By Roberta Harold
History, we’re told, may not repeat itself, but it rhymes. Lately I’m fascinated by Reconstruction, a period that, like our own, saw a people’s hopes for opportunity, equality, and “a more perfect union” stymied in the face of resurgent racism, demagoguery, and corrupt self-interest. Scholarly focus on the period—Henry Louis Gates’ PBS documentary is a great starting point—is bringing us invaluable insights into the virtual re-enslavement of African-Americans, a century of stalemate in the advancement of civil and human rights, and social and economic inequalities that persist in our own time.
When I was in middle school in 1960s Virginia, our history textbook skipped over the Civil War’s aftermath with a few references to radical Republicans, white northern “carpetbaggers,” and southern “scalawags” who used uneducated freedmen as puppets to obtain political and economic advantage. This untenable situation, we were taught, corrected itself over time as wiser heads prevailed.
The realities of Reconstruction and its failures are a lot more sinister, and rife with lessons that seem more pertinent by the day.
The ink was barely dry on Lee’s Articles of Surrender when states in the former Confederacy, forced by the Thirteenth Amendment to acknowledge the end of slavery, enacted “Black Codes” to deny civil rights to formerly enslaved people. Many contained “vagrancy” clauses that resulted in the mass incarceration of black men (sound familiar?) who, in the absence of other minor offenses, were jailed for not having, or for violating, restrictive work contracts with white people. As convicts, they were leased out to whites who worked them as brutally as they had in slave times—sometimes more so, since they had no “property interest” in these men.
The “radical” Republicans elected nationally in 1866 put a temporary stop to this via civil rights legislation, two further constitutional amendments, and military occupation of the former rebel states. Black male suffrage was guaranteed and enforced, and many legislatures in the period, notably Georgia and Virginia, had a high proportion of black state representatives—the South even sent two black senators and 19 House members to the U.S. Capitol.
Southern racists turned to terrorism to intimidate black people and their allies through secret societies like the Ku Klux Klan and, after the first Klan’s suppression by federal law in 1871, more open paramilitary groups like the Red Shirts and the White League. Assassination of black leaders, arson, assault, rape, lynching by hanging and burning, and mayhem in black communities and neighborhoods suppressed the political and economic advancement of African-Americans.
The Union’s commitment to enforcing black rights and freedoms was already waning when the military occupation of the South ended with the Compromise of 1877, which installed Republican Rutherford Hayes as President. Once back in charge of their states’ political machinery, former Confederates lost no time in re-enacting the Black Codes and systematically disenfranchising black voters. “Jim Crow” laws enforced strict segregation and deprived African-Americans of educational and occupational opportunities.
(In case you thought this sort of thing is ancient history, a 2013 Supreme Court decision struck down section 4 of the 1964 Voting Rights Act. Several southern states lost no time in implementing measures that all but explicitly deprived thousands of black voters of the franchise.)
Now dependent for their majorities on white southern voters, successive national governments further eroded black civil rights: The infamous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision legitimized racial segregation as long as “separate but equal” public facilities were provided—facilities that were, of course, never equal. It got worse as President Woodrow Wilson resegregated the U.S. Civil Service.
The Lost Cause myth that gallant southern whites had only been fighting to preserve their special way of life (see the film Gone with the Wind, 1939, for the apogee of this) helped reconcile northern and southern whites at the expense of blacks. Mythologizing by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and others in the early 20th century led to a proliferation of heroic monuments to figures such as Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the Klan’s founders and a man responsible for the Fort Pillow massacre of black Union troops in 1864. Widespread lynching enforced southern white supremacy, and the resurgence of the Klan in the 1920s extended the terrorism of bigotry to Jews, Catholics, and immigrant groups as well as blacks.
There’s much more to tell about Reconstruction and its resonances in the post-Obama era—an era many hoped, in vain, would be post-racial. One lesson is clear: The pressures against democracy, freedom, and equality never go away. We have, as Ben Franklin said, a republic—but only if we can keep it.
Roberta Harold lives in Montpelier, acts in community theater, and sings with the Rock City rock and roll chorus. A late-blooming student of American history, she is a 2001 graduate of the Bread Loaf School of English and the author of two historical mysteries, Heron Island and Murdered Sleep. She is working on a third novel.