One set of protests, occurring largely in April and May, sought to end social distancing and “liberate” shut down economies so Americans could get back to the malls and restaurants of everyday life. Another, set off by the Floyd killing, throws into stark relief the fatal consequences of returning to a world in which, as President Barack Obama stated, “being treated differently on account of race is tragically, painfully, maddeningly ‘normal.’”
While our current moment differs from Reconstruction, or other past moments of crisis and transformation like the Great Depression and World War II, an honest history of Reconstruction begs us to consider the dangers of getting “back to normal” with piecemeal fixes and short-term thinking. Doing so sabotaged Reconstruction’s potential of achieving equality and democracy, and that mistake echoes to the present.
During and after the Civil War, many Americans also experienced a world turned upside-down. Reconstruction reunified the fractured nation after the destruction of the Confederacy and slavery with it. Historian Eric Foner explains the most radical developments of Reconstruction were the “massive experiment in interracial democracy” and the “transformation of slaves into free laborers” that accompanied the wholesale remodeling of Southern society. From the tense labor negotiations of emancipated laundresses to the armed drill parades of black political clubs, free and freed African Americans claimed access to the promises of this moment and imagined more into being every day.
Between 1863 and 1865, Abraham Lincoln oversaw the passage of the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery or involuntary servitude everywhere in the United States “except as punishment for a crime,” though John Wilkes Booth assassinated him before the states ratified the amendment.
In that time, Congress also created the Freedmen’s Bureau to act as agents of Reconstruction throughout the former Confederate states, overseeing land, labor and political disputes between black and white southerners. The bureau took responsibility for implementing General William T. Sherman’s infamous postwar Field Order 15. An early success of Reconstruction, the order redistributed confiscated Confederate land — “40 acres and a mule” — to formerly enslaved people and provided unprecedented access to land, wealth and independence.
When Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency, however, he returned that land to its prior owners and helmed a tepid era of what scholars call “Presidential Reconstruction” that emphasized Southern states’ rights to self-governance.
Ultimately, Johnson and the Freedmen’s Bureau failed to acknowledge and address the deep racial animosity and class conflict of the postwar South. The rise of sharecropping, a system of land rentals that gave African Americans some autonomy over working conditions but required a deeply exploitative debt relationship, demonstrated the federal government’s inability to enforce fair treatment of people who were formerly enslaved. Johnson’s reversal of Field Order 15 only made it worse.
Then the 1866 midterm elections reshaped Congress, and in the process, Reconstruction. Between 1868 and 1870, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments ensured citizenship and protected equal rights for African Americans, symbolizing the fundamental transformation of the political process and tremendous potential of a time period known as “Radical Reconstruction.”
In the face of violent voter suppression and intimidation, newly enfranchised African American Republican voters elected the nation’s first black senators, representatives, state representatives and lieutenant governors from former Confederate strongholds like Alabama, Louisiana and South Carolina. It would take almost a century after Reconstruction ended before the next African American senator, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, joined their ranks in 1966.
But like the Freedman’s Bureau, these experiments in interracial democracy were cut short before they reached their full potential.
Reconstruction formally ended — or rather, was abandoned — in 1877 when President Rutherford B. Hayes pulled federal troops out of the South, honoring his end of a dubious bargain that won him the contested election of 1876.
Freed from oversight, self-proclaimed “redeemers” continued their quest to reclaim the South from African American and Republican rule, which they did throughout the region over a half century, dismantling the political and legal protections for African Americans in the name of reasserting labor control and racial dominance. The most infamous form of this retrenchment was racial terrorism but the horrors of rape, lynching and torture worked in tandem with coercive labor agreements, disenfranchisement and segregation to erase the potential for a reordering of power and reassert white supremacy among the broken remnants of a slave society.
The commitment to Reconstruction dissipated among many white Northerners too. Northern factory owners, financiers and merchants relied on Southern cotton, and industrial workers feared freedom and mobility in the South would lead to an influx of cheap black labor in the North that could undercut white wages and white supremacy. Even some white Union soldiers turned their backs on racial equality and black rights, despite having been early advocates for abolition after being radicalized by direct encounters with slavery and military service alongside self-emancipated African American men.
Across the reunited sections, white Americans’ dedication to Reconstruction also waned as they struggled to put years of unprecedented death and destruction behind them. Using celebrations of soldiers’ experience, loss and faith, they created a shared narrative that replaced the specific causes and outcomes of the war with increasingly vague paeans.
Former enemies — white Northern Republicans and Southern “redeemers” — quickly found common cause in the name of reconciliation, good business and getting formerly enslaved people back to work. Like protesters, politicians and pundits today, they were willing to sacrifice lives on the altar of economic growth.
African American speakers, writers and activists like Ida B. Wells fought to prevent white Americans from trading hard won black freedoms for the sake of national reunion. In the century and a half since, Jim Crow segregation, redlining, mass incarceration and police violence have all shown Frederick Douglass was right to ask if “war among the whites brought peace and liberty to the blacks, what will peace among the whites bring?”
The long civil rights movement continued to claim the promises of Reconstruction, making progress against segregation, voter suppression and other forms of discrimination, but the legacies of an unfinished Reconstruction still permeate the United States today.
The fatal consequences of preexisting inequalities are clear as covid-19 disproportionately hits poorer communities, immigrant communities, indigenous nations and communities of color. Jamelle Bouie has explained that “today’s disparities of health flow directly from yesterday’s disparities of wealth and opportunity.”
These disparities are apparent in the early stages of our recovery, too. There are racial disparities in the policing of social distancing, a disproportionately latinx workforce is being pushed back into dangerous meat processing facilities and black-owned small businesses are experiencing even more difficulty than most to accessing Payment Protection Plan.
Of course, there is no more staggering reminder of Reconstruction’s reverberating failures than the recent police and vigilante killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and hundreds more every year in yet another realm where people of color are killed at vastly disproportionate rates. Scholar and activist Keeanga-Yamhatta Taylor pointed out “the fact that Mr. Floyd was even arrested, let alone killed … amid a pandemic that has taken the life of one out of every 2,000 African Americans is a chilling affirmation that black lives still do not matter in the United States.”
Right now, we face another moment when, like Reconstruction, we have a choice between addressing inequalities or perpetuating them. The achievements and shortcomings of the decisions we make today will echo for decades. Instead of hastily rebuilding and attempting to return to the pre-pandemic status quo, we need to carefully think through a recovery that accounts for our long national history of racial inequity and ensures no one gets left behind.