Sometimes when Le Moyne College history professor Doug Egerton is writing about the 19th century, he feels like his material could fit into today’s headlines.
Egerton’s latest book, The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era (Bloomsbury Press, 2014) tells the story of a war we don’t usually hear about.
It was a war of terror (his word) waged by armed white supremacists to reverse gains that black Americans had yearned for, fought for and died for. And in this war, the terrorists, backed by the president and the courts, won.
I asked Egerton, via telephone from his Fayetteville home, about how the study of Reconstruction could illuminate modern American history. So many conversations about race, it seems, skip from slavery on King and then Obama, leaping right over Reconstruction and Jim Crow. As I read Egerton’s account, the decades after the Civil War offer astonishing and painful clues as to why black and white Americans see our nation through such different lenses.
You don’t have to go to Ferguson, Mo., or Staten Island to notice how polarized we remain along racial lines. Why is it that half a century after passage of the Voting Rights Act, and more than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Americans of different races still see the country they love so differently?
“Americans, especially white Americans, are notoriously optimistic creatures,” Egerton says. “We’d like to think that today is better than yesterday and tomorrow is going to be better still. In a larger sense, that’s true. We no longer hang witches; we no longer own people as slaves; and if Dr. King were alive, he would marvel at the first African-American president.”
And what of King’s well-known article of faith: that “the arc of the moral universe … bends toward justice”?
“I’m not sure I agree,” Egerton says. “The arc is bending, but sometimes it kinda snaps.”
The undoing of Reconstruction was one big, loud snap.
“If you were a black American in 1875, you would say life was so much better than it had been 20 years earlier. Slavery is dead, African Americans are serving in state assemblies, on school boards, many are voting … It all comes to a grinding halt by 1901,” he says. “There are steps backward.”
The book details how violent those steps were. He quotes an astonishing statistic gathered by Robert Smalls, a former slave turned Civil War naval hero who represented South Carolina in Congress during Reconstruction. Smalls counted about 53,000 activists killed in both the North and South by white supremacists determined to revive the old order. Fifty-three thousand.
“That’s more than the number of people who died at Gettysburg, and we all know about Gettysburg,” he says.
“Violence for Southern Democrats accomplished a great deal,” he says. It ran pretty much every black office-holder out of any position of power by means of an organized and officially sanctioned campaign of terror, while the president stood by and the courts provided legal cover.
Among Egerton’s lessons for today?
“We ought to be very cautious to think that now that we have a black president, there can be no step backwards. Only the truly naïve believed that the election of Barack Obama indicated that America’s racial issues were behind us. I don’t think anybody was ready for the white backlash of the past six years. Many Americans think he is not a legitimate president because he is not sufficiently American. Race-based attempts to delegitimize his presidency — that’s a step backward.”