With the traitorous South conquered, America after the Civil War sought to finally live up to its own founding declaration that “all men are created equal.” That meant its democracy would include the 4 million newly emancipated African-Americans hungry for citizenship and legal recognition of their political, economic, and civil rights.
Yet this nation’s futile pursuit of a more perfect union during Reconstruction never stood a chance against the vicious mendacity of white supremacy.
In a country built on a foundation of racist subjugation, even a war to dismantle its most vile representation would not allow “a successful transition from slavery to freedom, from bondage to free labor,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes in “Stony the Road,” his luminous history of Reconstruction, and the savage white backlash that derailed it.
“The process of Reconstruction involved nothing less than the monumental effort to create a biracial democracy out of the wreckage of rebellion,” Gates writes. What the country got was institutionalized white supremacy enforced with intimidation, nooses, and bullets.
Despite its objective to make whole again a deeply wounded nation and render justice to millions of black people, the Reconstruction era was brief, about a dozen years beginning just after the Civil War. Yet it remains, Gates says, “one of the most pivotal eras in the history of race relations in American history — and probably the most misunderstood.”
That’s because the Reconstruction era is often taught — if it is taught at all — as a kind of doomed misadventure. It was not. During Reconstruction, Congress passed its first federal civil rights law. Three amendments to the Constitution outlawed slavery (13th); granted birthright citizenship (14th); and extended voting rights to all races (15th) — all of them adopted in the first five years. More than 2,000 black men were elected to office, including two senators and 20 congressmen. (Regardless of race, women were excluded from voting.)
This crucial early period gave black people hope, yet it was also a time when white resistance to burgeoning black empowerment gave rise to the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, and official disenfranchisement.
Black people quickly discovered that emancipation was not the same as freedom.
“The court cases and acts of legislation that enshrined Jim Crow as the law of the land did not unfold in a vacuum. The larger context for them was the ideology of white supremacy, the set of beliefs and attitudes about the nature of black people that arose to justify their unprecedented economic exploitation in the transatlantic slave trade,” Gates writes. “Following the Civil War, this ideology evolved in order to maintain the country’s racial hierarchy in the face of emancipation and black citizenship.”
Reconstruction didn’t collapse under the weight of unrealistic ambitions — it was sabotaged by white judges, presidents, legislators, and regular folks who never had any intention of allowing black people equal footing in this country. And those who did support advancing equality lacked resolve and eventually just turned away.
“Anything but unmoored or isolated,” Gates writes, “white power was reinforced in this new era by the nation’s cultural, economic, educational, legal, and violently extra-legal systems, including lynching,” Gates writes.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative, more than 4,000 people were victims of “racial terror lynchings” between the late 19th century and mid 20th century. While the Senate last year passed the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act, sponsored by Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Tim Scott, there is still no federal anti-lynching law.
As Reconstruction came undone, the Redemption, or Jim Crow, era, tightened its grasp by 1877. The boot of codified white supremacy pressed on the backs of African-Americans, and it was treacherous, bloody, and multilayered.
Promoted by Harvard professor Louis Agassiz, pseudoscience like polygenesis claimed black people belonged to a separate, unequal species. Racist imagery presented African-Americans as dimwitted, infantile, bestial, and sexually wanton. Gates includes copious photographs of these depictions, although one only has to go to their local supermarket to find some of them. Products such as Uncle Ben’s; Cream of Wheat, with its cook, Rastus; and Aunt Jemima are still grinning on store shelves.
Of this devastating period which would last well into the 20th century, author and scholar and author W.E.B. DuBois said, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”
Still, black people fought every step of the way. For decades, black people lived under the constant threat of racist terrorism, and still found a way to rise. When they were banned from public institutions such as churches and universities, they created their own. They worked to undermine stereotypes, and Gates writes brilliantly about the “New Negro,” whom he calls “Black America’s first superhero. It was a “shrewd and canny, if complicated” antidote to poisonous representations of African-Americans. Those complications are still evident in today’s heated discussions in the black community about so-called respectability politics.
Few authors approach such difficult history with the unblinking clarity of Gates, the esteemed Harvard professor, historian, and scholar, who also is executive producer and host of the four-hour PBS documentary, “Reconstruction: America After the Civil War.”
Only with its horrors unvarnished can we reckon with the past, and hear its dissonant echoes in the present. If anyone wants to understand how the groundbreaking election of Barack Obama as this nation’s first black president was answered with Donald Trump’s feral white nationalism, Gates has provided a road map. Black excellence incites white resentment. It is a ragged scar on the American psyche that Gates masterly traces from the ruins of Reconstruction to the hate crimes and white supremacy on the rise again today.
One day after Trump declared his presidential candidacy in 2015, Dylann Roof, an avowed white supremacist, murdered nine African-Americans at a Bible study in the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Roof claimed he wanted to spark a race war, and save white America.
Gates dedicates his book to the Mother Emanuel Nine, whom he calls “Martyrs to White Supremacy.” Of their assassin, he writes, Roof “didn't need to have read any of the history recounted in this book; it had, unfortunately, long become part of our country’s cultural DNA and, it seems, imprinted on his own.”
STONY THE ROAD:
Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow
By Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Penguin Press, 320 pp., illustrated, $30