Workers Vanguard No. 1040
21 February 2014
Black History Month
Defeat of Reconstruction and the Betrayal of Black Freedom
We print below, edited for publication, the conclusion of a presentation given by Spartacist League/U.S. Central Committee member Alan Wilde to internal meetings of the International Communist League in Mexico City, New York City and Chicago. Part One appeared in WV No. 1039 (7 February).
On the evening of 12 January 1865, an extraordinary meeting took place in Savannah, Georgia. At it were Lincoln’s War Secretary, Edwin Stanton, and Union general William Tecumseh Sherman, who was in the middle of his “Southern Tour.” Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” probably the first expression of “total war” in the world, cut a swath of devastation across the Georgia countryside, from Atlanta to Savannah. Sherman himself was a racist who cared little about the fate of black people. Nonetheless, by force of history, his army was one of liberation that dragged behind it thousands of former slaves escaping the plantations. It was partly to try to figure out what to do with this mass of humanity that Sherman and Stanton called this meeting.
The meeting was held with 20 black ministers and other black leaders from Savannah and surrounding counties, many of them former slaves who had just won their freedom at the hands of the Union Army. For the first time, black people were asked what their definition of slavery and freedom was. One black leader, Garrison Frazier, replied: “Slavery is, receiving by irresistible power the work of another man, and not by his consent.” Freedom meant “taking us from under the yoke of bondage, and placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor.” Frazier continued: “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land...we want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.”
Following this meeting, Sherman issued his famous Special Field Order No. 15, which set aside the Sea Islands and a portion of the South Carolina and Georgia coast extending 30 miles inland for black settlement. Sherman’s order confiscated these lands from Southern planters who had abandoned them in the face of his march. Each black family would receive 40 acres, and the Army would also provide them with one of its broken-down mules to nurse back to health and use as they saw fit. It was out of this proclamation that the phrase “40 acres and a mule” would echo through time. By June, 40,000 freedmen were settled on 400,000 acres of land.
There were other experiments in land confiscation and distribution. Many plantations were being run by former slaves, as their white masters had fled. But the Northern bourgeoisie was not interested in land reforms. The prevailing concern of the ruling class was the discipline and control of Southern labor, which now meant getting former slaves back to work on the plantations harvesting cotton.
Upon coming to power, Andrew Johnson reversed many of the land confiscations, including “Sherman’s land,” where Union troops now forced black residents to give the land back to its former owners. But the failure of land reform isn’t about Johnson per se. Even when they were briefly dominant, the Radical Republicans proved unable to deal with the question, though in the face of mass agitation for land by the freedmen, some tried.
In 1867, Charles Sumner unsuccessfully introduced resolutions in the Senate that would have, among other things, established integrated public schools in the South and provided the freedmen with homesteads. However, even Radicals like Henry Wilson, who would go on to become Ulysses S. Grant’s second vice president, opposed these steps. One Republican declared, “That is more than we do for white men,” to which Sumner replied: “White men have never been in slavery.”
Far more sweeping was a resolution introduced by Thaddeus Stevens in the House. Stevens proposed to confiscate the lands of about 70,000 “chief rebels” who owned some 394 million acres. As Stevens pointed out, confiscation would affect less than 5 percent of the South’s white families. Each black family would receive 40 acres of land, basic tools for cultivation and $50 to get started.
For Stevens, land confiscation was crucial to altering the South. His plan included providing land to landless whites, which he rightly saw as key to cementing a political alliance between blacks and poor whites. In his speech to the House, he said: “The whole fabric of southern society must be changed, and never can it be done if this opportunity is lost. How can republican institutions, free schools, free churches, free social intercourse exist in a mingled community of nabobs and serfs?” Against those who declared it “inhuman” to confiscate the land of 70,000 white landowners, Stevens responded by referring to earlier plans to colonize blacks outside the country: “Far easier and more beneficial to exile 70,000 proud, bloated, and defiant rebels than to expatriate 4,000,000 laborers, native to the soil and loyal to the government.”
Stevens’ bill and speech electrified blacks in the South, feeding an upsurge in agitation for land, with copies being read aloud at black mass meetings. However, by the beginning of 1868, with the passage of the last Reconstruction act, the issue was off Congress’s agenda. Mainstream Republicans, whatever their views on political rights for blacks, opposed land confiscation.
They were joined by the bourgeois press. The New York Times worried that confiscation “would not be confined to the South,” that the Radicals sought to destroy “the inviolability of property rights” through “a war on property...to succeed the war on Slavery.” The Nation (the same one that exists today) declared: “We totally deny the assumption that the distribution of other people’s land to the negroes is necessary to complete the work of emancipation.” The fact that the slaves had more than earned the land through centuries of unrequited labor meant little to the bourgeoisie.
In the French Revolution, the early bourgeoisie granted “land to the tiller” as part of breaking the centuries-old feudal system. In the U.S., the situation was very different. The industrial bourgeoisie was squeezed by land agitation in the South and by a growing working-class movement in the North. And the 1871 Paris Commune accelerated a process already under way: it helped to cohere the class-consciousness of the bourgeoisie. For the ruling class, the prewar ideology of “free labor,” premised on an identity of interest between labor and capital, quickly dissipated after the war. The bourgeoisie began to see that the fates of the freedmen in the South and the overwhelmingly white working class in the North were deeply intertwined.
The refusal to distribute land to the freedmen was devastating to them. During Reconstruction, the South was starved of capital, with most investment going to the vast lands of the West. As a result, with very few exceptions—such as the New Orleans docks—there was little opportunity for blacks, or whites for that matter, to become part of a modern proletariat. Lack of capital meant that agricultural labor was often paid in kind rather than in cash. Increasing numbers of blacks were driven back onto the plantations as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, where they were allowed to keep a portion of their harvest in exchange for working a plot of land. They were tied to the land through contracts and loans from the landowners and forced into permanent debt peonage. Despite the unprecedented political rights that blacks enjoyed during Reconstruction, economically they were becoming firmly confined to the bottom rungs of the ladder.
Reconstruction and Its Benefits
W.E.B. Du Bois described Reconstruction, writing: “The attempt to make black men American citizens was in a certain sense all a failure, but a splendid failure.” Some of the splendor was expressed in the mass involvement of black people in American politics. Union Leagues were formed, drawing black men and women into political debates and discussions. The former slaves were asserting their citizenship as black Americans. Through their blood and toil, black people built this country. Through their art, music and literature, they have placed their indelible stamp upon what the world regards as American culture. Yet these most American of Americans have seen generation upon generation of immigrants assimilate, become American, while they themselves remain as the “other” in the only country they know, a bourgeois republic built and maintained upon their subjugation.
During Reconstruction, black people fought to assert their American-ness. Throughout the South, it was blacks and their allies who would march, parade and celebrate the Fourth of July, but not out of gross and vulgar American patriotism. Rather, it was part of a struggle to uphold the ideals of freedom and liberty that came with the Civil War and the promise of equality that came with Reconstruction.
Today, Memorial Day celebrates bloody U.S. imperialism, but the first Memorial Day, known as Decoration Day, was initiated in 1865 by emancipated blacks in honor of the Union dead in Charleston, South Carolina (see “Memorial Day: Ghosts of Confederacy in Brooklyn,” WV No. 982, 10 June 2011). As Reconstruction began to wane, the holiday was appropriated by former Confederate leaders to honor their dead and by the federal government to honor the dead of both sides—all the while excluding blacks from the holiday they founded.
Whatever shortcomings one can point to, Reconstruction challenged established race relations, in the North as well as the South. One can see the rise and fall of Reconstruction in the story of Charles Caldwell, a former slave who was elected to the Mississippi State Senate. He was widely hated by local whites for being a “turbulent Negro” and was shot at by the son of a white judge in 1868. Caldwell fired back and killed the man. He was brought to trial, where he argued self-defense before an all-white jury, which actually acquitted him. It was the first time ever that a black man was acquitted for killing a white man in Mississippi. But that was at the height of Reconstruction. Within a few years, black people became the victims of Reconstruction’s defeat. On Christmas Day 1875, as Mississippi fell back under Democratic Party control, Caldwell was shot dead by a white mob.
Contrary to claims of racist opponents of Reconstruction, Southern Republican governments were not dominated by black people but rather by those derisively called “scalawags”—Southern white Republicans accused of “betraying their race”—and “carpetbaggers”—Northern whites who moved South. Nonetheless, blacks were represented at virtually every level of government. Fourteen were voted into the House and two into the Senate. One, P.B.S. Pinchback, briefly served as governor of Louisiana. Nearly 700 sat in various state legislatures, and hundreds of others served on various local posts, including as judges.
Albion Tourgée, an Ohio Radical who moved to North Carolina, described the benefits of the reforms carried out by Reconstruction state governments. Against accusations that these regimes represented nothing but corruption and mismanagement, he pointed out:
“They instituted a public school system in a realm where public schools had been unknown. They opened the ballot box and jury box to thousands of white men who had been debarred from them by a lack of earthly possessions. They introduced home rule into the South. They abolished the whipping post, the branding iron, the stocks and other barbarous forms of punishment which had up to that time prevailed. They reduced capital felonies from about twenty to two or three. In an age of extravagance they were extravagant in the sums appropriated for public works.”
The most enduring of these works were schools. Thousands of public schools were built to the enormous benefit of blacks and poor whites, although the schools largely remained segregated by race. Some 1,500 schools were built in Texas alone by 1872, and by 1875 half of all children in Mississippi, Florida and South Carolina were attending schools. The drive of the freedmen for education for themselves and their children was insatiable, as it was viewed as a path out of conditions of servitude. They were supported by thousands of Northern teachers, black and white, who flocked to the South to aid the freedmen and were often the target of violence by racists.
Race Prejudice and Labor
in the North
There is often a perception that the South is the seat of American barbarism, while enlightenment is found in the North. In reality, the South—because it is where slavery was dominant and where the overwhelming majority of black people lived after emancipation—represented a concentrated expression of the deep racist prejudice that permeated the whole country. Many of the concepts associated with the South originated in the North, found full fruition in the South and were exported back to the rest of the country.
Segregation was no less deeply entrenched in the North—and in some ways, more so. In New York City, white gangs slaughtered some 100 black people during the July 1863 anti-draft riots. New York City was also the birthplace of the Jim Crow minstrel shows that gave their name to the system of legal segregation in the South in the decades following the defeat of Reconstruction. An 1863 NYC Democratic Party pamphlet invented a new word—“miscegenation”—to derisively refer to interracial marriage and sex.
When the Democrats wanted to run an openly racist presidential campaign in 1868, they picked the former governor of New York as their candidate. Even when Lincoln died and his coffin was being carried through NYC, black residents had to fight like hell to be allowed to march behind it. In the end, over 200 black men marched behind his coffin, protected from white mobs by a contingent of Union troops.
One comrade recommended a book by David Quigley, Second Founding: New York City, Reconstruction, and the Making of American Democracy (2004), which is very much worth reading. It gives a sense of how the bourgeoisie, with the aid of some labor leaders, manipulated racial prejudices to destroy any potential for interracial proletarian unity. According to the book, NYC’s Democratic Party “emerged as the headquarters of the opposition during Republican Reconstruction.”
In a certain way, the North underwent its own “Reconstruction,” beginning with the Civil War itself. The Civil War was the world’s first truly modern war, involving hundreds of thousands of men. The importance of rapidly moving these troops and supplying them with uniforms and arms served to rapidly accelerate industrialization in the North. Between 1865 and 1873, 35,000 miles of railroad track were laid, a figure that exceeded the entire rail network of 1860. Railways would knit the country together and become a focal point of labor struggle.
There was no real labor movement in the U.S. before the Civil War. However, it came on the scene afterwards. Strikes and other labor protests became rampant. By 1868, the federal government conceded the eight-hour day to federal workers. Marx captured the scene in Capital:
“In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralysed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first fruit of the Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation, that ran with the seven-leagued boots of the locomotive from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California.”
It was a highly combative labor movement, and that combativity found its culmination in the Great Rail Strike of 1877. The crushing of the strike coincided with the final undoing of Reconstruction. Some of the federal troops removed from the South were set against the workers, an early example of how labor and black rights are intertwined (see “Defeat of Reconstruction and the Great Rail Strike of 1877: The Shaping of Racist American Capitalism,” WV No. 701, 20 November 1998).
The labor movement was deeply fractured along ethnic lines and deeply disfigured by racial prejudice, which often undid brief expressions of working-class unity. Engels captured these divisions in a December 1893 letter to Friedrich Sorge: “Immigration...splits the workers into two groups, native-born and foreign,” while foreign-born workers are divided between Irish and Germans, as well as “a number of smaller groups, each speaking only its own language.… And, in addition, the negroes.” Engels concluded: “To form a party of one’s own out of all these calls for exceptionally strong incentives. Every now and again a powerful élan may suddenly make itself felt, but all the bourgeoisie has to do is to stick it out passively, whereupon the dissimilar working-class elements will disintegrate again.” The bourgeoisie promoted the most vicious anti-black racism among Irish workers, who were themselves the victims of virulent anti-Catholic bigotry.
An example of what can, at best, be described as blindness to black oppression among labor leaders is William Sylvis, head of the National Labor Union, which was founded in 1866. While Sylvis advocated organizing black workers, he opposed Reconstruction, denouncing the Freedmen’s Bureau as a “huge swindle.” Part of what motivated him was the very dynamic of bourgeois politics at the time. As Communist Party historian James Allen explained in Reconstruction: The Battle for Democracy 1865-1876: “The attitude of the politically awakened labor movement to the questions of Reconstruction was necessarily conditioned by its growing opposition to the Republican Party as the political arm of the industrial and financial aristocracy.”
Many white workers, especially Catholics, supported the Democratic Party, which postured as their defender. In contrast, black people were staunchly Republican. This contradiction played into the bourgeoisie’s attempts to foment hostilities between organized labor and the freedmen. Essentially what you had was a labor combativity that shook the capitalist rulers but a political immaturity that ensured that the proletariat was in no position to actually challenge the bourgeoisie for power.
Retreat and Reaction
Faced with land agitation by the freedmen in the South and labor struggles in the North, the bourgeoisie began retreating from Reconstruction, and calls for “reconciliation” with the former Confederacy were growing louder. By 1870 a campaign of terror against black people was in full swing in the South. In 1870-71, Congress passed several Enforcement Acts, including the Ku Klux Klan Act, that authorized the President to suspend habeas corpus and deploy the military against the Klan. In 1871, President Grant sent the Army to South Carolina to effectively crush the Klan.
But such measures mask the fact that, by and large, racist violence went unanswered by the North. In a letter to a mutual friend in May 1870, Tourgée wrote about the murder of John W. Stephens, a State Senator in Caswell, North Carolina. Stephens was murdered by the Klan in a courtroom, stabbed five or six times and then hanged from a hook for all to see. Tourgée recounted numerous murders, beatings, rapes and atrocities against Southern Republicans, black and white. He saluted the bravery of Stephens in refusing to flee the South and his dedication to the thousands of “colored Republican voters” who “had stood by him and elected him, at the risk of persecution and starvation.” With bitterness, Tourgée cried out:
“I am ashamed of the nation that will let its citizens be slain by scores, and scourged by thousands, and offer no remedy or protection.... I am ashamed of a party which, with the reins of power in its hands, has not nerve or decision enough to arm its own adherents, or to protect them from assassinations at the hands of their opponents.... Unless these evils are speedily remedied, I tell you, General, the Republican Party has signed its death warrant. It is a party of cowards or idiots—I don’t care which alternative is chosen.”
—Undaunted Radical: The
Selected Writings and Speeches of Albion W. Tourgée (2010)
In the South, the KKK was the military arm of the Democratic Party. Violence and intimidation brought one state after another back under Democratic control. By 1870, all the Southern states had been readmitted into the Union, and by 1872 virtually all laws disenfranchising former Confederates were repealed. Quickly, the states fell under Democratic control: Tennessee and Virginia in 1869; North Carolina in 1870; Georgia in 1871; Texas in 1873; Alabama and Arkansas in 1874; Mississippi in 1875; South Carolina in 1876; Florida and Louisiana in 1877. In every one of these states, “redemption,” as the reactionaries called it, meant racist terror. One of the worst massacres was in Colfax, Louisiana, on Easter Sunday in 1873, coinciding with a disputed gubernatorial election. By some estimates, up to 300 black Republicans were slaughtered, most after they had surrendered. Three whites also died. To this day, a monument stands in Colfax dedicated “To the Memory of the Heroes...Who Fell in the Colfax Riot Fighting for White Supremacy.”
This massacre and its aftermath became the blueprint for what would be called the “shotgun policy,” or the Mississippi Plan, which effectively destroyed the Republican Party in the South. Operating through the “Red Shirts,” who, unlike the secretive Klan, worked openly, the Democratic Party carried out a war of terror. White Republicans were intimidated into voting Democrat or not at all, and blacks were not to vote period. The statewide Republican victory of 30,000 votes in 1874 was reversed a year later by a Democratic victory of the same margin. Hundreds died in anti-black violence.
About the only place where blacks were able to fight back, and did, was South Carolina, particularly during the 1876 election campaign. Armed black Republicans, organized in Union Leagues, attacked Democratic gatherings, and actually dealt a few blows. What particularly drew the freedmen’s ire was that some black leaders expressed support for the Democratic Party, whether through bribery or intimidation. After an October 1876 Democratic meeting in Cainhoy, South Carolina, was attacked by armed blacks, one eyewitness reported: “The cry was that any white man had a right to be a democrat, ‘but no damned black man had’.” Denied the vote, black women were acutely conscious of what a Democratic victory would mean and fiercely opposed any compromise with the Democratic Party. One black woman denounced her husband as a “damned democratic son of a bitch” who “was voting to put her and her children back into slavery” (quoted in Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution ).
Some historians have argued that Reconstruction was killed by race terror in the South. In fact, it was a matter of political will: when the North wanted, as in South Carolina in 1871, it crushed the Klan. Most of the time, desperate pleas for help went unanswered. At a black Fourth of July rally in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1875, a white mob killed about half a dozen black people in cold blood (a small massacre by the standards of the time). A black eyewitness on the scene astutely laid the blame for the killing at the feet of the “now generous and forgetful northern yankee.” “Boston…and Ohio,” he wrote, “hold the coats of Georgia and Mississippi, while they slay the common victim of northern prejudice and southern hate.” Reconstruction died because the bourgeoisie killed it.
A turning point in the defeat of Reconstruction was the 1872 presidential election. A group of Republicans had split from Grant and formed the Liberal Republican Party. They complained of widespread corruption under Grant’s administration—corruption that was real enough but rife throughout the American political structure at the time. They denounced Grant’s suppression of the Klan in South Carolina as “bayonet rule” and called for the “best men” to rule, which meant crushing labor in the North and black rights in the South. Their attitude toward Reconstruction was captured by the Nation, which in March 1872 declared, “Reconstruction seems to be morally a more disastrous process than rebellion.”
The Liberal Republican candidate for president was former abolitionist Horace Greeley. From the right, the Democratic Party endorsed Greeley. From the left, the Liberals were joined by Radical Charles Sumner, who very wrongly argued that “reconciliation” of the North and South “is essential to...the safeguard of Equal Rights.”
The Liberal Republicans were roundly defeated, but they were, one could say, merely a little “ahead of their time.” The message of “reconciliation” that they preached soon infected the whole country and became the rallying cry of growing sections of the bourgeoisie and their media mouthpieces. In 1874, the Republicans suffered their first major defeat, losing control of Congress for the first time since the beginning of the Civil War. Frederick Douglass, a staunch Republican, sensed what was coming. In a Fourth of July speech in 1875 near Washington, D.C., the same day as the Vicksburg massacre in Mississippi, he asked: “If war among the whites brought peace and liberty to the blacks, what will peace among the whites bring?”
The answer came in the 1876 presidential elections, which pitted Ohio Republican Rutherford B. Hayes against New York Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. It was a highly contested election, with the results unclear. As backroom negotiations took place, there was widespread worry that the sort of violence that had become the norm in the South would find its way North. In early 1877, a compromise was reached. In exchange for Hayes getting the presidency, the last couple hundred federal troops in the South—assigned to South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana—would be returned to their barracks. They duly were. Reconstruction officially came to an end, and the potential for black equality in capitalist America was forever gone.
The Propaganda of History
In April 1877, the Nation magazine celebrated the end of Reconstruction. It predicted: “The negro will disappear from the field of national politics. Henceforth the nation, as a nation, will have nothing more to do with him.” Not quite. While the Compromise of 1877 was the culmination of a process of treachery, it did represent a decisive statement on the part of the bourgeoisie that it would no longer intervene on behalf of black people. But the end of Reconstruction did not mark the end of black people’s tenacious and courageous struggle for their rights. They continued to vote in large numbers, and they continued to fight for schools and education.
There was not some straight line between the fall of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow. It took one to two decades before the Southern states instituted legal segregation, rewrote the Southern constitutions and disenfranchised blacks. The decades after Reconstruction saw the rise of lynching, with 2,500 people slaughtered between 1885 and 1900 alone. But these years also witnessed the rise of the Populist movement, which briefly held the promise of common action between poor black and white farmers—a promise that foundered against the edifice of white supremacy.
The decline and overthrow of Reconstruction found reflection in the Supreme Court. In the 1876 Cruikshank decision, the Court freed the perpetrators of the Colfax Massacre. The judges declared that the Bill of Rights did not apply to the states in response to the prosecutors’ argument that the killers violated the civil rights of the victims. In 1883, the Court ruled that the 1875 Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional. That Act, passed in honor of Charles Sumner a year after his death, was a watered-down version of a bill he had proposed to promote integration. Then in 1896, the Court affirmed segregation as the law of the land in the Plessy decision. (The remarkable Albion Tourgée unsuccessfully argued the case before the court.) The upholding of Jim Crow coincided with the coming out on the world scene, in the 1898 Spanish-American War, of the American capitalist-imperialist class, which was forged in the years after the Civil War. Jim Crow at home fit neatly with U.S. capitalism’s ambitions abroad.
With “reconciliation” between North and South came a new ugly ideology, the myth of the “Lost Cause.” The Civil War, so it went, was not about slavery but rather was a brotherly spat in which the North fought for the Union and the South fought to defend their homes. Thus, both sides could claim “honor.” The slave was completely written out of history. Reconstruction was depicted as the worst period in American history, supposedly borne of a vindictive North that forced military rule on the South and imposed “Negro domination.”
Were it only so! Yet this grotesque lie is perpetuated not only by outright racists but also by liberals like Tony Kushner, the screenwriter for the film Lincoln. In a 2012 NPR interview, Kushner denounced the North’s “inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way.” This supposedly led to “resentment...and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection[!] societies. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering.”
The reality was far better captured by Kenneth Stampp in The Era of Reconstruction (1965): “It can be said that rarely in history have the participants in an unsuccessful rebellion endured penalties as mild as those Congress imposed upon the people of the South, and particularly upon their leaders. After four years of bitter struggle costing hundreds of thousands of lives, the generosity of the federal government’s terms was quite remarkable.” Every damned leader of the Confederacy died not at the hands of revolutionary justice but of old age. This outcome had nothing to do with generosity, leniency or humanity—virtues that one does not normally associate with the U.S. ruling class—but was rather an expression of the timidity of a bourgeoisie reluctantly drawn into Reconstruction.
The Northern bourgeoisie needed the “Lost Cause” mythology as much as the South to justify “reconciliation.” William Dunning, founder of the “Dunning School” that painted Reconstruction as a period of unabashed savagery, was born in New Jersey and based at NYC’s Columbia University. In the early 20th century, a vile film, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, was released. It celebrated the Klan as the upholders of “civilization” against black and “carpetbagger misrule” in the South. It was shown in the White House and played a major role in the resurgence of the Klan in the early 1920s.
America’s most popular film at home and abroad remains Gone With the Wind, which, wrapped in a banal love story, retells and exports to the world the racist lie of a Southern “Lost Cause.” To this day, there are far more monuments dedicated to the Confederacy than to the Union, including a massive mountain carving in Georgia that until the 1950s also featured the Klan.
In the face of the racist lies, a remarkable book came out in 1935, Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America. Du Bois, a towering figure who can best be characterized as a radical democrat, sought to use Marxist methodology, sociology and categories to challenge the racists on Reconstruction. The book was not always precise—for example, it labeled the Southern Republican governments as representing the “dictatorship of labor”—but it was profoundly daring in its reinterpretation of Reconstruction.
Du Bois challenged the Dunning racists, declaring: “The treatment of the period of Reconstruction reflects small credit upon American historians as scientists.” One of the book’s most remarkable chapters is titled “The General Strike,” in which Du Bois compares the mass abandonment of the plantations by the slaves during the war to a general strike. The very title of the book—Black Reconstruction—was a declaration of intent to write black people back into American history. And it was a lone voice among bourgeois academics and historians. In its dismissive review, the Nation declared, “The Negro masses did not play a conscious and decisive role in their own emancipation.”
With the outbreak of the civil rights movement, historians began to look back at this period, and it was to this book that they first turned for the truth. Much has changed since Reconstruction. Most importantly, black people, beginning with the Great Migration to the North in the early 20th century, have since become an integral and crucial part of the multiracial American proletariat. And as such, they will play a vital and leading role not only in their own emancipation but also in the emancipation of labor and all the oppressed.
At the same time, Reconstruction’s defeat continues to define virtually every aspect of political, social and economic life in this country. The subjugation of black people as a race-color caste is a reality that American capitalism cannot fundamentally alter, much less make disappear. This defining feature of U.S. history is one that any serious revolutionary in the U.S. has to grapple with. As Du Bois described it, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery. The whole weight of America was thrown to color caste.” To understand this period is to understand the material basis for our calls to finish the civil war and for black liberation through socialist revolution.