In this telling, Black Americans were dismissed as unprepared for the tasks of self-government and cast as props for regimes dominated by northern “carpetbaggers” and southern “scalawags.”
This was the dominant historical view that W.E.B. Du Bois rightly challenged in his classic 1935 book “Black Reconstruction in America.” And with the rise of the civil rights movement after World War II, mainstream history began catching up with Du Bois in telling the actual story of the 1865-1877 period. It was a time when Black Americans were granted and vigorously exercised equal rights — particularly to the ballot. A spirit of egalitarianism led to the enactment of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments that ended slavery and enshrined equal rights in our Constitution.
Eric Foner, the Columbia University historian whose magisterial book “Reconstruction” decisively put to rest the racist approach to the era’s history, described the fundamental break the three amendments represented with the title of his 2019 book, “The Second Founding.”
Thus, the new popular interest in Reconstruction — reflected in recent writing by Adam Serwer, Jamelle Bouie and David Blight, along with a long year-end essay in the Economist. It speaks to both the possibility of new breakthroughs and the fear that advances can be undone, as they were, often violently, in the Jim Crow period after Reconstruction. As Foner has noted, the American experience teaches a hard lesson: “Rights can be gained, and rights can be taken away.”
The popular mobilizations in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks fundamentally altered the nation’s debate over criminal justice issues.
True, an electoral backlash against the “defund the police” slogan helped some down-ballot Republican candidates and might have boosted President Trump’s vote. But the election’s outcome will not weaken the broader push for greater accountability in policing and for shifting certain responsibilities (in situations involving mental health, for example) away from police officers.
In fact, both President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris, longtime supporters of law enforcement, are committed to these new approaches. And their past advocacy of toughness on crime might paradoxically put them in a stronger position to champion them.
On voting rights, the 2020 election and its aftermath embodied both forward and backward movement.
The pandemic led many states to make voting easier. These expansions, which helped build record turnout, stood in sharp contrast to recent voter suppression measures in Republican-run states, enabled by the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act. Trump, in turn, used long-standing racist and anti-democratic tropes to claim falsely that he had been the victim of “voter fraud” and to try, unsuccessfully, to throw out ballots cast in heavily Democratic cities with large Black populations, including Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee.
One can hear the echoes of Reconstruction and the reaction it triggered. These controversies guarantee a new struggle for voting rights, as civil rights and democracy advocates try to build on 2020’s innovations even as Trump’s allies try to repeal them.
A Third Reconstruction will also need to grapple more successfully than the first two did with the economic underpinnings of racial inequality.
The Rev. William J. Barber II’s revival of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign picks up where the Second Reconstruction left off. Barber’s determination to build a multiracial “fusion coalition” underscores the imperative, brought home again and again in our history, of battling backlash by combining struggles for racial equality with movements for economic justice.
Will our nation experience the beginning of the Third Reconstruction in 2021, a moment that the racial justice protests of 2020 seemed to portend?
This is an inherently hopeful question, because the word “Reconstruction” speaks to moments in American history when the nation tried — imperfectly and incompletely, but with determination — to overturn hierarchies rooted in race.
Biden’s opportunity lies in the chance to resolve the crisis he inherits in ways that fight the overlapping inequalities of race and class. He was elected, after all, on a promise to “Build Back Better.” Taking that slogan both literally and seriously would put a new era of Reconstruction at the heart of his presidency.