This was one of the most fascinating and surprising books on American history I’ve ever read. With its comprehensive coverage of a key period in U.S. history, it’s no wonder that DuBois account of Reconstruction, published in 1935, is a classic, at least among historians and civil rights leaders. For the crucial lessons it brings from history for today, the book deserves to be much better known.
Revisionist History Revised Even Further
After reading books on Reconstruction and its leading figures by Eric Foner, David Blight, Ron Chernow and other historians, I already knew that the old story about Reconstruction was wrong. This old story portrayed Reconstruction as a “tragic” period of corrupt misrule over the defeated South by greedy northern carpetbaggers and treasonous southern scalawags egging on ignorant and brutish Black freedmen.
This was a story encouraged by unreconstructed Confederates, for obvious reasons, even before Reconstruction ended. The tragedy was that too many gullible people in the North accepted this lie without much skepticism well into the twentieth century.
In the last few decades, white historians have started to write, more accurately, that Reconstruction was actually an amazing time of political and economic experimentation in biracial democracy that lifted up not only Black southerners but also poor southern whites. But DuBois explained this more than 80 years ago.
“The attempt to make black men American citizens was in a certain sense all a failure,” DuBois writes, “but a splendid failure.”
Yes, Reconstruction governments in the South suffered from some corruption. But so did state governments in the North, as did the federal government, driven by an overheated post-war economy that offered opportunities for graft too tempting for a new breed of strivers to resist.
Yet, corruption in southern states under biracial Reconstruction administrations was matched by countervailing amounts of idealism, wisdom, integrity, and magnanimity by former slaves for their former masters. This led to surprisingly good government under very difficult circumstances.
What was tragic about Reconstruction was that it ended too soon, and that afterwards, its gains for biracial democracy that sought fair treatment for labor and capital alike were largely, but not entirely, reversed by white Redeemer governments in every southern state. And the lies that Americans have been told about Reconstruction have prevented us from learning its lessons.
“The unending tragedy of Reconstruction is the utter inability of the American mind to grasp its real significance, its national and worldwide implications,” DuBois writes.
DuBois was well qualified to serve as a guide to Reconstruction. The first African American to receive a PhD at Harvard, DuBois published prolifically on the Black experience in the United States. He was an activist too, and helped start the NAACP.
To a reader who is familiar with this revised story of Reconstruction, DuBois provides rich detail to see the holes in the neo-Confederate version of Reconstruction as a failure because Black people were allowed a place in government.
But neither does DuBois go the opposite direction, into promoting a countervailing myth of virtuous Republican Unionists defending Black freedom against reactionary ex-Confederate Redeemers in the Democratic Party trying to pull Black southerners back into pseudo-slavery.
The truth according to DuBois turns out to be stranger than fiction. Shifting alliances and mixed motivations created surprising combinations of Black freedmen with all sorts of white people: northerners who were both idealists and opportunists; poor whites who were some of the most committed racists in the South; and most surprising of all, even some planters who formerly owned slaves but decided to align themselves with the new order of things. Alliances of such strange bedfellows belie any simple version of what really happened in Reconstruction.
Not Just “Black” History
True to its title, DuBois’s text does cover the activity of Black leaders during the Civil War and in the dynamic period afterwards when America became perhaps the first nation on earth to try an experiment in truly inclusive democracy. That experiment was a noble one and incredibly ambitious, trying to plant an anti-racist government with progressive policies on education and economic opportunity in the most conservative region of the United States, the American South.
DuBois profiles dozens of the talented and able Black men (and some women) who helped lead Reconstruction, including two Black senators, Blanche Bruce and Hiram Revels; nearly two dozen Black congressmen; and hundreds of elected officials in state and local governments across the South, including PBS Pinchback who served briefly as governor of Louisiana.
For all the necessary and long overdue focus on the agency of Black Americans, DuBois’s book is not limited to “Black” history but is really a new, more inclusive story of American history. DuBois talks much about the role of white leaders from Lincoln and Johnson on down to Radical Republicans in Congress like Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens to white leaders on the state level like idealistic carpetbagger Albion Tourgee in North Carolina or former Confederate General Wade Hampton in South Carolina.
DuBois’s treatment of the latter figure exemplifies the nuanced approach of the whole book based on enough detail to tell a story that’s as complex as it needs to be, beyond good guys vs bad guys. Which one was Hampton? Though a faithful representative of the planter class, Hampton made a convincing enough case to Black voters that if they helped him “redeem” South Carolina from Republican rule, that they would enjoy civil rights and economic opportunity. But once elected as governor with both white and Black support, Hampton’s Redeemer administration tragically failed to deliver on its promises to freed people, and instead worked to bring back white supremacist rule.
And that’s the best thing about this book, it surprises you. It’s well documented, with many quotes from original sources, so you can rely on its conclusions. It’s surprising because the truth about history is surprising.
Marxism, But in a Good Way
Lewis’s introduction calls attention to the Marxist interpretation that DuBois applies throughout the book. Lewis notes that some historians have questioned whether DuBois forced a Marxist interpretation on the facts of Reconstruction to the detriment of accuracy.
I did find it a bit jarring at first to see Marxist terms such as “dictatorship” (dictatorship of labor, for example) used in a positive way. For example, DuBois felt that the South would have benefited from being under such a dictatorship (ie, federal army occupation) for decades longer to give biracial democracy enough time to take root in southern soil. But I soon got used to this way of phrasing and after a while it made perfect sense.
I actually appreciated DuBois’s Marxism when it came to talking about how freed Black people constituted a natural proletariat or labor bloc together with poor southern whites. This potential alliance represented such a threat not only to the ruling class of the South, the planters, but also to the capitalists of the North, that the two ruling oligarchies who had fought against each other in the Civil War later made up their differences and united at the end of Reconstruction in class interest to crush the rising power of labor both North and South.
DuBois is also spot on to show how southern poor whites were manipulated by racism to side with their class oppressors, the planters, against their true labor allies, the southern Black farm workers. Race wound up trumping class in propaganda but not in real life, and the southern whites wound up suffering for siding with rich men of their own race over poor Black people.
Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 has so much more to say in its 700+ pages. And this one book is worth dozens of others that have given the crucial period of Reconstruction short shrift either by omission or by repeating well worn lies.
With lots of history, DuBois also brings real drama to a story that he ranks with the most epic in the history of humanity. In biblical imagery, DuBois depicts transatlantic slavery, freedom and reform as one with the story of how these accomplishments have been dismissed, attacked, belittled and forgotten by American memory:
The most magnificent drama in the last thousand years of human history is the transportation of ten million human beings out of the dark beauty of their mother continent into the new-found Eldorado of the West. They descended into Hell; and in the third century they arose from the dead, in the finest effort to achieve democracy for the working millions which this world had ever seen. It was a tragedy that beggared the Greek; it was an upheaval of humanity like the Reformation and the French Revolution. Yet we are blind and led by the blind. We discern in it no part of our labor movement; no part of our industrial triumph; no part of our religious experience.
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, sometimes called the “Second Reconstruction,” should have been enough to help Americans see the importance of this story. But it wasn’t.
Will today’s new movement for racial equity and fair treatment, spurred by police killings of George Floyd and so many other unarmed Black people; the shootings at Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina in 2015; the Unite the Right violence in Charlottesville in 2017; the fall of Confederate statues across the South over the last few years; and the MAGA insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, do any better?
Will today’s awakening lead to a Third Reconstruction, as Rev. William J. Barber II has called for, that can complete, or at least advance, the necessary work of the first two Reconstructions?
At a time when anxiety about racial status among white people is at a high, and when conspiracy theories like White Replacement Theory, formerly relegated to the lunatic fringe of the white supremacist right, now get respectful airtime on national TV, DuBois has a message that white Americans need to hear more than ever.
“My rise does not involve your fall,” DuBois writes. “No superior has interest in inferiority. Humanity is one and its vast variety is its glory and not its condemnation. If all men make the best of themselves, if all men have the chance to meet and know each other, the result is the love born of knowledge and not the hate based on ignorance.”