Conservatives sometimes accuse the academic left of ignoring the good in U.S. history and emphasizing the horrors. But in some respects, the typical telling of the American story does not focus enough on the horrors.
As I recall from my distant youth, U.S. history texts dealt with the run-up to the Civil War, then the war itself, then the failure of Reconstruction, before moving on to the Gilded Age and progressive reform. But the failure of Reconstruction was not just a disembodied fact but also a planned and ruthless act of sabotage. As Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s new book, “Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow,” effectively reminds us, the period of history following the Civil War involved a violent campaign to reverse the social, political and economic outcomes of the conflict. And this effort — which southerners called “Redemption” — was successful in almost every respect.
With the defeat of the Confederacy, the federal government’s enforcement of civil and voting rights was beginning to work a revolution. Hundreds of thousands of African American citizens registered to vote and eventually elected an estimated 2,000 black officials at every level of government. The Freedmen’s Bureau helped former slaves in matters ranging from land rights to education. Families divided by slavery were reunited. Workers transitioned into a wage system. The process was difficult but hopeful.
The white South, however, was having none of it. A broad counterattack was mounted to undo the work of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. This involved a campaign of murder and intimidation to disenfranchise black Republicans and the imposition of economic systems (sharecropping and convict labor) that effectively re- created the conditions of slavery. By 1875 — just a decade after the war ended — white rule was reestablished in all but three southern states. At first, Republicans such as President Ulysses S. Grant tried to help southern blacks through armed interventions by federal troops. But this policy proved politically unpopular and was abandoned.
The re-imposition of white rule was a bloody, unpunished historical crime. “The depth of the reaction against the demands that the Negro have the right to vote,” Gates argues, “and the sheer range of racist vehemence and terrorism that arose to neutralize that right . . . is stunning to contemplate.” Between 1868 and 1871, an estimated 400 African Americans were lynched across the South. About 30 were executed on a single day in Meridian, Miss. The killers — often roving bands of former Confederate soldiers — acted with total impunity. By 1890, Ben Tillman , who would serve as governor of South Carolina, was crowing: “The triumph of Democracy and white supremacy over mongrelism and anarchy is most complete.”
Those interested in this period will find Eric Foner’s “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution” more thorough and Nicholas Lemann’s “Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War” more emotionally engaging, but Gates’s valuable book goes further. He recounts the massive, seemingly coordinated betrayal of black citizens following Redemption by every white institution. How the Supreme Court gutted civil rights protections. How the scientific community justified white supremacy with bogus research. How white churches ignored or blessed oppression. How the world of advertising adopted demeaning black stereotypes to sell soap and cereal. How the world of movies and literature popularized the myth of the Lost Cause, in which Reconstruction was a period of carpetbagger oppression and black people really longed for the security of the plantation.
Gates is especially insightful in revealing how black people, after their constitutional rights were stolen, attempted to reassert their dignity in nonpolitical ways. Through Booker T. Washington’s version of self-help. Or by cultivating the achievements of W.E.B. Du Bois’ “talented tenth.” Or through the artistic excellence of the Harlem Renaissance. Or through pan-African pride.
Ultimately, Gates argues that Frederick Douglass got closest to the truth — that there is no path to pride and equality that does not include political power, particularly voting rights. This was the main theme of the NAACP and, eventually, of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It is a tribute to the importance of justice as the first human need.
The denial of justice recounted by “Stony the Road” was every bit as bad as apartheid. It was not just racism, but also the systematic attempt to destroy — through violence, threats and mockery — the dignity, political rights and social standing of blacks in America. It was far worse than anything I was taught in history classes. Yet only by knowing this period can we understand how white supremacy became the broadly accepted, and sadly durable, ideology of white America.