The Racist Goals of Confederate Heritage Reconstruction Lies

The first African-American legislators in the 41st and 42nd Congress Library of Congress Image

I saw this article from Professor Henry Louis Gates regarding the racist goals confederate heritage people had with their Reconstruction lies. Par for the course for confederate heritage folks.

He starts by telling us, “Reconstruction, the period in American history that followed the Civil War, was an era filled with great hope and expectations, but it proved far too short to ensure a successful transition from bondage to free labor for the almost 4 million black human beings who’d been born into slavery in the U.S. During Reconstruction, the U.S. government maintained an active presence in the former Confederate states to protect the rights of the newly freed slaves and to help them, however incompletely, on the path to becoming full citizens. A little more than a decade later, the era came to an end when the contested presidential election of 1876 was resolved by trading the electoral votes of South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida for the removal of federal troops from the last Southern statehouses.”

An interesting question to consider is what was Reconstruction about? What was its goal? Was the goal simply to reunite the nation’s sections, or was it more than that? For Dr. Gates, it was more. “Reconstruction was fundamentally about who got to be an American citizen. It was in that period that the Constitution was amended to establish birthright citizenship through the 14th Amendment, which also guaranteed equality before the law regardless of race. The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, barred racial discrimination in voting, thus securing the ballot for black men nationwide. As Eric Foner, the leading historian of the era, puts it, ‘The issues central to Reconstruction —­ citizenship, voting rights, terrorist violence, the relationship between economic and political democracy ­— continue to roil our society and ­politics today, making an understanding of Reconstruction even more vital.’ A key lesson of Reconstruction, and of its violent, racist rollback, is, Foner continues, ‘that achievements thought permanent can be overturned and rights can never be taken for granted.’ Another lesson this era of our history teaches us is that, even when stripped of their rights by courts, legislatures and revised state constitutions, African Americans never surrendered to white supremacy. Resistance, too, is their legacy.”

When former confederates gained control of the former confederate states, Frederick Douglass incisively identified the problem: “By 1877, in a climate of economic crisis, the ‘cost’ of protecting the freedoms of African Americans became a price the American government was no longer willing to pay. The long rollback began in earnest­: the period of retrenchment, voter suppression, Jim Crow segregation and quasi re-enslavement that was called by white Southerners, ironically, ‘Redemption.’ As a worried ­Frederick Douglass, sensing the storm clouds gathering on the horizon, put it in a speech at the Republican National Convention on June 14, 1876: ‘You say you have emancipated us. You have; and I thank you for it. You say you have enfranchised us; and I thank you for it. But what is your ­emancipation? — What is your enfranchisement? What does it all amount to if the black man, after having been made free by the letter of your law, is unable to exercise that freedom, and, after having been freed from the slaveholder’s lash, he is to be subject to the slaveholder’s shotgun?'”

This period also saw the imposition of confederate heritage lies with the goal of erasing black accomplishment in the pursuit of white supremacy. “What confounds me is how much longer the rollback of Reconstruction was than Reconstruction itself, how dogged was the determination of the ‘Redeemed South’ to obliterate any trace of the gains made by freed people. In South Carolina, for example, the state university that had been integrated during Reconstruction (indeed, Harvard’s first black college graduate, Richard T. Greener, was a professor there) was swiftly shut down and reopened three years later for whites only. That color line remained in place there until 1963. In addition to their moves to strip African Americans of their voting rights, ‘Redeemer’ governments across the South slashed government investments in infrastructure and social programs across the board, including those for the region’s first state-funded public-school systems, a product of Reconstruction. In doing so, they re-empowered a private sphere dominated by the white planter class. A new wave of state constitutional conventions followed, starting with Mississippi in 1890. These effectively undermined the Reconstruction Amendments, especially the right of black men to vote, in each of the former Confederate states by 1908. To take just one example: whereas in Louisiana, 130,000 black men were registered to vote before the state instituted its new constitution in 1898, by 1904 that number had been reduced to 1,342. And at what the historian Rayford W. Logan dubbed the ‘nadir’ of American race relations—the time of political, economic, social and legal hardening around segregation — widespread violence, disenfranchisement and lynching coincided with a hardening of racist concepts of ‘race.’ This painfully long period following Reconstruction saw the explosion of white-supremacist ideology across an array of media and through an extraordinary variety of forms, all designed to warp the mind toward white-supremacist beliefs. Minstrelsy and racist visual imagery were weapons in the battle over the status of African Americans in postslavery America, and some continue to be manufactured to this day.”

African Americans pushed back and resisted these proconfederate lies as much as they could. “Assaulted by the degrading, mass-­produced imagery of the Lost Cause, its romanticization of the Old South and stereotypes of ‘Sambo’ and the ‘Old Negro,’ they avidly counterpunched with their own images of modern women and men, which they widely disseminated in ­journalism, photography, literature and the arts. Drawing on the tradition of agitation epitomized by the black Reconstruction Congressmen, such as John Mercer Langston, and former abolitionists, such as the inimitable Douglass, the children of Reconstruction would lay the foundation for the civil rights revolution to come in the 20th century. But what also seems clear to me today is that it was in that period that white-­supremacist ideology, especially as it was transmuted into powerful new forms of media, poisoned the American imagination in ways that have long outlasted its origin. You might say that anti-black racism once helped fuel an economic system, and that black crude was pumped and freighted around the world. Now, more than a century and a half since the end of slavery in the U.S., it drifts like a toxic oil slick as the supertanker lists into the sea.”

He concludes by connecting those lies to the racism of today’s confederate heritage apologists. “When Dylann Roof murdered the Reverend Clementa Pinckney and the eight other innocents in Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., on June 17, 2015, he didn’t need to have read any of this history; it had, unfortunately, long become part of our country’s cultural DNA and, it seems, imprinted on his own. It is important that we both celebrate the triumphs of African Americans following the Civil War and explain how the forces of white supremacy did their best to undermine those triumphs­—then and in all the years since, through to the present.”

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