If you’re white, you probably don’t know much about what happened in the United States between 1865 and 1877. For most white people, our rudimentary understanding of American history skips from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln to the Wild West to World War I. What transpired in the southern United States following the Civil War is largely unknown to most white Americans. This is tragic because the events of the Reconstruction are a tale of missed opportunity, full of lessons for our present day.
Michael Fitzgerald, the author of “Splendid Failure: Postwar Reconstruction in the American South,” opens his fascinating study with these words from W.E.B DuBois, “If the Reconstruction of the Southern states had been conceived as a major national program of America, whose accomplishment at any price was well worth the effort, we should be living in a different world. The attempt to make black men American citizens was in a certain sense all a failure, but a splendid failure.” Fitzgerald goes on to describe this moment of incredible racial equality and possibility.
Consider these facts from this period of history…
- Over 1500 African-Americans held political office with two serving as US Senators and eight serving as US Representatives. After this period, the next African-American Senator wasn’t elected until 1967. Black representation in the Congress didn’t exceed the Reconstruction until 1969.
- Nearly 190,000 African-Americans served in the US Army during the Civil War, many becoming leaders in the south after the war. Black regiments were used in the Indian Wars in the west with great success. This competency was soon forgotten. Black men who had served with courage and valor were soon labeled as lazy, less intelligent and inferior.
- Many African-American military units remained in service during the Reconstruction, enforcing civil rights and helped crush the Ku Klux Klan. President Grant named the KKK a terrorist organization and had thousands arrested and imprisoned. After the Reconstruction, the KKK quickly reappeared and was a constant threat to blacks, enforcing racial discrimination with intimidation and killings.
- During the Reconstruction, blacks served as sheriffs, sat on juries and were elected or appointed as judges. While there were outbreaks of violence toward blacks, many black communities formed armed militias and defended themselves. Most black men owned a weapon. After the Reconstruction, blacks were disarmed. Between 1882 -1951, one black was lynched each week in the United States, many for defending themselves against white aggression.
- In 1868, 500,000 black men cast votes in US elections. This was over 50% of the eligible black voters. In 1940, only 3% of eligible black voters in southern states qualified to register to vote. Black voting in numbers equal to the Reconstruction didn’t occur again in the US until after the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Until the 1960s, it can be argued that the single greatest period of racial equality in the United States occurred between 1865 and 1877. After the Civil War, with the assistance of the federal government, blacks gained political power. Long before Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of his dream, the United States briefly experienced the possibility of racial reconciliation. Allied with progressive northern whites, blacks demanded and received their civil rights. As DuBois suggests, if this splendid moment could have been sustained, we would live in a much different world.
Unfortunately, the rights and liberties gained in the years following the Civil War were ripped from the hands of black men and women. For nearly the next one hundred years, though technically free, black people experienced an oppression parallel with what they had experienced during slavery. Enforced by law and lynching, they were told in a myriad of ways that they were not valued human beings.
What happened in the late 1870’s to destroy this hopeful moment?
- A president – Rutherford B Hayes – was elected on a platform that valued the economic needs of southern whites more than the civil rights of blacks. Hayes withdrew federal troops from the south and removed many of the legal protections of the Reconstruction. In the course of a single year, nearly all of the advances of the previous decade were erased.
- The mechanisms to guarantee black voting rights were systematically dismantled, allowing whites to remove all black officeholders, even in the many locales where blacks were the majority. Districts were gerrymandered and voting restrictions were created that essentially disenfranchised millions of black voters.
- White supremacy movements were normalized. In 1882, the US Supreme Court found the Ku Klux Act unconstitutional. White supremacy became the de facto political force in the United States. The KKK would eventually become a national organization numbering in the millions and including many prominent politicians.
- Laws were passed that allowed southern states to incarcerate blacks for a vast number of minor indiscretions, allowing southern governments to “enslave” thousands of black men under the auspices of law and order.
- Northern whites became fatigued, frustrated with the resistance of other whites to racial reconciliation. Labeled carpetbaggers and scoundrels, thousands of whites who’d come south to assist in the Reconstruction were threatened and even killed. This began a long tradition of lynching white people who supported black people. Many northern whites fled from the south.
If all of this sounds strangely familiar, it should. After the eight years of the Obama administration – an administration that gave great hope to people of color – we have seen a president elected whose entire campaign placated angry, white people. In a single year, we have watched much of the work and accomplishment of the Obama administration destroyed and dismantled.
In 2013, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was essentially voided by the US Supreme Court. In the years since, multiple states, especially those in the South, have created new obstacles to voter participation. Combined with profiling by police departments, we have incarcerated thousands of black men, eliminating their rights to both arm and vote.
In Charlottesville and through Breitbart, we have seen the normalization of white supremacy groups with many politicians aligning themselves with movements that obscure their racist motives behind claims of nationalism and patriotism. Like Rutherford B Hayes before him, our present president reassures us that many of those who are part of these groups are “fine people.”
Progressive whites, though initially outraged by the election of Donald Trump and his administration’s policies, have gradually become less engaged. Those who have persisted in calling out the racism of this administration have been called divisive. Many white people, like southern whites during the Reconstruction, actually see themselves as the victims.
Make no mistake. When it comes to racial equality, progress is not inevitable. The history of the Reconstruction stands as a vivid reminder of how easily liberties and rights can be removed. As splendid as many of us found the election of Barack Obama, millions of white people greeted his election with the same disdain as southern whites greeted the emancipation of blacks in 1865. Both groups yearned for an America of the past, where people of color were diminished.
If those, who do not know their history, are bound to repeat it, an America that does not know the tragic story of the Reconstruction has every potential to repeat that splendid failure. Those of us who do not want to see the cause of racial equality reversed should glean two important lessons. First, when progressive whites work closely with people of color, great things can happen. Second, when racists resist and oppose racial progress, we cannot grow fatigued. The stakes are too high. The rights and liberties of people of color are at risk once again.