After my Guardian feature published this morning on why eight Mississippians like (or don’t mind) the Confederate flag, several people questioned my use of the word “harsh” in this sentence near the top of the story: “After the north won, it imposed a harsh Reconstruction on the south that still fuels white resentment today.” Those people clearly thought I was judging Reconstruction as “too harsh.” Had I meant to say that, I would have said it more directly, but that is not what I meant. I was using the word in a more general way, meaning rough or uncomfortable, as in a “harsh” winter when I should have said something like, “white southerners believed Reconstruction was too harsh and still resent it,” with links. My strongest opinions about Reconstruction have always been about the way it ended with white southerners regaining the ability to have free rein to re-create deep structural inequality and horrendous conditions for African Americans in my state and beyond at a time when the South should have been turning a new direction.
However, I do get their point of why my word choice was misleading and can give the wrong impression and see it as fair criticism. Today, “harsh” is often used to imply that something is too extreme—as in “harsh discipline”—and my intention wasn’t to insert a misleading value judgment there. My purpose in this story, as assigned and as I envisioned it, was to talk to people who like the Confederate flag to hear why they still fly or support it, in their own words and not in a debate (as I have done many times with flag supporters over the years). I then factchecked their historic references and reasoning and asked black Mississippians to respond to their statements.
But the concerns create an opportunity to talk more about Reconstruction and share sources for those who wish to read more (and you’re welcome to provide more links or thoughts in the comments or to me on Twitter @donnerkay). This story was meant as a learning journey, and I hope to continue it however possible. I appreciate those who have brought this up, as well as provided some links they recommend about Reconstruction when I suggested it.
I’ll start close to home for historic grounding with the Mississippi Archives and History post on Reconstruction, which divides it into “Presidential Reconstruction” and “Radical Reconstruction” (it also talks about the Black Codes, so click the link if you’re not familiar):
Being the center of slavery and cotton culture, heavily agricultural places such as Mississippi seceded first and returned to the Union last. Planters, who had produced cotton for the world market, emerged from the Civil War in a state of shock. They had enslaved their workforce for generations. After emancipation and Confederate defeat, many white Mississippians still thought they had been right to own slaves and secede from the Union. This position, within a state where the population was 55 percent black, foreshadowed a difficult Reconstruction.
Black and white Mississippians grappled with a devastated economy and a new social structure. To assist them and other southerners, the United States Congress in March 1865 established the Freedmen’s Bureau as part of the War Department. The Bureau had many important responsibilities. It distributed clothing, food, and fuel to freedmen and white refugees. It helped to establish many of Mississippi’s first public schools. It protected the civil rights of former slaves by offering them legal counsel. Faced with limited resources and resistance from many white southerners, the Bureau failed to accomplish many of its goals. According to historian Eric Foner, “Bureau schools nonetheless helped lay the foundation for Southern public education.”
In May 1865, a month after the end of the American Civil War and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, new U.S. President Andrew Johnson issued guidelines for re-admittance of the former Confederate states into the Union based on the Reconstruction plans that Lincoln had developed during the war. The president offered amnesty to individuals who would take an oath of loyalty to the United States, but there were exceptions. Confederates who had held high civil or military offices during the war and those who had owned property worth $20,000 or more in 1860 had to apply individually for a presidential pardon. When 10 percent of the voters in a state had taken the oath of loyalty, the state would be permitted to form a legal government and rejoin the Union. In Mississippi, Johnson appointed William L. Sharkey, a Union Whig, as provisional governor to guide Reconstruction in the state and to organize an election of delegates for a state constitutional convention.
Colonel Samuel Thomas, the assistant commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau who opened the Bureau office in Vicksburg, noticed white Mississippians’ defiant posture when he traveled through the state months after the war.
“Wherever I go—the street, the shop, the house, or the steamboat—I hear the people talk in such a way as to indicate that they are yet unable to conceive of the Negro as possessing any rights at all.” Thomas worried that whites “who are honorable in their dealings with their white neighbors will cheat a Negro without feeling a single twinge of their honor. To kill a Negro they do not deem murder.” Such men openly boasted to Thomas that blacks “will catch hell” when local whites re-acquired political control. Trying to explain this defiance, Thomas pointed to prejudices seared into white minds and hearts during the era of slavery. As Thomas put it, though white Mississippians “admit that the individual relations of masters and slaves have been destroyed by the war and the President’s emancipation proclamation, they still have an ingrained feeling that the blacks at large belong to the whites at large.”
I’ve also become a fan of historian Chandra Manning, whose book “What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery and the Civil War” has expanded my understanding of what the soldiers themselves, on both sides, believed, through their own letters and camp newspapers. I haven’t delved as deeply into her study of Reconstruction, but she approaches it as a neither a complete triumph or a failure, as this USA Today article quotes her saying:
To Chandra Manning, an associate professor of history at Georgetown University, it’s clear that people often view the Reconstruction-era Freedmen’s Bureau as either a triumph or a catastrophe. But, she says, its legacy is too complex to be either one. The bureau was “trying to do something that had never been done before,” she says, “staffed by flawed human beings who were up against more than they could handle” and who faced obstacles that today might be unimaginable.
“I think to really understand the Freedmen’s Bureau, we’ll do better if we can walk away from wanting it to be all good or all bad, or full of heroes, or full of racists who sold free people out,” says Manning, who is serving as special adviser to the dean at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study while on leave from Georgetown.
A reader suggested this link to a deep and thoughtful conversation about Reconstruction as a misunderstood era. I suggest reading every word, but I’ll quote a section about the myth of Reconstruction as a failure from Eric Foner, author of “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution,” to get you started:
Redemption poses a difficult problem for the public presentation of Reconstruction. We do not want to suggest unrealistic optimism about the prospects of “success” for Reconstruction. Yet it is important avoid the trap of inevitability. Like other aspects of this period, Redemption is a teaching opportunity. It reminds us of the fragility of our liberties and that rights in the Constitution are never sufficient without the will to enforce them. It reminds us that all gains are contested and that, in the words of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “revolutions may go backwards.” To call Reconstruction a “failure” is not helpful as many gains of the period—the solidification of black families, the establishment of independent institutions like churches, the beginnings of black education—survived Redemption and became the seedbed of future struggles. Moreover, Redemption did not take place at a single moment, as the current scholarly emphasis on a longer Reconstruction makes clear. That said, we have to get people thinking about the causes behind Redemption, whether racism, class conflict, political change, or a combination of all of these, and, as with other aspects of Reconstruction, what parallels may exist today.
Check out these books by women historians, all dealing with the violence of the era toward African Americans:
They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I (Kidada E. William)
Well after slavery was abolished, its legacy of violence left deep wounds on African Americans’ bodies, minds, and lives. For many victims and witnesses of the assaults, rapes, murders, nightrides, lynchings, and other bloody acts that followed, the suffering this violence engendered was at once too painful to put into words yet too horrible to suppress.
Beyond Redemption explores how the violence of a protracted civil war shaped the meaning of freedom and citizenship in the new South. Here, Carole Emberton traces the competing meanings that redemption held for Americans as they tried to come to terms with the war and the changing social landscape. While some imagined redemption from the brutality of slavery and war, others—like the infamous Ku Klux Klan—sought political and racial redemption for their losses through violence. Beyond Redemption merges studies of race and American manhood with an analysis of post-Civil War American politics to offer unconventional and challenging insight into the violence of Reconstruction.
The meaning of race in the antebellum southern United States was anchored in the racial exclusivity of slavery (coded as black) and full citizenship (coded as white as well as male). These traditional definitions of race were radically disrupted after emancipation, when citizenship was granted to all persons born in the United States and suffrage was extended to all men. Hannah Rosen persuasively argues that in this critical moment of Reconstruction, contests over the future meaning of race were often fought on the terrain of gender.
Sexual violence–specifically, white-on-black rape–emerged as a critical arena in postemancipation struggles over African American citizenship. Analyzing the testimony of rape survivors, Rosen finds that white men often staged elaborate attacks meant to enact prior racial hierarchy. Through their testimony, black women defiantly rejected such hierarchy and claimed their new and equal right
Report of the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States
See volumes 11 and 12 are about Mississippi
Other recommended links with discussion directly or tangentially of Reconstruction: