The Promise and Peril of the "Third Reconstruction"

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tags: historiography, racism, civil rights, Reconstruction, African American history, W.E.B. Dubois, William Dunning

W.E.B. Du Bois is perhaps best known for introducing the term “double consciousness” into the lexicon of the Black experience. The term described the duality of being a Black American—neither fully African nor completely American, an enduring “problem” to be fought over in times of war and wrestled with during times of peace. The duality at the heart of double-consciousness impacts the entire American project. America itself possesses dueling identities, reflecting warring ideas about citizenship, freedom, and democracy. There is the America that proudly identifies itself as reconstructionist, home to champions of racial democracy, and there is the America equally proud of being redemptionist, a country defiantly committed to maintaining white supremacy by any means necessary. Since the birth of the nation, its racial politics have been shaped by an ongoing battle between reconstructionist America and redemptionist America.

More than any other Black thinker of his generation, Du Bois identified Reconstruction, the years of hope and pain following the formal end of slavery, as America’s most important origin story. Du Bois co-founded the NAACP in 1909, played a key role in its subsequent work, and wrote an edited a prodigious number of important books and essays. But in 1935 he wrote his most important book yet, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880, about the dual Americas that briefly coalesced as one in the aftermath of a bloody Civil War. Du Bois grew obsessed with attempting to comprehend the moral failure behind the rise of white supremacy. He viewed Reconstruction as more than just a missed opportunity. Du Bois considered the decades following the Civil War to be a second founding. One that gave painful birth to a new America that expansively redefined freedom beyond the parameters of the old. America’s Reconstruction era, which lasted a little more than three decades, from the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 to the white riot in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898, was a historical watershed.

Black Reconstruction exposed the myths and lies of “Lost Cause” histories that presented the period after slavery’s end as a horrible mistake that required the heroic intervention of the Ku Klux Klan to make right. Throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, the Dunning School of Reconstruction history, named for the white Columbia University historian William Archibald Dunning, was taught from coast to coast. At Harvard University in the 1930s, the young future president John F. Kennedy took these lies to heart.

By June 11, 1963, President Kennedy had clearly reconsidered the merits of the Lost Cause. That day, he gave his first major nationally televised speech in support of racial justice and equality. A few hours later, Medgar Evers, a Mississippi civil rights activist, was assassinated as he emerged from his car in his own driveway, shot in the back by a white supremacist. “I don’t understand the South,” Kennedy observed to a close aide. “I’m coming to believe that Thaddeus Stevens was right.”

Read entire article at TIME