How does the Reconstruction era figure into your awareness of U.S. history? For many, it was mentioned in high school U.S. History mostly in passing, a postscript to the longer unit on the Civil War. The new four-hour PBS documentary “Reconstruction: America after the Civil War” brings the tumult and dashed promises of the era into vivid and unsettling focus. Further, the documentary does not relent in drawing a through line to the racism, white supremacy and political tumult alive today. History may be presented as abstract and distant, but this documentary reminds us that we’ve already gone too long as a nation in making the Reconstruction era just that. Without a greater appreciation of the past, we repeat its sins.
Written and presented by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Reconstruction” slowly plays out the opportunities of “reconstructing” the post-Civil War Southern states concurrent with the efforts to undermine and dismantle any efforts to uplift the newly freed people and their enfranchisement. Gates challenges his viewers to understand Reconstruction as a period of history marked with “great expectations, enormous strides and wrenching retreats.”
The documentary’s first hour brings us into the aftermath of the Civil War. Lincoln is dead. The newly freed peoples are caught between emancipation being proclaimed and very little certainty of what form it shall take. While the politicians debate next steps and deal with a change of Presidents with Lincoln’s assassination and Andrew Johnson’s differing view on Reconstruction’s objectives, the narrative lifts up the ground-level experience of persons placing newspaper ads, seeking any word or leads of their loved ones, split apart due to slave auctions and the whims of white masters separating spouses and children.
History may be presented as abstract and distant, but this documentary reminds us that we’ve already gone too long as a nation in making the Reconstruction era just that. Without a greater appreciation of the past, we repeat its sins.
The second and third hours unfurl the initial stages of Reconstruction, supported by the then Republican party’s efforts in Congress to provide the resources needed and the political will to enforce them. The resistance of Southern whites, now in the political minority, seethed as newly freed people also became members of Congress and state government. Senator Hiram Revels (R-MS) and Rep. Joseph Rainey (R-SC) were seated in 1870, inaugurating a period that would have continued uninterrupted if not for the dismantling of Reconstruction, allowing white control to reassert itself over Southern states and enact policies that steadily abridged and eliminated the vote and other basic rights of citizenship for black Americans. Supreme Court justices would hand down decisions in 1883 and 1896 setting back the freedoms and civil rights briefly experienced in the years after the Civil War.[i]Over twenty years would elapse between times post-Civil War when an African American served in Congress, due to the reversal of Southern states in their governance and the racist policies that would be the beginnings of the Jim Crow era.
As Reconstruction gave way to “Redemption” (aka the era of white control reasserting itself), lynchings became commonplace, and even grand social occasions for whites seeking to legitimate their dominance once more. Sharecropping and convict leasing agreements restored a white thumb upon the economic freedom and agency of African Americans seeking land and prosperity. Terror and subordination came in many forms, not necessarily under the cover of a Klan hood.
Yet by the fourth hour, the documentary recalls the efforts of Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and a number of other great voices who rose up to give a counter-narrative to the propaganda evidenced in “mainstream” newspapers, which were often no better than the caricatures employed in minstrel shows, popular lithographs and culminating most odiously in the 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation.” Efforts to cross racial lines and build political coalitions based on mutual class interests between whites and blacks led to a brief season of “fusion” politics, bringing together those who could see a populist possibility beyond the two-party system. Over a century later, Dr. William Barber II would call upon this legacy in his own efforts to build coalitions, even as he observed how this was really the third attempt at Reconstruction, since the first one was undermined and the Civil Rights era of the 1950s-1960s is still unfinished.
American Baptists can highlight the efforts of our forebears in the abolitionist movement, as well as in supporting the post-Civil War era Reconstruction by sending missionaries like Joanna P. Moore and founding institutions of higher learning like Morehouse College. Certainly, the story of American/Northern Baptist “Home Mission” intersects this era, even as we look back and wonder how we could have done more and as we reaffirm our resolve to keep working on issues of social justice in the 21st century, painfully and repentantly aware of the work still unfinished in our society and nation.
At the documentary’s conclusion, Gates observes, the Reconstruction era can be understood as “the process by which our country tried to come to terms with the abolition of slavery. You might say it never ended because we Americans are still grappling with what it means to be truly a multiracial society with genuine equality for all.”
Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot is the Associate Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State.