Civil War buffs – you know some of them. They’ve visited the battlefield, can tell you the details of uniforms and weapons technology, and love to debate the merits of wartime generals. They know battlefield geography and the the conditions of ordinary soldiers. But I doubt you know any “Reconstruction buffs.”
Reconstruction refers to the years between 1863 and 1877 when Congress attempted to rehabilitate the south after the devastation of war. But this wasn’t some kind of Marshall Plan to inject capital and rebuild infrastructure. Rather, Reconstruction was an effort to reform the racialized society of the south. Read through any good American history textbook, and you will find that it was successful at first, at least on the surface. Freed slaves voted, blacks won seats in state legislatures, and social uplift gained traction. Yet, by the end of Grant’s second term, federal efforts to protect these gains lost steam, allowing southern whites to again fashion a racialized society premised on white supremacy.
This chapter of American history has long lived under the shadow of the war that preceded it. This is changing, though its long overdue. Columbia University historian, Eric Foner, brought Reconstruction into fresh view with his landmark book, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution. But more recently, interest in reconstruction has grown in tandem with efforts to commemorate the Civil Rights Movement. Museums such as the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and the Legacy Museum and Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice have made Reconstruction a key part of their educational narratives. (Thanks to Messiah College professor, Todd Allen, and Grace College, I had the chance to visit these sites this summer.) Consistent with this trajectory, Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates, released Stony the Road this past spring and PBS released a massive documentary based on his work. All of this attention on Reconstruction is beneficial. Though much more could be said, here a few reasons to celebrate the new and continuing interest in Reconstruction:
It reminds us that racism is a structural problem. In their efforts to reform the south, the efforts of Radical Republicans in congress reflected this and it continues to be an important reality for us today.
It illuminates the resurgence of white supremacy after 1877, which helps us understand the depth of racial attitudes that became codified in the Jim Crow era and the terror that blacks in the south faced.
The rise of the “New South” allows us to see that neo-Confederate understandings of the Civil War are not simply neutral or alternative interpretations meant to champion “states rights,” but rather are closely tied with white supremacy.
Reconstruction provides the foundation for understanding the Civil Rights Movement, why it was necessary, and where structural racism continues to exist.