Eddie S. Glaude Jr,: We need to begin again
And yet, Reconstruction was an abysmal failure, subverted by policy makers whose acts and omissions made clear that America was giving up on Black people. First off, financial investment in the project was grossly inadequate, all but guaranteeing that formerly enslaved people would remain at the mercy of erstwhile petty tyrants. The Compromise of 1877, moreover, led the federal government to withdraw troops from the South prematurely, which emboldened regional actors to perpetrate campaigns of violence, intimidation, and political domination against African Americans. And the Supreme Court, hellbent on eviscerating the Reconstruction Amendments in the name of states’ rights and constitutional color blindness, issued a series of opinions that failed to vindicate Black liberty. Any aspirations of “entire and perfect equality” were relegated to a footnote in history, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, dead letters. W. E. B. Du Bois may have put it best: “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun,” but then “a new slavery arose.” Jim Crow had taken a sledgehammer to the edifice of a multiracial society and, for decades, the nation stood idle to the destruction—and even wallowed in the detritus.
The sorely needed Second Reconstruction came in the middle of the next century, though its timing is less neatly bounded. Some historians trace its origins to 1948, when President Harry Truman issued the executive order desegregating the military. Others suggest that it began when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. Most place its start between those two events, at the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. But all agree that the Second Reconstruction was erected on the foundation of the first. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were lifted from abeyance, and soon became the basis for much of the federal government’s equality agenda.
The successes of the Second Reconstruction proved that lawmakers had learned some lessons from the failures of the first. To start, the vote was expanded dramatically—even nationally. Federal measures, most notably the 1965 Voting Rights Act, put the U.S. on a path toward becoming a true democracy. “What occurred in the course of a decade was not only the reenfranchisement of African Americans but the abolition of nearly all remaining limits on the right to vote,” the Harvard historian Alexander Keyssar wrote. “Poll taxes, literacy tests, understanding clauses, pauper exclusions, and good character provisions had been swept away,” increasing the size of the electorate by more than 20 million.
Another distinction between the post–Civil War Reconstruction and that of the mid-20th century is that the latter’s civil-rights agenda was coupled with an economic agenda. To be sure, the Johnson-era domestic policies, known as the Great Society, were not uniquely targeted to Black Americans. But unlike many programs of its forerunner, FDR’s New Deal, the Great Society’s health-care, education, housing, and economic-development initiatives envisioned Black participation. And with committed federal funding, the programs designed to benefit the commonweal began to lift many out of poverty and helped expand the Black middle class.