Next year is the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment – when Black men won the right to vote. Voting rights of Black people have been under attack ever since. A recent example is the 2018 election of Brian Kemp, who narrowly defeated Stacey Abrams for the Georgia governorship. As Georgia’s secretary of state, during the campaign, Kemp closed more than 200 polling places, suspended 53,000 voter registrations, and purged thousands of Black and Brown Georgians from the voter rolls. But far from being an anomaly, this type of voter suppression is commonplace throughout the United States.
“After Obama’s victory, 395 new voting restrictions were introduced in 49 states from 2011 to 2015,” wrote Ari Berman in Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. “The sudden escalation of efforts to curb voting rights most closely resembled the Redemption period that ended Reconstruction, when every Southern state adopted devices like literacy tests and poll taxes to disenfranchise African American voters.”
It is unfortunate that in all the coverage given to voter suppression, there has been little attention devoted to the struggles that led to the 15th Amendment in the first place. Reconstruction, the era immediately following the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, is full of lessons for students, teachers, and activists.
Reconstruction was the first era of Black Power. Black people across the South took the lead in defining the meaning of freedom. Blacks and poor whites began to chip away at the racist ideology that had justified slavery for nearly two centuries, by taking the reins of state governments across the South from the old slave-owning elite. Together, they wrote new state constitutions and attempted to use their new political power to benefit the poor and working classes. Reconstruction governments abolished imprisonment for debt and property qualifications for holding elected offices, outlawed discrimination by hotels and railroads, and took actions to protect agricultural workers and sharecroppers. A key achievement of these governments was the establishment of free public education throughout most of the South (though most of these schools were segregated).
But this true narrative of Reconstruction is rarely taught in schools. For decades, a racist interpretation of the Reconstruction era, known as the Dunning School, named after Columbia University professor William Archibald Dunning, dominated textbook coverage of Reconstruction. This narrative was popularized in the early 20th century with the release of the film The Birth of a Nation. As W. E. B. Du Bois summarized in his groundbreaking work Black Reconstruction in America, “White historians have ascribed the faults and failures of Reconstruction to Negro ignorance and corruption.” Painting the Reconstruction era as one of nefarious Black rule in the South, this narrative glorified the Ku Klux Klan, and helped to justify Jim Crow.
It was only when the 1960s Civil Rights Movement swept away the racist assumptions that upheld this narrative that historians, building upon the work of Du Bois, began to challenge this telling of Reconstruction. But in the decades that followed the Civil Rights Revolution, a new problematic narrative of Reconstruction has taken its place in corporate textbooks. As Rethinking Schools editor Adam Sanchez wrote in The Nation:
“The story of Reconstruction, told in nearly every major American history textbook, highlights the ideas and actions of those at the top – the debates between the president and Congress. For example, the popular textbook The American Journey spends about 15 of the 21 pages it devotes to Reconstruction explaining the actions of Congress and the president. The book dedicates most of the remaining pages to white resistance to Reconstruction in the South. The message communicated through textbooks like The American Journey is clear: It’s the actions of those at the top that matter most.”
Just as the resistance of abolitionists and enslaved people during the Civil War is overshadowed by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the main actors in the new dominant Reconstruction narrative are not African Americans and their allies, but presidents, congressmen, and Klansmen in a tug of war over who should decide the fate of Black people. In this version, Black people are portrayed largely as victims, rather than as the main actors in transforming the political and economic landscape of the South.
Despite being an era that is full of lessons for today, Reconstruction is one of the most poorly taught eras of U.S. history — if taught at all. It’s also one of our biggest opportunities. Today, as teachers struggle to make Black lives matter at school, we need to reclaim the real history of Reconstruction and tell the stories that explore the revolutionary potential of this explosive era. Through the Zinn Education Project, Rethinking Schools has helped launch the Teach Reconstruction campaign, an effort to aid teachers in doing just this. In this issue, we publish “40 Acres and a Mule: Role-Playing What Reconstruction Could Have Been,” in which students learn the story of Tunis Campbell, who led more than 400 newly freed men and women in the Georgia Sea Islands after the government redistributed some of the land of the wealthiest Americans and gave it to some of the poorest. They built a community that became a model of Black independence and self-determination, farming the land communally, starting schools, and creating their own government.
We also need to tell the story of Walter Moses Burton, the first-ever African American sheriff in the United States. Burton, also elected tax collector in Fort Bend County, Texas, was one of the more than 1,500 Black officials elected across the South during Reconstruction. As historian Steven Hahn notes:
“At one time and place or another, a Black man occupied virtually every office available at the local level. . . . When they won, they established county and municipal regulations; took care of roads and bridges; and controlled budgets. They issued warrants, made arrests, kept armaments, and carried out foreclosures. They assessed property values and collected taxes. They heard civil and criminal cases, selected jurors, and meted out punishments. They created school districts and helped allocate funds. And they supervised the electoral process from registration to balloting to the counting of votes.”
Therefore, it was in the election of people like Burton, and the mobilization of local communities that these elections required, that Black people were able to win a substantial share in political power from the white elite.
The top-down narrative of Reconstruction also erases poor white allies who participated in these mobilizations. People like Burton were elected largely because of the organizing of Union Leagues — secret interracial political organizations that educated voters, trained and nominated candidates, marshaled communities to vote, and provided armed protection from vigilante violence. We need to tell the stories of white people like Newton Knight, who deserted the Confederate Army out of frustration with seeing poor men die for a rich man’s cause and led an interracial rebellion against the Confederacy in Mississippi. Knight married a formerly enslaved woman, and during Reconstruction fought for Black voting rights and integrated schools for his children.
We also need to carry the stories of abolitionists into the Reconstruction era and understand how their successful struggle against slavery fueled other movements for social justice — feminists fighting for the right to vote, a new labor movement demanding the eight-hour day, and Indigenous people struggling to hold onto their land.
It’s only by understanding the real revolutionary possibility of the Reconstruction era that we can understand the violent backlash and the first wave of Black voter suppression in the United States. Even before the withdrawal of federal troops in 1877, Blacks were beset by white terrorism aimed at their political and economic subordination (the first Ku Klux Klan was established in late 1865). South Carolina Congressman Robert Smalls estimated 53,000 Blacks in the South were killed in the three decades following the Civil War.
Today, we once again live in an era of rising right-wing violence and voter suppression, but we also live in an era of revolutionary possibility. From the rise of the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements to the teacher strikes that have successfully pushed back against the corporate restructuring of public schools, racial, gender, and economic justice is back on the agenda. Teachers and students should revisit the eras of U.S. history that help us better understand the world we’re living in and learn from those who fought for justice before us.
Unfortunately, the transformative history of Reconstruction has been buried. First by a racist tale masquerading as history and now under a top-down narrative focused on white elites. It’s long overdue we unearth the groundswell of activity that brought down the slavers of the South and set a new standard for freedom we are still struggling to achieve today.