Five Myths About Reconstruction
 — Jim Loewen

An edited version of this article was published in the Washington Post, January 21, 2016

The U.S. is entering the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction — that period after the Civil War when African Americans briefly enjoyed full civil and political rights. African Americans had fought in that war, of course — 200,000 of them — which made it hard to deny them equal rights, including the right to vote. It was in the interest of the United States and the Republican Party to enfranchise blacks, as well, to prevent former Confederates from resuming control of the defeated states.

Unlike the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, however, few historic places tell what happened during Reconstruction. They could: Every plantation home had a history, often fascinating, during Reconstruction, but these manors remain frozen in time around 1859. They tell a tale of elegance and power, and Reconstruction was the era when that power was challenged. Moreover, it is still true, as W.E.B. DuBois put it in "Black Reconstruction" eighty years ago, "One cannot study Reconstruction without first frankly facing the facts of universal lying."

Here are the five most common fallacies that Americans still tell themselves about this formative period.

1. Reconstruction was a failure.

This view came to dominate public thinking from 1890 until about 1940. During this "Nadir of race relations," white Americans went more racist in their thinking than ever before — more even than during slavery. Communities across the North became "sundown towns" that banned African Americans (and sometimes Jews and others) after dark. Every Southern state effectively removed African Americans from the citizenship they were supposed to have been guaranteed by the 14th Amendment after the Civil War. Reconstruction was portrayed during this era as a terrible time, especially for whites but really for everyone, a failure of government only propped up by federal bayonets. "No people were ever so cruelly subjected to the rule of ignorant, vicious and criminal classes as were the southern people in the awful days of reconstruction," proclaimed the New Orleans Times Picayune in 1901. Some authors today even think that Reconstruction refers to the physical rebuilding of the South, rather than its political re-entry into the Union. In 2013, for example, the Smithsonian American Art Museum mounted a huge exhibit, "The Civil War and American Art." "Reconstruction," the museum claimed, "began as a well-intended effort to repair the obvious damage across the South as each state reentered the Union." The curator then said the rebuilding "soon faltered, beset by corrupt politicians, well-meaning but inept administrations, speculators, and very little centralized management."

On the contrary, Reconstruction was a problem for former Confederate officeholders precisely because it was succeeding. New Republican state administrations passed popular measures such as homestead exemption laws that abated taxes on residences, making it harder for people to lose their homes. They also repaired roads and bridges and built new schools and hospitals. Soon, Republicans were drawing 20 percent and even 40 percent of the white vote and almost all the black vote. Democrats grew desperate. After abortive attempts to win black votes, they resorted to intimidation and violence. These tactics were central to the restoration of white Democratic rule across the South by 1877. And thus Reconstruction ended, but not because it failed.

2. African Americans took over the South during Reconstruction.

The official Mississippi history textbook used in ninth grade across the state throughout the 1960s flatly declared Reconstruction a period of "Carpetbag and Negro Rule." This propaganda was effective: When I asked a seminar of black freshman at Tougaloo College in 1969 what happened in Reconstruction, 16 of 17 of them said it was when blacks took over the government of the Southern states, but because they were too soon out of slavery, they messed up, and whites had to take control again. In 1979, after I had moved to Vermont, I was stunned to hear the minister of the largest Unitarian Church in the state repeat the same summary in a Sunday morning sermon. This alleged black dominance supposedly made Reconstruction into a time of terror and travail for white Southerners. The Mississippi history textbook put it baldly: "[R]econstruction was a worse battle than the war ever was. Slavery was gone, but the Negro problem was not gone." Fear of "black domination" is still pervasive among white supremacists today; note Dylann Roof's statement to black church-goers in Charleston as he was killing them, "You're taking over our country."

But in fact, the terror and travail during Reconstruction happened mostly to African Americans and their white Republican allies. In Louisiana in the summer and fall of 1868, white Democrats killed 1,081 people, mostly African Americans and white Republicans. In Hinds County, Miss., whites killed an average of one African American a day, especially targeting servicemen. Whites mounted similar attacks across the South.

Far from suffering under black dominance, all of the Southern states had white governors throughout Reconstruction. All but one (South Carolina) had white legislative majorities. Mississippi's Constitutional Convention of 1868 is still called the "Black and Tan Convention," but only 16 of its 94 delegates were black. Of course, a government that is 17 percent black looks "black" to people used to the all-white governments before and after the era.

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3. Reconstruction was an era of crime and corruption.

Many Americans still learn this canard, epitomized by the term "carpetbaggers."

The story goes — as exemplified in the 2011 edition of "The American Journey," a textbook ostensibly by James McPherson — that these fortune hunters from the North "arrived with all their belongings in cheap suitcases made of carpet fabric." Penniless, they would then make their fortunes off the prostrate South. John F. Kennedy said in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Profiles in Courage," "No state suffered more from carpetbag rule than Mississippi."

The first clue that this view of the era might be far-fetched comes from the fact that the economy of most Southern states was in ruins. Not only bank robber Willie Sutton but any fortune-seeker will go "where the money is," and it was not in the postwar South. Instead, immigrants from the North were mostly of four types: missionaries bringing Christianity (and often literacy) to the newly freed people; teachers, anxious to help black children and adults learn to read, write, and cipher; Union soldiers and seamen who were stationed in Mississippi and liked the place or fell in love; and would-be political leaders, black and white, determined to make interracial government work.

4. To hide their lack of substantive policies, Republicans resorted to "waving the bloody shirt."

"Waving the bloody shirt" has come to mean trying to win votes by demagoguery — blaming opponents for things they didn't do or did long ago. Its first use of this sort refers to Republicans blaming Democrats for the carnage of the Civil War years after it ended. Kennedy made this claim in "Profiles in Courage," writing that "Republican leaders" in 1874 "believed that only by waving the bloody shirt could they maintain their support in the North and East, particularly among the Grand Army of the Republic." In his 2005 biography of Republican politician John A. Logan, Gary Ecelbarger accuses Logan of "waving the bloody shirt" beginning in 1866 and "for decades to come."

Actually, the bloody shirt was a real shirt, owned by a white Republican, A. P. Huggins. He was superintendent of the Monroe County Public Schools, a majority-black school system in Aberdeen, Miss., and took his job seriously. White supremacist Democrats warned him to leave the state, but he refused. On a March evening in 1870, they went to his home, rousted him from bed in his nightshirt, and whipped him nearly to death. His bloody shirt was taken to Washington as proof of Democratic terrorism against Republicans in the South. The violence decried was from Reconstruction, not the Civil War, so it was not anachronistic. Nor was it demagogic to use the phrase (or wave the shirt); violence at Southern polls posed a real issue — indeed, the most important issue in the U.S. at the time.

5. Republicans gave up on black rights in 1876.

Every textbook says the "Compromise of 1877" meant "the federal government would no longer attempt to help Southern African Americans," to quote "The American Journey." "Violence was averted by sacrificing the black freedmen in the South," according to "The American Pageant."

Republicans did eventually abandon civil rights, but not at the end of Reconstruction. During the interregnum between 1876 and 1890, African Americans still voted across Dixie. In his inaugural address in 1881, Republican President James A. Garfield said, "The elevation of the Negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution of 1787. No thoughtful man can fail to appreciate its beneficent effect upon our institutions and people.... So far as my authority can lawfully extend they shall enjoy the full and equal protection of the Constitution and the laws." As late as 1890, Republicans in Congress almost passed the "Federal Elections Act," which might have brought the 15th Amendment back to life. President Benjamin Harrison had argued for such a measure in his annual address to Congress the previous year, so he would have signed it and probably would have enforced it.

After the Federal Elections Act failed to pass, each succeeding Republican president was worse on civil rights. Teddy Roosevelt was worse than Harrison, Harding worse than Roosevelt, Hoover than Harding. With the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964, the GOP switched sides entirely, appealing now to white supremacist Southern Democrats. They have been its core constituency ever since.

Today, we have a black president, to be sure. In some ways, however, we still have not reached the level of interracial cooperation we attained during Reconstruction. On Aug. 3, 1870, for example, A. T. Morgan, a white state senator from Yazoo City, Miss., married Carrie V. Highgate, a black teacher from New York, in Mississippi, and then got re-elected! In the North, not a single suburb of Chicago kept out African Americans in 1870. Today Kenilworth, Ill, its richest and most prestigious, has not a single black household, in keeping with its founder's decree back in 1902. Today, Republicans make it harder for African Americans (and students and poor people) to vote, just as Democrats did after 1890, albeit on a smaller scale.

The tragedy of Reconstruction is not that it failed, but that its successes were curtailed in 1877 and then reversed in 1890. Correcting the myths about the first Reconstruction will help us as we try to build better race relations today.

Copyright © Jim Loewen, 2016


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