By Aleysha Shergill - History Student @ St Hilda's College, Oxford
The Reconstruction era is often overlooked in the history of the freedom sought by African Americans in the United States. Reconstruction lasted from the end of the American Civil War from 1865 to 1877, as the US sought to reintegrate the Southern states into the Union and attempted to define the legal status of African Americans.
And yet, recent historiography on Reconstruction has sought to reinstate the period as a moment of true historical significance. Historians such as Eric Foner, for example, have identified Reconstruction as the ‘origin of the concept of the Civil Rights movement’ and ‘a repudiation of the legal history of the US’. The question which remains, however; who was responsible for the freedom achieved by African Americans during the Reconstruction period?
It is important not to underestimate the role played by ‘top-down’ Congressional Reconstruction. Radical Republicans in Congress, for example, sought the creation of a powerful national state which would guarantee African Americans equal standing in the polity and equal opportunity in a free labour economy. In 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment, outlawing ‘slavery and involuntary servitude’, the 14th Amendment in 1868, which enshrined the concept of birth-right citizenship and equality into the constitution for the first time, and the 15th Amendment in 1870, which mandated that black men must have the right to vote, bringing some 2000 African American men into positions of political power. In 1867, Congress also divided former confederate states into 5 military districts, with a commanding military officer in each district, authorized to keep order and protect the ‘rights of persons and property’. The federal government, in other words, had become the ‘custodian of freedom’.
Recent historiography, championed by Eric Foer, has also sought to reinstate African Americans as active agents in the making of Reconstruction. Not only did the service of 200,000 black men in the union army help to give the Civil War a new meaning, but African Americans also continued to define the terms of their freedom and its implementation after military victory.
The political mobilization of the black community is where the efforts of African American’s themselves in their quest for freedom were the most marked. In 1867, politics emerged as the principal focus of black aspiration, as the demise of the structure of civil authority opened the door for political mobilization to sweep across the black belt. The Union League reflected and channelled this political mobilization. The League’s main function was political education, but it also assisted in the building of schools and churches and encouraged freedmen to be assertive with their employers. It also made possible the vast expansion of black political leadership that emerged between 1864 and 1867.
Nevertheless, historians have also emphasised the persistence of white southern racial violence, which significantly reduced the agency of African Americans during the era of Reconstruction. The emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, for example, contributed to some of the worst terrorist episodes in American history. Counteracting black enfranchisement was the concrete objective and terrorists shot and intimidated political leaders and voters and burned schools and churches. Terrorists also demolished the Union League. A clear example of the violence which prompted federal intervention was the 1871 riot in Meridian, Mississippi, where Klansmen assassinated black officeholders.
Moreover, the historiography must not lose sight of the role African Americans played in Reconstruction, as in the Civil Rights movement, both for defining their vision of freedom and for its implementation. However, we must not lose sight of the persistence of highly effective organized and unorganized white southern racial violence, which significantly impeded the ability of African Americans to achieve true emancipation.
Eric Foner, ‘The significance of Reconstruction after the Civil War’ Gilder Lehrman Lecture, LSE (17 March 2011) https://www.whiteplainspublicschools.org/cms/lib/NY01000029/Centricity/Domain/305/Foner.mp3
Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (1988)
Michael Fitzgerald, Splendid Failure: Postwar Reconstruction (2007)