This is a kind of book report, but reading history is often how I organize my understanding of politics. I read a few books of history a year, usually because it seems like a good story, or--as in this case--because I'm looking for parallels to today.
Sometimes I read history looking for evidence that it was even worse back then.
I may decide to read Eric Foner's unabridged book on Reconstruction another time, but this one, at 260 pages, gave me the overview I wanted.
Here are my biggest takeaways: first, the Radical abolitionist Republican-led Reconstruction after the Civil War ended gave ten years of significant political advances (fewer economic advances) to black men and by extension black families. There were black sheriffs, police, voting, the teaching of basic literacy, Black state legislators and members of Congress. Laws were passed giving basic civil right to freedmen. The emphasis was, however, all on the vote and politics: Americans have always, apparently, looked askance at land redistribution. Property seems to be viewed as sacred, especially by the affluent and wealthy.
My next big takeaway was that much of what was forced on the South by the Federal government actually benefitted all working people, including those in the Appalachian Mountain South. This included especially things like public schools and libraries. The Jim Crow laws really weren't put in place till the 1890's. Segregation is not such a deep and ancient tragic flaw, then, as so many twentieth century writers would have us believe–I'm looking at you Bill Faulkner.
Federal laws were put in place, flagrantly ignored in the South, and much later used in the twentieth century as the basis for civil rights cases.
Then there was the incredible viciousness of the first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan (founded in 1865, extended into almost every southern state by 1870). Over and over men who were considered leaders were murdered, sometimes in broad daylight. Under President Grant, laws and enforcement by troops quashed it, but it was replaced by other organizations and tactics, such as, after the federal government withdrew, Jim Crow laws and suppression of Black voting and opportunities.
Meanwhile, during the 1870's and 80's the North was industrializing with enormous speed, with huge numbers of immigrants, the beginning of unionizing and big strikes and equally big union busting. The workers in the North rarely made any common cause with the freedmen.
Finally, the Republican party made its turn, toward what was called reform (to end corruption and put the "Best Men" into high government positions). They believed in minimal interference from the Federal government (this begins to sound like the GOP I know). Schools, libraries, enforcement of all kinds should be done by the States– and that was the end of Reconstruction in the South and the beginning of the "Redemption" of white supremacy. And the Republicans became the party of big business.
The thing that continues to amaze me is how my own public school education in industrial West Virginia never even touched on labor issues at a time when the United Mine Workers were very powerful, let alone the complexities and brutality of Reconstruction. Each time we studied American history, we stopped with the Civil War. If Reconstruction was ever mentioned, it was as a bad time when bad people exploited the poor crushed Southerners, and gross black men dressed up in red silk waistcoats and aped white gentlemen. Looking back, I am appalled, but no longer astounded.
But some things persisted: certain Federal laws; long memories of people who had experienced the time when there were Black Congressmen. There was always Black self-improvement, and people founded schools and colleges and began the lawsuits. There was the tense but fruitful disagreement between W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington, and eventually Jesse Owens representing America in the face of the Nazis, and the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, and Thurgood Marshall before the Supreme Court, and the modern Civil Rights movement, and now Black people in the highest offices of the land.
I have no generalizations to make here: just a sadness for all the lost lives and creativity, and amazement at how slowly change happens. But it does happen, and I believe it happens through a multitude of small choices and concrete actions by ordinary people. We are all called to do what we can.