Beyond ‘White Fragility’: If you Want to Let Freedom Ring, Hammer on Economic Injustice.Historians in the News
tags: racism, Reconstruction, inequality, economic justice, W.E.B. Du Bois
As soon as the Civil War came to a close, it was clear there could be no actual freedom for the formerly enslaved without a fundamental transformation of economic relations. “We must see that the freedman are established on the soil, and that they may become proprietors,” Charles Sumner, the Radical Republican senator from Massachusetts, wrote in March 1865. “The great plantations, which have been so many nurseries of the rebellion, must be broken up, and the freedmen must have the pieces.” Likewise, said the Radical Republican congressman Thaddeus Stevens in September 1865, “The whole fabric of Southern society must be changed, and never can it be done if this opportunity is lost.” The foundations of their institutions, he continued, “must be broken up and re-laid, or all of our blood and treasure have been spent in vain.”
Presidential Reconstruction under Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, would immediately undermine any means to this end, as he restored defeated Confederates to citizenship and gave them free rein to impose laws, like the Black Codes, which sought to reestablish the economic and social conditions of slavery. But Republicans in Congress were eventually able to wrest control of Reconstruction from the administration, and just as importantly, black Americans were actively taking steps to secure their political freedom against white reactionary opposition. Working through the Union Army, postwar Union Leagues and the Republican Party, freed and free blacks worked toward a common goal of political equality. And once they secured something like it, they set out to try as much as possible to affect that economic transformation.
“Public schools, hospitals, penitentiaries, and asylums for orphans and the insane were established for the first time or received increased funding,” the historian Eric Foner wrote in “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.” “South Carolina funded medical care for poor citizens, and Alabama provided free legal counsel for indigent defendants.”
For blacks and Radical Republicans, Reconstruction was an attempt to secure political rights for the sake transforming the entire society. And its end had as much to do with the reaction of property and capital owners as it did with racist violence. “The bargain of 1876,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in “Black Reconstruction in America,”
was essentially an understanding by which the Federal Government ceased to sustain the right to vote of half of the laboring population of the South, and left capital as represented by the old planter class, the new Northern capitalist, and the capitalist that began to rise out of the poor whites, with a control of labor greater than in any modern industrial state in civilized lands.
Out of that, he continued, “has arisen in the South an exploitation of labor unparalleled in modern times, with a government in which all pretense at party alignment or regard for universal suffrage is given up.”
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