Towards a Third Reconstruction

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Until recently, Reconstruction was a topic in American history of interest chiefly to high school juniors preparing to take the college advanced placement exam.  During the thirteen years after the Civil War, the United States reintegrated the states that had seceded from the Union and struggled to define the legal status in them of African-Americans under the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution.  By 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson reintroduced segregation to the federal workforce, the hard-fought gains of the episode had faded from living memory.

Then again, every America born before, say, 1960, has a first-hand   experience of the civil rights movement. It is often dated from President Harry Truman’s 1948 decision to integrate US armed forces after the contradictions of segregation re-emerged and became untenable during World War II. There was Jackie Robinson and the integration of Major League Baseball, and then the marches with their dramatic confrontations. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968; George Wallace was roundly defeated as a third-party presidential candidate (though he did better than any third-party candidate between Theodore Roosevelt and H, Ross Perot).  After 1970, most people turned their attention to other concerns.  Ill-feelings were cosmetically treated away on television: Archie Bunker and the Cosby show.

Events of the last several years, often summed up by the assertion that Black lives matter, have often been portrayed as the beginnings of a Third Reconstruction. The implication is that the civil rights movement was the second: historian C. Vann Woodward said as much. There may one day be a fourth. Rev. William Barber II, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church, in Goldsboro, N.C., anticipated as much in 2016 with The Third Reconstructuion: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement.  The view that the history of the Unites States is essentially inseparable from the history of slavery was forcefully voiced by The New York Times, in 2019, in its 1619 Project. “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written,” asserted Nikole Hanna-Jones, in an opening essay. “Black Americans have fought to make them true.” Not everyone was convinced. But the Trump administration’s rejoinder, the “1776 Project” of its 1776 Commission, released last week, has been quickly dismissed. The inauguration ceremonies brought all this to mind. Speaking personally, three books, more than any others in the last thirty years, have done more to open my eyes:

The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (1991), by Nicholas Lemann, then of The Atlantic Monthly,] decisively put on the map the enormous changes wrought after 1944 by the introduction of the mechanical cotton picker, replacing workers whose numbers had soared after 1794, when the invention of the cotton gin  made the crop newly profitable. The subsequent migration of unemployed farm workers from the rural South to the metropolitan North brought a cascade of changes in the lives of the migrants, and the cities in which they sought homes and jobs. Ghettoes, unemployment, single-parent families, drugs and crime were among the unintended effects. So was newfound political power and, for many, greater affluence.

Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2002), by David Blight, of Yale University, demonstrated that of the three quite different stories that emerged from the Civil War, it was the vision of reconciliation between the mostly white armies of the North and the South that came to dominate, permitting the White supremacist vision of continuing racial segregation and reasserted white privilege to eclipse an emancipationist vision of constitutional equality for African-Americans citizens. Blight followed up with a Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (2018).

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (2017), by Richard Rothstein, of the Economic Policy Institute, recovered a lost history of how bankers and real estate agents successfully enlisted federal, state, and local policies to create and maintain racially homogenous neighborhoods in cities and suburbs nationwide. The patterns of segregation that resulted violate Constitutional rights, he argued, and now require remediation. His memorable account of how such policies loomed in the background of the 2014 killing of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, is here.

Last week I read Revisiting Time on the Cross after 45 Years: The Slavery Debate and the New Economic History, by Eric Hilt, of Wellesley College and the National Bureau of Economic Research. Hilt noted that a wave of celebrated books that have appeared in recent years evaluating the role of slavery in the development of the American economy, among them Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams; Edward Baptist’s The Half that Has Never Been Told; Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton; and Beckert and Seth Rockman’s Slavery’s Capitalism.

Yet some of the arguments resemble those that appeared first in Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, by Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, published in 1974. Time on the Cross was a work of enormous novelty, undertaken in the service of the much- ballyhooed variety of economic history calling itself “cliometrics.” Its fundamental assertions were, as Hilt puts them, that slavery was “profitable, productive, and humane.” A storm of controversy followed.

The debate over measurement issues has moved on since then, Hilt notes; the technical literature has become hard for layfolk to follow.   Time on the Cross’s assertions of the fundamental benevolence of slaveholders have been thoroughly disproved. Yet Fogel and Engerman’s purely economic conclusions about the profitability and productivity of slavery stand up pretty well. Fogel later shared a Nobel Prize with economic historian Douglass North.

The slave economies of the South were thriving before the Civil War. Secessionist politicians and their business backers knew it. The North undertook the Civil War for the best of reasons.  Its leaders knew that slavery was wrong. A hundred and fifty years later, Americans of all sorts are still working to mitigate its ill-effects.