Eric Foner tells West Virginia audience Reconstruction was a failed noble experiment

Historians in the News
tags: Reconstruction

While the period following the Civil War has often been labeled a failure, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian said Thursday that Reconstruction laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement a century later and has shaped political debates even today. 

“Many of the key questions facing our society today in some ways are Reconstruction questions, and you cannot understand them now without knowing something about that period 150 years ago,” Eric Foner said in a roughly 45-minute lecture, followed by a short question session, to more than 250 people in the University of Charleston’s Geary Auditorium.

Those key questions included: Who’s entitled to be an American citizen, what’s the relationship between the federal government and the states and what’s the correlation between political rights and economic rights? Even terrorism, Foner pointed out, was a Reconstruction issue, saying there was no better word to describe the tactics the Ku Klux Klan used to intimidate blacks. 

“It’s a melancholy fact that the Klan and kindred organizations during that time were responsible for the death of more Americans than Osama Bin Laden,” Foner said.

Foner also noted that West Virginia led the process of “redemption” wherein, or in which, white supremacy retook control of the state government. He said the U.S. Congress had to tell West Virginia lawmakers to remove a clause from the state constitution banning blacks from entering the state and that Democrats retook control of the state in reaction to the passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees voting rights to all men. 

He said the Reconstruction is often described as the period between the end of the Civil War and 1877, when the entire South went back under the control of white supremacist Democrats. But he said it’s also understood as the nation’s process of coming to grips with the preservation of the national state and the destruction of slavery — the second of which Foner said the nation is arguably still trying to work out. 

Foner said what he dubbed the “standard view of Reconstruction” dominated historical writing and popular thinking — the latter through films like D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” — from about 1900 to around 1960 because it aligned with the Jim Crow segregation system that took over the South following Reconstruction. 

This view held that giving blacks the right to vote led to an “orgy of corruption and misgovernment,” supporting white Southerners’ subsequent decision to block African Americans’ political participation. It also blamed the Republican Party for the supposed “horrors” of Reconstruction, thus keeping the South solidly Democratic. 

“The idea of Reconstruction as a terrible era of misgovernment was not just an academic exercise,” Foner argued. “It was part of the intellectual justification for the Jim Crow system of race relations in the South from 1900 until the Civil Rights revolution.” 

But Foner said the Civil Rights Movement, which was aided by Reconstruction events, led to a complete reinterpretation of the period.

“Today I think most historians see Reconstruction as a noble, if failed, effort to establish for the first time in American history an interracial democracy,” he said.

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