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January/ February 2013 Deconstructing Reconstruction

The tumultuous decade that followed the Civil War failed to enshrine black voting and civil rights, and instead paved the way for more than a century of entrenched racial injustice.

By Nicholas Lemann

All of this was known at the time (the movie Birth of a Nation can be seen as an extended brag about the effects of these techniques during Reconstruction), and there was no mystery about what the remedy to Southern political terrorism was: federal troops. Just as in every “Negro riot” the white militia won, in every encounter between the U.S. Army and a white militia, the Army won. The Army was in the South to enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteen Amendments, and it became increasingly clear that without its presence, the white South would regionally nullify those amendments through terrorism. But the use of federal troops to confront the white militias was deeply unpopular, including in the North. Remember that in the 1870s, despite the Civil War, few Americans thought of their national government as properly occupying an ongoing active presence in their lives. The country had never been entirely for full rights for African Americans in the first place, and it wanted to put the Civil War and its legacy behind it. In January 1875, troops under the command of General Philip Sheridan, the great Union cavalryman, marched onto the floor of the Louisiana legislature to ensure that representatives elected by black voters would be seated. This incident was denounced by virtually every respectable liberal voice in the North; at a public protest meeting in Faneuil Hall in Boston, most of the leading white former abolitionists demonstrated that they had turned against Reconstruction. It’s a clear example of the idea that the past is another country—it is hard for us to imagine today how abolitionists could support emancipation but not full black citizenship, but many of them did.

President Ulysses S. Grant, perhaps out of conviction and perhaps out of political calculation (black Southern voters were a big part of the Republican electoral base), placed himself close to the pro-Reconstruction edge of white opinion. Every member of his Cabinet was more hostile to Reconstruction than he was. But he did not feel confident that he could empower federal troops again and again to enforce black voting rights until the South finally accepted those rights. The crucial moment came in the fall of 1875 (election dates were less standardized then than they are now), when Mississippi and Ohio held state elections. White terrorists in Mississippi made it clear, by arming themselves and disrupting Republican political activity, that they intended to suppress the black vote to the point that the Democrats would win. A group of Ohio politicians visited Grant and told him that if he had federal troops enforce the Fifteenth Amendment in Mississippi, it would be so unpopular in Ohio that the Democrats would win there. Grant tried to compromise by sending a negotiator to Mississippi to broker a peace treaty between the Republicans and the White Line organization, but the Democrats immediately violated the treaty, there was a wave of electoral violence in November, and the Democrats swept back to power (while the Republicans held Ohio).

The next year, militia organizations across the South copied “the Mississippi plan” for black vote suppression, and this was one reason the 1876 presidential election ended in a tie—which was resolved by the Republicans promising to withdraw federal troops from the former Confederacy, in return for the presidency. From that point on, enforcement of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments in the South grew increasingly lax. Whites with guns “called upon” politically active Republicans, black and white, and urged them to move to the North or drop their political activities—and the advice was frequently taken. By the 1890s the Southern states were able legally to institute the Jim Crow system, which formally rescinded black civil rights and voting rights, without challenge from the federal government. Through at least the first half of the twentieth century, most white Americans, North and South, understood Reconstruction to have been a miserable failure on its own terms, and even most liberals regarded Jim Crow as an impregnable fortress. In 1957, Congress passed a civil rights bill, and President Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops to the South to ensure black Americans’ rights (specifically, the right to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas)—the first time either had happened since 1875.

Once your ear is tuned to hear them, echoes of Reconstruction are all around us today. The distinctive voting patterns of the South are a product of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and the dramatic switch in the South’s political loyalties beginning in the 1960s is a direct result of the Democratic Party’s aligning itself with the original goals of Reconstruction. Reconstruction was the beginning point for most of our debates about the proper size and extent of the federal government; the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were the first important measures directing the national government to do something affirmatively, rather than forbidding it to do something. It’s no accident that African Americans are consistently the group with the most favorable view of government; essentially all of their progress toward full legal equality came as a result of government—specifically, federal government—action. Periods of greater state and local power were periods of at best no progress, and at worst more terror. And psychologically, the yawning gap that still exists between the way whites and blacks understand Reconstruction—which, unlike the Civil War and the civil rights movement, has had almost no depictions for popular audiences since the days of Gone With the Wind, but gets communicated privately inside family homes in very different ways—must partly account for what remains of the profound gaps between the races in their perception of the essential nature of the national project.

Click here to read more from our Jan/Feb 2013 cover package “Race, History, and Obama’s Second Term.”

Nicholas Lemann a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is dean emeritus at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker.