he was a scholar in languages, economics and history. His book, Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880 , published in 1935, countered the historical analysis of the day and created a storm amongst white historians. His voice was ultimately dismissed. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that his description of Reconstruction began to overthrow the conventional wisdom.
Du Bois, as Eric Foner would do in 1988, put Blacks in the center of the story of Reconstruction. He argued that it was black laborers in the South and abolitionists in the North who ultimately brought about the Civil War. The Northern abolitionists and the underground railroads of Harriet Tubman and Josiah Hensen were a “safety valve” for slaves who began to escape to the border states. This was a huge economic loss to the Southern planters and they could see the end of slavery if they did not take action. They chose secession and war to keep their valuable property. In the years of Reconstruction after the war, the struggle continued as Blacks persisted in moving forward and upward with the initial help of allies in the North. If their efforts had not been so violently hindered, perhaps the statue would not be there today.
In order to see the connections between the tumultuous events of Reconstruction and the racial justice issues of today, a timeline may be helpful. Kendi, Guelzo, Foner, and Du Bois helped me create this one.
- 1863. Emancipation Proclamation (Foner dates Reconstruction from Lincoln’s action)
- 1865. April 9. Lee’ surrender at Appomattox was the beginning of the end
- 1865. April 15. Abraham Lincoln’s assassination
- 1865. May 29. Andrew Johnson, newly inaugurated, issued his Reconstruction Proclamation which pardoned all but the highest levels of Confederate officials. The Confederates immediately elected their sympathizers to the constitutional conventions and passed Black codes that essentially created a South very similar to the one before the war. Even though the 13th Amendment had been passed and barred slavery, Kendi quotes a Black veteran who said,”If you call this freedom, what is slavery?”
- 1865. December 18. The 13th Amendment officially added to the Constitution. Slavery was outlawed.
- 1866. A coalition of Radical Republicans and moderate Republicans (Kendi labels this group as “Anti-Black” for reasons of their self interest in keeping Blacks from fleeing North) were able to push back on Johnson’s actions and move Reconstruction in another direction. They overrode vetoes and passed two key pieces of legislation.
- Extension of The Freedman’s Bureau
- Civil Rights Act of 1866
- 1866. The coalition group passed 14th Amendment (ratified in 1869)
- Major change to how the Constitution would be applied in our country
- Citizenship clause (gender appeared for the first time)
- Due process clause
- Equal protection clause
- 1866. May: Memphis white mobs killed 48 Blacks and gang raped at least five Black women (Kendi, Foner, Guelzo all confirmed this information)
- 1866. May: The Louisiana governor endorsed the Radical Republican plan to reconvene the Constitutional convention to give Blacks the right to vote and to keep those who fought in the Civil War(the “rebels” from voting. At the convention attended by many Black soldiers, fighting in the street broke out. New Orleans police killed 34 Blacks and 3 radicals in what General Phillip Sheridan called “a massacre”.
- 1867. Klu Klux Klan began their reign of terror
- 1867. New state constitutions were required for readmission to the United States
- 1867-1869. State constitutional conventions were held
- 1869. The 15th Amendment was passed
- Race could not be used to deny a man the right to vote
The ramifications of Reconstruction are dramatically displayed In this abbreviated timeline and the images. The leniency of the President and the radical actions of the Congress set up another war, one of moral, economic, and political issues. The Reconstruction period would not end until 1877 (Foner). There were more events to be noted as well as characters, Black and white, who played important roles. The world turned upside down for everyone in the South, and the nation itself would also never be the same.
“Over a century ago, prodded by demands of four million men and women just emerging from slavery, Americans made their first attempt to live up to the noble professions of their political creed—something few societies have ever done. The effort produced a sweeping redefinition of the nation’s public life and a violent reaction that ultimately destroyed much, but by no means all, of what had been accomplished. From the enforcement of the rights of citizens to the stubborn problems of economic and racial justice, the issues central to Reconstruction are as old as the American republic, and as contemporary as the inequalities that still afflict our society.” Eric Foner, Reconstruction:America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.
Musings from the Porch will continue to explore Reconstruction and its issues, personalities, and themes in the days ahead.