What If Reconstruction Hadn’t Failed?

tags: Jim Crow, Civil War, Reconstruction

Annette Gordon-Reed is the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School. She is a co-author of the forthcoming "Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination."

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 ... In the end, the opportunities for blacks, the South, and the country as a whole that were lost because of the resistance to and abandonment of Reconstruction stand as one of the great tragedies of American history. The subject naturally provokes a series of “what ifs.” What if plans for land reform had been effectuated during that time? Doing so would have helped the freedmen to become landowners, a status recognized since the country’s origins as a foundation for personal independence. But black independence was exactly what white southerners didn’t want. They preferred to bring things back as close to slavery as possible, ensnaring former enslaved people and their progeny in a system of share cropping and debt peonage that stymied the growth of black economic wealth for generations.

What if blacks’ voting rights had not been cut off through official shenanigans and outright violence? What different political course might the South have taken? Support for public education and public works would likely have been much stronger if blacks had been active in the electorate. This, in turn, might have brought more sustained economic development, infrastructural improvements, and a higher standard of living to all in the region.

What if American historians during the aftermath of Reconstruction had not been white supremacists? A different type of society, and a different type of education about that society, would have given young blacks and whites an opportunity to learn another narrative about black people’s place in America.

There is little reason to doubt that if the United States had started the process of rewriting the script on race relations during the late 19th century, instead of delaying it to the 1950s and 1960s, many problems that have their origins in the country’s troubled racial history might be closer to resolution. As Justice Thurgood Marshall noted in 1978 in the affirmative action case, The Regents of University of California v. Bakke, America has been dealing with the tragedy of Reconstruction’s failure and its aftermath for decades now. It appears that the country will likely be doing so for the foreseeable future.  

Read entire article at The Atlantic

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