Reconstruction: America's greatest missed opportunity and proof that history does not move in a straight line
Today the ever-perceptive Jelani Cobb tweeted about how our history classes in school tend to tell the tale of progress over time and increasing democracy. This narrative, of course, leaves out a whole host of times when democracy has been shattered. He called for educators to show the fragility of American democracy.
However, due to the dominant historical narrative and many other reasons, Reconstruction is probably the event in American history least studied in proportion to its importance. Whereas schoolchildren used to get a version of the Dunning School's racist interpretation that it was an experiment bound to fail because only whites were fit to govern, now they get little to nothing at all. As I like to remind my students, Reconstruction is a depressing example of how history does not move in a straight line. The attempt to build a multi-racial democracy in the South ended in an orgy of white supremacist violence among former Confederates, and white supremacist indifference in the North.
The actions of many of the so-called "Redeemers" in putting an end to Reconstruction amounted to military coups, political terror, and violent counterrevolution. The Klan was America's first political terror organization, acting to specifically intimidate Republican voters. Armed white militias took power by force, including in Colfax, Louisiana, where dozens of black defenders of the town were massacred in 1873. The Grant administration did nothing to retaliate, and the Supreme Court later ruled that the victims did not have their 14th Amendment rights violated in the attack, since it was not carried out by the state of Louisiana. That response betrayed the unwillingness of white politicians in the North, including in the Republican party, to stick their necks out on behalf of African American rights. The moral failure of Northern politicians was sealed with the noxious deal struck after the election of 1876, where Republican Rutherford Hayes resolved a contested presidential election by promising southern Democrats "home rule" and an end to Reconstruction. In return he got the White House, and the federal government essentially stopped intervening to protect civil rights in the South until the mid-20th century.
It is a sordid tale that seldom gets told, in popular culture or in classrooms. When I look at the political mess of the last year and a half, I am reminded of the arrogance that so many in this country have in assuming that history moves in a straight line. When Trump showed up on the scene last year, he was treated as an amusing sideshow. Huffington Post famously said they would put his campaign news in the entertainment section. Even though he was engaging in noxious nativism and mobilizing white supremacists, the media seemed to treat him as a funny distraction who drove the ratings sky high. There was a tacit understanding that we as a nation were beyond the kind of open racism that Trump was spouting, that it was all a relic of the past, and that we shouldn't really take anything he said seriously anyway.
Sunday's debate showed how dangerous those assumptions turned out to be. Everything that happened in that debate should be overshadowed by the fact Trump directly threatened his opponent with being thrown in jail should he win the election. This is naked authoritarianism. Today Paul LePage, the openly racist Tea Party governor of Maine, said that the nation needed Trump's authoritarianism. This is what so many of Trump's supporters want, and what draws them to him. It is not an unfortunate drawback to his appeal for these people, it is essential to their devotion to this demagogue. Their hate of "political correctness" is just a fig leaf for their desire to protect white, male, hetero, and cis advantage, even if doing so violates the Constitutional rights of others, such as in voter suppression. The Democratic Party's slogan in 1876 was "This Is A White Man's Country," which is pretty consistent with Trumpism. When push comes to shove, a large proportion of white Americans are willing to trade democracy for white supremacy. That's one of the lessons of Reconstruction, and one that we should never forget.