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The Perils and Promise of America’s Third Reconstruction

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. This duality is at the core of American double-consciousness and it has a profound impact on the American project. America has two identities. They reflect warring views about democracy, citizenship and freedom. The America proudly calls itself a reconstructionist and is home to champions racial democracy. There’s also the America proud to be a redemptionist. This is a nation that is determined to maintain white supremacy through all means. It has been the ongoing struggle between redemptionist America, and reconstructionist America that has shaped its racial politics since the founding of the country.

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 was a cofounder of the NAACP, had a major role in its development, and published a number of essays and books. He wrote his greatest book in 1935. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880The story is about two Americas which briefly merged after a bloody Civil War. Du Bois became obsessed by trying to understand the moral failings behind white supremacy’s rise. Reconstruction was not a wasted opportunity, he thought. Du Bois saw the Civil War as a second beginning. This was the moment that America became a nation that redefined freedom outside the boundaries of its 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. The Dunning School of Reconstruction History, named after William Archibald Dunning (white Columbia University historian), was taught all over the country in the first decades of the 20th century. These lies were a part of John F. Kennedy’s education at Harvard University during the 1930s.

On June 11, 1963 President Kennedy clearly had rethought the value of the Lost Cause. On that same day, Kennedy gave his first national televised speech to support racial justice. Just hours later, Medgar evers, a Mississippi civil right activist, was shot in the back as he emerged in his driveway 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.”

Kennedy’s invocation of Stevens, a Radical Republican who believed in political and social equality wrought from the punishment and subjugation of Confederates as well as active and passive supporters of the slave power, exemplifies Reconstruction’s afterlife during the civil rights era. Stevens was born in Vermont and became a Pennsylvania Republican. He presided over the House Ways and Means Committee during Civil War and later became an extremely powerful spokesperson supporting Black citizenship. He battled Andrew Johnson’s embrace of white supremacy and looked upon Radical Reconstruction as a method of “perfecting a revolution” intended to irrevocably break the former Confederacy’s efforts to restore racial inequality by other means. Aware of the reports that white supremacists, just one year after the end of the Civil War, were “daily putting into secret graves not only hundreds but thousands of the colored people,” Stevens became one of the architects of Reconstruction policies aiming to ensure federal protection of Black voting rights, to prevent ex‑Confederates from resuming their political domination in the South, and to put an end to widespread anti-Black violence in the former Confederate States. Stevens’ steadfast belief in Black humanity was not forgotten by redemptionists. They also made it a point to ruin his legacy for all those who would listen to him, even JFK. Like Kennedy, segments of American society during the civil rights era tried to square the false history they had been told regarding “Negro domination” in redemptionist histories of the Reconstruction era with the violence, bad faith, and blatant racism gripping the nation.

Reconstruction, a song inspired by blues, is an important piece for Black America. This poem describes the difficulties and potentials of Black humanity. Du Bois’s work serves as a historical correction, political inspiration, and policy provocation. The problems that sparked these discussions haven’t really been solved. We are still living with the legacy of Reconstruction’s era, which saw racial violence and political divisions as well as cultural memories and narrative wars. The “hate and blood and shame” are still deeply embedded in twenty-first-century America.

The First Reconstruction era, 1865 to 1898, was followed by decades of Jim Crow, with its mendacious principle of “separate but equal.” The Second Reconstruction spanned the heroic period of the civil rights era— from the 1954, Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s April 4, 1968, assassination.

We have now reached the Third ReconstructioThe time from 2008’s election to the presidency of Barack Obama through recent Black Lives Matter protests (BLM), and everything that have followed. It has been volatile, with many conflicts, divisions and debates. In early 2020, the global pandemic of health that struck Blacks revealed how profoundly racial inequalities have had an impact on their lives. This inequality is still evident in America’s post-slavery world.

BLM inspired rebellions against the brutality of police officers at home as well as abroad. The largest American social protest movement, it was a continuation of the expansion and growth of the reconstructionist sections within the country. Joe Biden won the presidency after the most racially divided presidential campaign season US history. These issues reflected the evolution of redemptionist impulses within our time. This is the story of how President Joe Biden has changed. Biden, who had been a champion of the reconstructionist agenda for a generation before he took the Oval Office in 2010, had previously supported Black citizenship as a way to redeem oneself. This was a perfect example of how politicians have moved from the First Reconstruction Era to the Present, sometimes crossing both poles simultaneously.

When two Democrats won Georgia’s runoff elections on January 5, 2021, the party took a slim majority in the U.S. Senate. Raphael Warnock became the first Black senator from Georgia. He spoke with the hope and promise of Reconstruction, which was characterized by triumphant scenes as well as hopes for Black political power. In the 2020 and 2021 elections, Black women, including former Georgia state legislator Stacy Abrams whose voting rights organizing helped make Warnock and Ossof’s victories possible, took a leading and very visible organizing role, especially in advocating voting education and bringing the issue of criminal justice reform into the foreground. Kamala Harris, a Black woman was elected Vice President of the U.S.


One supporter for US President Donald Trump holds the Confederate Flag outside the Senate Chamber, during protests after breaking into the US Capitol, Washington DC. January 6, 2021. During the debates on the 2020 Presidential Election Electoral Vote Certification, the demonstrators broke into the Capitol’s security.

SAUL LOEB – AFP

Without reference to the First Reconstruction period, the white riot at the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 is difficult to comprehend. Both cases involved attempts to overthrow democratically-held elections that were won by Black voters. It is necessary to take a historical plunge in order to understand this moment’s challenges and potential opportunities. One that ties together key elements of each period and the frequent clashes among the forces for redemption and reconstruction.

The First Reconstruction established a set of competing political norms and frameworks—reconstructionist and redemptionist—regarding Black citizenship, the virtues of Black dignity, and the future of American democracy. A vision of multiracial democratic democracy was the belief system that the majority of Reconstructionists believed. Du Bois coined the term “abolition democracy” to describe what seemed to promise a second American founding, one where Black political, economic, and cultural power would give new meaning to citizenship, liberty, freedom, and democracy.

The left wing of the First Reconstruction era’s political spectrum, sometimes called Radical Republicans, believed in social equality as well as political rights. They sought economic justice and repair through the redistribution of land in hopes that this, alongside Black men’s suffrage, would provide a foundation for Black political power. Abraham Lincoln was so impressed by Black leaders like Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became an abolitionist journalist, that he believed that only the most intelligent African Americans qualified for voting rights. Lincoln, along with other moderate Republicans, had hesitated at first about voting rights for Black people. The Great Emancipator agonized Black peoples’ ability to fully integrate (both racially and otherwise) into the American political family. It was slavery and its anti-Black racism that created doubts about Black citizens’ moral and political ability to be full, unfettered citizens. This happened despite the fact that over 200,000 Blacks had served in Civil War for the Union.

Reconstructionists deployed many strategies in their efforts to create a multiracial democracy in the post–Civil War years. The group was organized on religious, social, political and economic lines. This effort sought to fulfil federal citizenship promises made after the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified. More than 21,000 Black men held office over the 3 decades following the end of slavery. This included at both the federal, state, local and state levels. Reconstructionists sued against the impositions of racial separation, passionately advocated a new social agreement for Black Americans, the rest of America, and challenged Jim Crow’s onslaught of racism with self defense and paramilitary unit, as well the creation of schools churches, universities and farming cooperatives. Reconstructionists believed that America was a dynamic political reality and could evolve into a multiracial democracy with the help of others of conscience.

Redemptionists interpreted America’s political future through an entirely different set of experiences. From the ashes and ruins of Confederate rebels came a vow among white supremacists to “redeem” the South of “Negro domination” or perish. The Confederacy’s defeat compelled a change in strategy, but not an end to morally reprehensible tactics which redemptionists innovated during peace-time. They wanted to make America a Southern Nation, not just a republic of slaves. Along with legal and political efforts to abolish slavery through other methods, racial terrorism was also a part of the legislative, legal, or political effort. The goal of multiracial democracy was a passion for the Reconstructionists. However, redemptionists often exceeded these beliefs and sometimes even surpassed them in their attempts to restore white supremacy.

Redemptionists sought to reinscribe slavery’s power relations between Blacks and whites via racial terror, through Black Codes that disenfranchised Black voters, and by ending federal protection for Black citizenship. The Confederates were allowed to run for political office while Blacks are denied voting rights. They used organized terror and fraudulent election claims to recover their power. Black labor exploitation was also a method they employed in order to force permanent servitude. Redeemers used multiple strategies, just like their counterparts in the reconstructionist movement. They sought to expand a racial system of castes in peacetime, which was thought to have been eliminated by war. Through their policy and legislative victories, even those with the lowest socioeconomic status could acquire more land and wealth, have better access to work, healthcare, the justice system, and see better results than Blacks. To make it happen, they used political, economic and judicial strategies. But racial violence proved to be the redemptionists’ main political tool, as many of them were ex‑Confederates well trained in the art of warfare.

Read More: America’s Long Overdue Awakening to Racial Injustice

Organised violence against Black leaders and ministers made it dangerous and even deadly to try and rebuild dignity and citizenship. Through sharecropping, and an extensive debt peonage system which encumbered Black farmers in overwhelming financial hardships, Redemptionists prevented Black progress towards economic independence. Many times, these conditions made it difficult for the slaves to escape from their plantations. The convict-lease system criminalized newly freed Black men, women, and children through vagrancy laws that gave the authorities permission to arrest African Americans for petty and quality‑of‑life crimes. As a result, thousands of Blacks were forced to go into jail and face financial ruin due to their inability pay fines and cash bail. Black prison inmates were then let to labor and paid their wages to municipalities. This was to extract financial profits from organized racism. The Redemptionists advocated for public policies to strip Black citizens and voting rights. In the Confederacy’s past, the states adopted laws and codes that made it harder for Blacks in the Confederacy to be on juries or hold political office. They were sometimes completely barred from these activities in some instances.

You may recognize some of the above. Contemporary voter suppression legislation represents one of redemptionism’s most stunning modern legacies. Also, mass incarceration as well as racial profiling and racially-exploitive prison labor are all part of redemptionism’s most impressive modern legacies. The racial violence directed against Blacks who tried to vote— or to swim at racially segregated beaches, eat at restaurants, travel on buses and trains, or stay at hotels or motels— during the twentieth century contained a direct throughline to this redemptionist vision of America.

Sketched group portrait of the first black senator, H. M. Revels of Mississippi and black representatives of the US Congress during the Reconstruction Era following the American Civil War, circa 1870-1875. (Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Group sketch of H. M. Revels, the first African senator from Mississippi, and other black members of Congress in the Reconstruction Era that followed the American Civil War.

Archive Photos/Getty Images

Yet America’s historical memory quickly forgot slavery’s violence, war’s pestilence, and the cowardice of white supremacy in favor of a new story, one rooted in efforts at national reconciliation at the expense of Black dignity and through the denial of Black citizenship. Black Americans in Charleston organized the first Memorial Day (then known Decoration Day), to commemorate 257 Union soldiers that were laid to rest in an unmarked grave at a Confederate Prison. That day saw thousands of Black children, adults, and men participate in memorializing those who gave their lives for the new American freedom. Nearly every region of America was hosting Memorial Day celebrations and ceremonies by the turn of the 19th century. But the celebrations made the disaster of the war that was fought over slavery into an altar for national unity. Union veterans and Confederate veterans both proclaimed the war as an unfortunate misunderstanding, where both sides fought with honor. To end the war of racial slaves, the only way to make a new peace in the nation would be to remove Black citizenship.

Redemptionists were heroic defenders for a South that was misunderstood. According to their narrative, the South was being attacked and they had to protect it from impudent Blacks who, according to them, were not prepared to fulfill the civic duties in an intelligent way or serve as competent legislators. They also prefigured modern racial gazing. They created racial oppression but deny the existence of the structures they constructed to prevent Black citizens from obtaining citizenship. They advocated for white supremacist rule to protect Black citizenship and voting rights, but they also claimed their indignation was not based on race. The First Reconstruction saw the rise of a white supremacy that was supposedly colorblind. The Redemptionists promoted the idea that African Americans were not yet ready to take on the political responsibilities of power, and normalized violence against Black citizens. In 1866, Black Americans were massacred in New Orleans, Memphis and elsewhere in the United States. This was less than one-year after the Thirteenth Amendment passed. Although the causes of these attacks weren’t completely known, many people denied their existence.

The face of the Democratic Party became redemptionism over the years, which was a dangerous situation for Black rights and American democracy. As redemptionism’s star grew, so too did its political influence. Violent conflict, legislative jockeying and political debates between Democrats and Republicans led to bipartisan consensus among the major political parties about Black subjugation. Redemptionists were able to unite a corrupt political coalition which rationalized the oppression of racial people on the basis of colorblind models. Reconstruction-era amendments were ignored by redemptionism through bipartisan inaction. Redemptionists made white supremacy a civil religion and civic nationalalism. They denied that they were being forced to accept Black political dominance and professed their devotion to the Christian God. To defend the American Dream they described as a divine blessing to white folks, they perpetrated atrocities of a whole. Redemptionism persuaded white Americans outside of the South to work together in shaping a new national order that was based on racism oppression.

Continue reading: American Racism in Reconstruction

American exceptionalism became the core characteristic of redemption because it was done this way. American exceptionalism portrays the Nation’s history as a kind of bedtime story, with a beginning, a middle, and a triumphantly happy ending. The narrative emphasizes the progress made over time and ignores deep-rooted themes like the history, inequality, economic injustice, settler colonialism, violence against Queer people and Indigenous people. This ignores the fact that civil war wasn’t enough to buy Black citizenship or dignity. It views the racial violence of Blacks, as well as white supremacy, as aberrations that are part of a otherwise healthy body of political thought. The story does not include racial slavery or structural violence. The focus is on reconciliation, triumph against evil, and a nation’s unbounded ambition for greatness under the beneficence of God himself (the Good Lord is always a He).

Du Bois called America “a land of poignant beauty, streaked with hate and blood and shame, where God was worshiped wildly, where human beings were bought and sold, and where even in the twentieth century men are burned alive,” and this unvarnished description continues to resonate deeply. America continues to be a country divided by its cruel juxtapositions among slavery, freedom, wealth, inequality, beauty, violence. History teaches us that the current racial juxtapositions aren’t aberrations. They reflect a sad pattern that has existed in the past and continues to the present.

America’s Third Reconstruction offers the opportunity for democratic renewalIt places racial injustice at the core of civic nationalism, which can help restore national pride. Building what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “Beloved Community” free of poverty, violence, and racism, is within the nation’s future grasp if it finds the courage to face its tragic past. Americans witnessed the power of a united nation after it was so close to collapse before their eyes. Our world has changed rapidly since the appeal to change public safety, transform penal systems into investment into vulnerable communities and replace white supremacy memorials with symbols of emancipation-democracy. We are witnessing the creation of new political worlds all around.

Black dignity and citizenship are at the heart of the moral/political effort that is the biggest issue in our age. The citizenship Barack Obama projected to the world from the towering heights of American power required the dignity expressed by BLM from the lower frequencies of the nation’s hidden bowels. The backlash to this current project of reconstruction continues an unfortunate pattern, one that finds redemptionists, generation after generation, winning the narrative war that defines America’s tenuous political reality, shapes our professed moral compass, and guides our economic priorities. So, the reconstruction process continues despite a Lost Cause pushing voter suppression, criminalization of Black folks, and attempts to restrict the stories shared with a new generation. America is free to either let go of the tragic past it’s been entangled by for over two centuries or follow the multiracial democracy path that could save its national soul. As we did in two other periods of reconstructions, there is a very serious moral and politically important choice that must be made. I chose hope.

Adapted from Peniel E. Joseph’s new book The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twentieth Century

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