[Marxism] An Unfinished Revolution

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Nov 15 06:05:13 MST 2019


NY Review of Books, DECEMBER 5, 2019 ISSUE
An Unfinished Revolution
by James Oakes

Reconstruction: America After the Civil War
a PBS documentary series produced by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow
by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Penguin, 296 pp., $30.00

The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the 
Constitution
by Eric Foner
Norton, 224 pp., $26.95

Even the most high-toned historical documentaries rarely satisfy 
scholars. Ken Burns’s acclaimed series The Civil War featured a 
charismatic Shelby Foote spouting reactionary pro-Confederate mythology 
and gushing about Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Southern general who 
oversaw the massacre of black soldiers during the war and became the 
first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The period following the Civil 
War, known as Reconstruction, has been especially ill-served by 
filmmakers. In 1915 D.W. Griffith, one of the founding geniuses of 
American cinema, released his blockbuster epic Birth of a Nation. 
Griffith used dramatic images that were startlingly innovative for the 
time, but he also portrayed lascivious, half-civilized blacks taking 
over the South and subjecting it to a reign of violence, corruption, and 
incompetence until beleaguered white Southerners were at last “redeemed” 
by fearless Klansmen.

In 1939 another Hollywood epic, Gone with the Wind, though less brutal 
in its racism, nevertheless perpetuated the stereotype of Reconstruction 
as a tragic era when a “prostrate South” was put to the heel by an 
unholy alliance of greedy carpetbaggers, sinister scalawags, and 
“uppity” blacks just released from slavery and raised far above their 
station. It’s not as though Hollywood just made this stuff up. Leading 
historians of the day, notably William Archibald Dunning at Columbia 
University, were telling the same nightmarish story about Reconstruction 
under the guise of disinterested scholarship.

There were dissenters, none more formidable than W.E.B. Du Bois. In 1935 
he published his flawed masterpiece Black Reconstruction, which, among 
many other things, excoriated the Dunning school for its egregious 
distortions. But it was not until the 1960s that the “revisionist” view 
of Reconstruction filtered into the academic mainstream, as 
distinguished historians—notably John Hope Franklin and Kenneth 
Stampp—published brief surveys that introduced a more balanced view of 
the period. They emphasized the surprisingly mild treatment of 
ex-Confederates, the impressive achievements of the Reconstruction 
legislatures, and the long-term significance of the constitutional 
changes of the era. Then in 1988 Eric Foner published his definitive 
account, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877, and 
with that the scholarly demolition of the Dunning school was complete.

When Henry Louis Gates Jr. set out to produce a documentary series on 
Reconstruction for PBS, he wisely invited Foner to serve as his senior 
scholarly adviser. Together they assembled many of the very best 
historians working in the field to guide viewers through four superb 
hours on the history and significance of Reconstruction. With Gates 
narrating, the documentary takes us from the origins of Reconstruction 
as slavery was destroyed during the Civil War all the way to the early 
twentieth century, with the repudiation—both popular and scholarly—of 
Reconstruction. The two episodes that constitute Part 1 cover 
Reconstruction itself, describing it as a revolutionary moment in 
American history, full of hopeful possibilities. But it provoked a 
fearsome backlash, what Du Bois called a “counter-revolution of 
property.” This is the focus of Part 2, which covers the era of Jim Crow 
segregation, lynching, and disenfranchisement. It would take thousands 
of pages and dozens of books to tell this story fully. All the more 
remarkable, then, that the four episodes succeed so well in introducing 
the broad outlines of what Gates calls “the chaotic, exhilarating, and 
ultimately devastating period known as Reconstruction.”1

The ideological struggle to control how the story of Reconstruction 
would be told began with the surrender of Confederate forces at 
Appomattox. As Edward Ayers points out, Ulysses S. Grant believed it was 
the moment when Northern principles had triumphed, but Robert E. Lee 
acknowledged nothing more than that the South had succumbed to 
overwhelming force. Lee thereby introduced the premise of the 
pro-Confederate myth of the “Lost Cause”: the South had fought 
courageously for noble ends but was simply dominated by superior 
Northern numbers. The ideological seeds Lee planted came to flower in 
the 1890s with the so-called era of sectional reconciliation. Through 
the first half of the twentieth century and beyond, schoolchildren 
across America were taught that both sides in the Civil War had fought 
bravely for their own good reasons, only to have their nobility 
besmirched by the “tragic era” of Reconstruction.

Early in the first episode, Foner defines Reconstruction as the process 
by which American society tried to come to terms with the results of the 
Civil War, in particular the liberation of four million enslaved 
African-Americans. Slavery’s destruction meant that the social structure 
of the South had to be rebuilt on an entirely different basis. What sort 
of labor system would replace it? Were the freed people to be treated as 
full citizens, entitled to all the rights and privileges guaranteed by 
the Constitution? Would black men vote as white men did? In short, what 
did freedom mean? Some of these questions would be answered in 
Washington and others in the state legislatures of the former 
Confederacy. But many of them would be addressed in local communities 
across the South where freed people and their former masters negotiated 
their new relationship. For recently emancipated slaves, the first 
priority was to reunite families that had been broken by slavery. They 
moved about in search of lost relatives or placed ads in newspapers 
asking for information about parents, children, and spouses. In 
addition, freed people wanted education, physical security, legal 
rights, and, above all, land.

To assist in the reconstruction of Southern society, Congress created 
the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, popularly known 
as the Freedmen’s Bureau. Staffed by officers of the Union Army, it was 
at once the largest social welfare effort ever undertaken by the federal 
government and a woefully understaffed and underfunded bureaucracy 
scarcely able to meet the prodigious demands heaped upon it. The bureau 
was initially supposed to be funded by rents from the 800,000 acres of 
Southern lands the Union Army had confiscated by the end of the war. Its 
director, General Oliver Otis Howard, began to distribute the land to 
freed people in forty-acre plots, to be rented for a few years until the 
tenants could purchase them. Though well intentioned, this was hardly a 
way to achieve the economic independence of the freed people. At most, 
the plan would have provided plots to 20,000 of the four million former 
slaves. But the bureau could not even do that much, because Andrew 
Johnson, who became president after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, 
ordered it to return the lands to their original white owners.

The first episode of Reconstruction traces the transition from 
presidential to congressional control of federal policy. Congress was 
out of session when Johnson was inaugurated in April 1865 and as usual 
did not return until December, leaving the president more than half a 
year to reconstruct the South on his own lenient terms. An unapologetic 
racist, Johnson issued blanket pardons to thousands of ex-Confederates; 
he required them to abolish slavery, but otherwise left them free to 
establish social and political relations between themselves and the 
former slaves. The restored Southern legislatures proceeded to pass a 
series of “black codes” that explicitly denied civil and political 
rights to the freed people and used vagrancy laws to prevent blacks from 
moving about in search of better jobs, in effect forcing freed people 
back to work on the plantations, often for their old masters. When 
Congress returned from its long recess, Johnson announced that 
Reconstruction had been completed.

But Republicans considered the new state governments illegitimate. They 
refused to seat the Southerners elected to Congress and proceeded to 
wrest control of Reconstruction policy from the president. In an attempt 
to protect former slaves, Congress renewed the Freedmen’s Bureau, and it 
passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which established race-blind 
citizenship for all those born in the United States, including former 
slaves, and empowered the federal government to enforce the rights of 
citizens in the Southern states. Johnson vetoed both, but Congress 
quickly overrode the vetoes. It also proposed the Fourteenth Amendment 
to confirm birthright citizenship along with a federal guarantee of 
“equal protection” of the law to all citizens. But Johnson did not give 
in easily. After blacks were openly massacred in the streets of Memphis 
and New Orleans, he blamed the violence on Republican radicals and did 
all he could to thwart congressional Reconstruction. He fired Freedmen’s 
Bureau agents and replaced Union officers who displeased white elites. 
During the elections of 1866, Johnson embarked on a disgraceful campaign 
of invective urging the Southern states not to ratify the Fourteenth 
Amendment.

Disgusted by a president who seemed out of control, voters gave 
Republicans a huge electoral victory in November 1866, and in early 1867 
Congress effectively started the Reconstruction process over again. A 
series of Reconstruction Acts required Southern states to write new 
constitutions that stripped former Confederates of the vote while 
enfranchising black men. States were required to ratify the Fourteenth 
Amendment before being readmitted to the Union. The results were 
astonishing. In the spring of 1867 less than one percent of black men 
could vote; by December, over 80 percent could. The Fourteenth Amendment 
became part of the Constitution in July 1868. As John Stauffer notes, 
nothing like this had happened in the global history of emancipation. 
Robert Brown Elliott, a black legislator in South Carolina, was 
optimistic: “Behind us lie 243 years of suffering, anguish, and 
degradation. Before us lies our mighty future.” For the former slaves it 
was, Foner says, “a remarkable moment of hope and of militancy.” But 
militancy could be reactionary as well as revolutionary. In many parts 
of the South, the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations 
functioned as the paramilitary arm of the Democratic Party.

The elections of 1868 were among the most racially charged in American 
history, but the threat of violence did not prevent half a million 
blacks from casting their ballots for Ulysses S. Grant. The man who had 
crushed the Confederacy became president of the United States, while in 
the South, between 1868 and the late 1870s, 1,500 black men were elected 
to Congress, state legislatures, or as sheriffs and justices of the 
peace. Reconstruction legislatures built public schools, hospitals, and 
welfare systems, and black colleges and universities were established 
across much of the South, in large part to meet the new demand for black 
teachers. Blacks developed their own fraternal organizations and built 
churches that would become the centers of African-American community 
life. Freed people were buying land and setting up businesses, and many 
were becoming economically independent. By 1900, a quarter of all black 
farmers in the South owned their own land. They could do this in large 
part because black judges and sheriffs, or whites beholden to black 
votes, could enforce contracts and protect black economic interests.

But as Gates points out, “the more African-Americans achieved, the more 
they put their lives at risk.” It was black political success that most 
often provoked racist violence. As the historian Kate Masur points out 
in the documentary, “organized white supremacist groups were trying to 
make the cost of federal intervention higher than the federal government 
was willing to bear.” Republicans responded with the Fifteenth 
Amendment, ratified in 1870, creating a right to vote and banning 
discrimination in voting on the basis of race. The following year, 
Republican congressmen held hearings that produced some eight thousand 
pages of dramatic testimony by African-Americans as well as ordinary 
whites detailing the brutal tactics of the Klan. In response, Congress 
passed a series of laws to enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteenth 
Amendments and to combat white supremacist groups, including the KKK. 
President Grant instructed his attorney general to vigorously prosecute 
offenders, and for a time, the Klan was effectively suppressed.

Grant won reelection in 1872, but the campaign revealed emerging 
divisions within the Republican Party. Though Grant was personally 
honest, scandals within his administration provoked a faction of 
“Liberal Republicans” to call for “good government” along with sectional 
reconciliation. They were a harbinger of a broader “retreat from 
Reconstruction.” But the real turning point was the Panic of 1873 and 
the ensuing depression, which put Republicans on the defensive. In the 
1874 elections the Democrats won control of the House of Representatives 
for the first time since 1860. On March 1, 1875, three days before the 
new Congress met, Republicans passed another Civil Rights Act banning 
racial segregation in public accommodations.

But there were increasing signs of the retreat from Reconstruction. 
Democratic control of the House meant, in the historian Allen Guelzo’s 
words, “No more money for Reconstruction initiatives.” In the press, 
derogatory images of African-Americans became more prominent, alongside 
images of a “prostrate” South oppressed by the weight of a corrupt and 
barbarous “negro rule.” On Easter Sunday in April 1873, as many as 150 
blacks were massacred in Colfax, Louisiana, as part of the violent 
struggle by Democrats to regain control of the state government. Only 
three of those responsible were prosecuted. Their convictions were 
overturned in 1876 by the Supreme Court, which invalidated the 
Enforcement Act of 1870 on the grounds that the massacre was a local 
police matter not covered by the Fourteenth Amendment. Scholars 
traditionally date the end of Reconstruction to the following year, 
1877, and the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes as president—described 
by Guelzo as a “first-rate second-rate man.” Upon taking office, Hayes 
ordered the removal of the last federal troops from the Southern states. 
This completed the South’s “Redemption,” the process by which whites 
regained control of its state governments.

The third episode of the series covers the “redeemed” South, primarily 
the 1880s, which Foner describes as a kind of “twilight zone” between 
Reconstruction and the full implementation of the Jim Crow system. The 
Supreme Court further weakened the federal government’s ability to 
enforce the civil rights protections of the Fourteenth Amendment by 
declaring the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. Although 
terrorized by white supremacist groups, and despite diminished political 
power, blacks continued to vote, buy land, and open their own 
businesses. The literacy rate among them rose steadily, and with freedom 
came better nutrition and a substantial improvement in their health. 
Life expectancy increased, and the black mortality rate declined.

Blacks sometimes retreated into self-segregated communities that were 
partially removed from the day-to-day discriminations imposed by whites. 
But the majority of blacks in the rural South had become sharecroppers, 
working small family plots on someone else’s land and paid a share of 
the crop at the end of the year. Although it allowed blacks to live and 
work in family units away from the daily oversight of white landlords, 
sharecropping offered few opportunities for economic improvement. (One 
of the rare missteps of the Reconstruction series is its failure to 
explore, beyond a passing reference, the origins and nature of the 
sharecropping system as most Southern blacks experienced it.) Every 
year, tens of thousands of sharecroppers moved in search of better 
contracts, but those who ended the year in debt could find themselves 
trapped in “debt peonage,” unable to move. The least fortunate, 
imprisoned for debt or vagrancy, ended up victims of the notorious 
convict-lease system, in which prison laborers were sold to private 
employers and ruthlessly exploited. So oppressive was the convict-lease 
system that it is often likened to slavery.

Hoping to gain some measure of economic control over their lives, 
millions of Southern farmers joined the Farmers’ Alliance and the 
related Colored Farmers’ Alliance. As Ayers notes, “Black farmers [were] 
in the same situation as white farmers.” A grassroots coalition of white 
tenants and black sharecroppers pursuing the same radical economic 
goals, the Alliance was the most powerful threat to the postwar 
landlord-merchant class. Realizing that economic power required 
political power, Alliance farmers became the backbone of the People’s 
Party, known as the Populists, the largest third-party challenge in 
American history. Notwithstanding the ultimate defeat of the Populists, 
the historian Vincent Brown sees “a kind of redemption” in the precedent 
they set: “To look at those moments when we see those broad 
participatory coalitions happening, and to think ‘that’s who we are.’ We 
are those common struggles to make a better future for ourselves. That’s 
America too.”

The political threat posed by that coalition, more than anything else, 
set in motion the decisive end of Reconstruction. White terrorists 
persisted, and the number of lynchings peaked in the 1890s, but lynching 
a thousand black men turned out to be an inefficient way to 
disenfranchise a million black voters. For that, the law was needed, and 
Mississippi pioneered the development of devilishly clever statutes that 
could effectively disenfranchise blacks without technically violating 
the Fifteenth Amendment. Poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and literacy 
tests not only worked to eliminate most black voters from the rolls, 
they had the added benefit to the white elite of eliminating substantial 
numbers of poor whites as well. The political threat of a populist 
coalition was destroyed, and Reconstruction was overthrown.

To justify the new order, white leaders ratcheted up the rhetoric and 
practice of white supremacy. Laws mandating racial segregation 
proliferated. Scientific racism gained wide circulation as “experts” 
concocted a sliding scale of “races” encompassing all of humanity. By 
the early twentieth century, theorists posited the existence of dozens 
of races. But blacks were the primary victims, especially in the South. 
In 1896 the Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson, legitimized “separate 
but equal” state-sponsored segregation, thus entrenching Jim Crow. 
“America,” Gates notes, “had entered the nadir of race relations.”

Central to the ideological justification of the Jim Crow era was a new 
interpretation of the Civil War that removed all references to slavery. 
In the North, monuments to the Emancipation Proclamation gave way to 
celebrations of the Gettysburg Address, which made no explicit mention 
of slavery. Across the South, the United Daughters of the Confederacy 
spearheaded the construction of monuments celebrating the leaders of the 
rebellion and formed textbook committees to ensure that a 
pro-Confederate version of Civil War history prevailed in schools. In 
both scholarly and popular accounts, slavery was romanticized as a 
paternalistic institution ideally suited to an inferior race. Southern 
children were taught that the Confederacy was a noble Lost Cause that 
was followed by a monstrous era of “negro rule.”

The last episode of Gates’s series covers the period between the 
overthrow of Reconstruction in the 1890s and the civil rights era, and 
focuses on the emergence of the “New Negro,” a burst of cultural and 
intellectual creativity among educated African-Americans, whom Du Bois 
labeled the Talented Tenth. “The New Negro generation,” Gates explains, 
“sought to engender black uplift through individual achievement and 
through production of the arts, especially fiction and poetry.” Whereas 
the Colored Farmers Alliance represented a mass movement for democracy 
and economic justice from the bottom up, the Talented Tenth pressed for 
reform from the top down.

In 1905 Du Bois helped found the Niagara Movement, an all-black group 
that agitated against lynching. But when a number of blacks were lynched 
in Springfield, Illinois—the former home of Abraham Lincoln—black 
leaders realized they would need the support of prominent whites. In 
1909 they founded the NAACP, an interracial group, with Du Bois as the 
director of research and editor of its influential publication, The 
Crisis. In one sense, the founding of an interracial civil rights 
organization represented a continuation of a long tradition in American 
politics stretching back to the abolitionist movement. But the NAACP’s 
approach to social change, led by the Talented Tenth, was also a 
departure from the democratic orientation of earlier struggles.

Foner and Gates have each written new books that add nuance and detail 
to the story told in the PBS series. As the dean of Reconstruction 
studies, Foner is the ideal scholar to produce a history of the three 
amendments added to the Constitution during the period—amendments so 
powerful as to justify the book’s title, The Second Founding. He shows 
how each of them had its origins in the antislavery constitutionalism of 
the pre–Civil War abolitionist movement. Yet each was also the product 
of the specific moment in which it was proposed and ratified.

All three had shortcomings. The Thirteenth Amendment borrowed the 
“boilerplate” language of the antislavery movement in abolishing slavery 
“except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly 
convicted.” Adopting this familiar trope, Foner notes, inadvertently 
created a loophole that Southern states later used to justify the brutal 
convict-lease system. The Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed equal 
protection of the law but failed to specify exactly what rights the 
amendment protected. Rather than establish a general right to vote, the 
Fifteenth Amendment banned franchise restrictions based on race, thereby 
enabling a later generation to devise other ways of removing blacks en 
masse from the voting rolls. But for all their limitations, Foner 
emphasizes, the Reconstruction amendments were an enormous achievement, 
not only in meeting the issues confronting Americans in the 1860s and 
1870s, but in setting a standard of freedom and equality that subsequent 
generations have appealed to, often successfully, in the continuing 
struggle for civil rights.

Gates’s Stony the Road is a very different book. A short chapter breezes 
through the history of Reconstruction before reaching the subject that 
has fascinated Gates ever since he was an undergraduate: the contrast 
between the culture of white supremacy and the counterculture of the New 
Negro that emerged in the late nineteenth century with the overthrow of 
Reconstruction and reached its apogee in the Harlem Renaissance of the 
1920s. Part monograph, part exhibition catalog, the book is packed with 
an array of reproductions documenting the appalling variety of racist 
images that infected American culture by the early twentieth century. 
Those crude depictions stand in stark relief against the literary 
sophistication and dignity of the leading lights of the New Negro 
movement—among them the poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen and the 
novelists Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer. Gates’s New Negro movement 
is more expansive than the familiar Harlem Renaissance, and includes Du 
Bois, the activist Mary McLeod Bethune, and the singer Paul Robeson.

Less stark, but no less real, is the difference in the way Foner and 
Gates approach their material. Foner places Reconstruction within the 
setting of a much older struggle for justice in the antislavery 
movement, and he sees later campaigns for civil rights as building on 
their predecessors. He posits an enduring conflict between democracy and 
equality on the one hand and racism and injustice on the other, and, 
crucially for Foner, the outcome of that conflict at any given moment 
comes down to a balance of power, primarily political power.

Gates, by contrast, stresses how brief and unusual the Reconstruction 
era was in a nation where white supremacy is built into what he calls 
America’s “cultural DNA.” This unfortunate but increasingly popular 
genetic metaphor amounts to a confession of intellectual failure, an 
inability to think about history, about change over time, in 
analytically useful terms. Worse, it indicates a disturbing return to 
the kind of quasi-biological reasoning employed by the very white 
supremacists Gates so effectively exposes. Claims that racism is “built 
into the DNA” of the United States or that “slavery is built into the 
DNA” of American capitalism are not merely ahistorical, they are 
antihistorical. Their purpose and effect is to deny the manifest reality 
of historical change.

Nevertheless, one of the most impressive aspects of the PBS series is 
how often it cuts against the overly racialized dichotomy between white 
supremacy and black resistance. On camera, one scholar after another 
points out that what was most threatening to Southern white elites was 
the very real possibility of a popular, democratic coalition of whites 
and blacks. Vincent Brown sees interracial coalitions as a powerfully 
redemptive strain of American history. Kate Masur notes that significant 
numbers of Southern whites were Unionists who had opposed secession and 
who, during Reconstruction, often voted Republican. “They didn’t stop 
being racists,” Foner explains; they merely voted their economic 
interests, which substantially overlapped with those of poor blacks.

Gates invokes the familiar metaphor of white supremacy as America’s 
“original sin,” suggesting yet again an inherent trait that reappears 
anew with each generation. But the scholars he interviewed see something 
else at work: white elites ramped up the rhetoric of white supremacy in 
the effort to break any alliance of poor whites and blacks. “That was 
difficult work to do,” Brown explains. “A lot of propaganda had to go 
into that.” According to Gregory Downs, the Democratic Party “ha[d] to 
sell white supremacy to other white Southerners who might not have the 
same or even any significant economic stake in white supremacy.” 
Kimberlé Crenshaw notes that during Reconstruction, the KKK was 
“actually committing atrocities against everyone. They’re attacking 
freedmen and white Southerners who were sympathetic to the Union cause 
and to the Republican Party.” In this account, white supremacy is less a 
pseudo-biological imperative than an ideological strategy deployed by 
elites to undermine the threat of multiracial coalitions committed to 
democracy and economic justice.

Even at the height of the Jim Crow era there were alternatives to the 
virulent racial imagery Americans encountered in Birth of a Nation. 
Griffith himself, stung by criticism of the film, responded a year later 
with a second blockbuster, Intolerance, that appealed to a very 
different sensibility. In 1927 Carl Laemmle, another pioneer of early 
American cinema, released an extravagant film version of Uncle Tom’s 
Cabin that was seen as an antidote to Griffith’s vicious portrayal of 
African-Americans. “Mr. Laemmle seems to have tried to take just the 
opposite view of the Negro that Griffith took,” one African-American 
reviewer wrote. “All though the story the Negro is shown to splendid 
advantage.”2 Even at the nadir of American race relations, white 
supremacy had vocal critics.

It is this theme that makes Reconstruction such an important period and 
this excellent series so relevant. “If you don’t know the history of 
Reconstruction,” Crenshaw explains,

if you don’t know what was tried and then dismantled, then your 
inference about why we still have these problems is, it’s a problem with 
the people, it’s a problem with their work ethic, their family 
structure, their values, rather than, it’s a problem of an unfinished 
revolution—which Reconstruction was.

1
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this review are from the four 
episodes of the documentary. ↩

2
David Reynolds, Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the 
Battle for America (Norton, 2011); see Christopher Benfey’s review in 
these pages, October 27, 2011. ↩




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