Reconstruction, Terrorism, and the Party of Lincoln: Interview with Eric Foner


Editor’s Note: Eric Foner teaches US history at Columbia University in New York. He is the co-author with Joshua Brown of Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction and author of numerous books including Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.

PA: Your recent book co-authored with Joshua Brown, Forever Free, has a unique format in that intermingled with the chapters are short essays on media images of African Americans and Reconstruction issues produced at the time. How did the idea for this format come about?

Eric Foner: This book is unusual, you might almost call it an orphan, in that it was originally intended to accompany a television documentary project on the Reconstruction period. That was one of the reasons we started out saying there needs to be a strong visual component. The TV series never got made. Maybe it will in the future some time; I don’t know. But I wrote the book, and Josh Brown did these visual essays, which add a great deal to it. Eventually, it was published on its own. I think that Brown’s material really does add to the book. I’ve written a number of works on the Reconstruction period. There is a lot of new material in this book, but what makes it different, is it’s not just a few illustrations, every book has a few photographs, but the very careful and extensive use of these visual images to elaborate and elucidate the historical themes in the book. Even though the structure came about almost accidentally, it turned out to be a very valuable way of doing it.

PA: The book focuses partially on exposing myths about Reconstruction. What are among the most harmful myths that continue into modern times?

EF: It’s amazing and perhaps somewhat humbling for historians that even though among professional scholars the old myths of Reconstruction have long since been abandoned or repudiated, some of them, in fact, have great staying power among the general public. The greatest myth is simply that Reconstruction was a punishment of the South. After the Civil War radicals in Congress, for one reason or another, whether they were vindictive towards the South or whether they wanted to fasten the rule of Northern capitalism on the South, or whatever, they imposed from the outside a harsh policy on the South. The problem with that view is twofold. One, the South, in that view, is the white South. It doesn’t consider at all what the consequences for African Americans were. Even more important in a way is the view that expanding the rights of Blacks is a punishment for whites. The essence of Reconstruction was the effort to bring African Americans into their civil rights and political rights as American citizens now that slavery was ended. Historians no longer see that as vindictiveness, but a lot of people still have this vision of the South as being ground under the heel of Northern occupation. It’s very misleading, and it has unfortunate consequences for the way we think about the present.

PA: Could you talk a little more about how the expansion of rights for African Americans is viewed as a punishment for whites?

EF: That notion that the error of Reconstruction was bringing African Americans too quickly into the rights of American citizenship: they weren’t prepared for it, they didn’t know how to use it. Therefore Southern whites suffered from oppression, misgovernment, corruption, etc. I think this really is a residue of a very old view, long outdated, that African Americans are simply incapable of taking part in American democracy. I don’t think anyone would say that explicitly now, but the residue of that view, that somehow Blacks aren’t entitled to the same democratic rights as white people is at the base of this older misconception of Reconstruction. This image of Reconstruction as being a punishment, once you deconstruct it, you find that the punishment part is that white Southerners had to share political power with Blacks, But that’s what we call democracy. Normally that is considered a good thing. But in this particular case, it’s seen as some kind of vindictiveness.

PA: Many people view terrorism as an invention of other people in other parts of the world. Can you talk about its roots in our own society in relation to the Reconstruction period?

EF: As I argue in the book, Reconstruction did see the rise of what we might call homegrown American terrorism. The Ku Klux Klan and groups like that, the White League, the Knights of the White Camilia, there were various names for these groups, were terrorist groups. The word terrorism was not really a part of the political vocabulary back then, but no matter how you define it, the use of violence against innocent people for political ends, that’s what was happening all over the South in Reconstruction. The Klan assassinated people, beat people, burned their homes, destroyed schools, targeted people who tried to vote or tried to acquire land. This is terrorism. In some of the older views of Reconstruction, there is an almost romantic view of the Klan as guys who rode around frightening gullible Blacks, and maybe they got a little out of hand, but basically they were well intentioned. That was a totally misleading view. The Klan were a bunch of violent criminal terrorists, and we have to recognize that our society has produced that kind of activity just as other societies have.

PA: One of the areas you touch on briefly in this book is the role of labor unions. How did African Americans use labor unions to organize themselves in this period?

EF: The vast majority of African Americans were living in rural areas of the South. They were agricultural workers. Historically, it’s been very difficult for agricultural workers to form labor unions. They are very spread out. They don’t have the proper means of communication. They’re not gathered together in work places like industrial workers where class consciousness can develop more quickly perhaps. There were examples in the South of agricultural labor unions being formed usually on the statewide level to try to press for the ownership of land by Blacks or better working conditions, better sharecropping contracts, and things like that. They were fairly short-lived. One of the most remarkable features of this period was the incredible array of activity that African Americans engaged in to try to improve their condition and protect their rights. The older view of Reconstruction was that Blacks came out of slavery as children and were manipulated by whites. This is not the case at all. The degree of economic and political mobilization that you see in the South is really remarkable. And labor unions were not that widespread but were one feature of this broader community mobilization which took place during Reconstruction.

PA: Jumping to the modern day, every four years or so the Republicans announce that they are the 'party of Lincoln' in mostly vain attempts to appeal to Black voters. To what extent is this claim true, if at all?

EF: It was certainly true during Reconstruction. The Republicans were the party of Lincoln and the party of African Americans. The vast majority of Blacks in the South voted Republican. My estimate is that about 2,000 African American men held some kind of public office in the South during Reconstruction. Just about every single one of them was a Republican. The Republicans were the party of Emancipation and Reconstruction and of protecting the rights of Blacks in the South. Over time that changed, but it took a long time. It was really only in the 1930s that the Black vote began to shift. At that time Blacks really couldn’t vote in the South, but in the North Black voters began to shift over to Democrats, partly because the New Deal was providing economic relief for them. But a substantial Black Republican vote remained. Eisenhower got a significant Black vote. Nixon got a significant Black vote when he ran for president in 1960. The final, complete shift of Black voters over to the Democratic Party took place in the 1960s when Lyndon Johnson identified the Democrats with the civil rights movement, and when the Republicans embraced Goldwater in 1964 who had opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When Nixon adopted his 'Southern strategy' a little later on, associating himself with George Wallace, the Republican Party made its effort to appeal to white racism, and this alienated almost all Blacks. So, today, you get 80 to 90 percent of African Americans voting Democratic. Bush and others have tried to appeal to the Black vote. Sometimes they succeed in local races. But I think that Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath really sabotaged any effort of the Republican administration to suggest that it has the interest of African Americans at heart.

PA: Forever Free sketches some ways that the fall of Reconstruction changed the course of US history. Could you elaborate?

EF: The end of Reconstruction was a great tragedy for this country. Looking back, you might say Reconstruction was one of those moments at which the country had a genuine opportunity to move forward in the direction of racial and economic justice. It tried for a while, and then it was abandoned by Northern racism and Southern violence, etc. This had a long-term consequence. Following Reconstruction and the next generation after it, African Americans lost the right to vote in the South, they were subjected to a system of racism which encompassed all areas of life, segregation, disenfranchisement, economic inequality, etc. The elimination of the Black vote shifted American politics toward the right. It ensconced a very reactionary ruling class in control of Southern politics for a long time, way down to the New Deal. The power of the white supremacist Democratic Party, at that point, in the South helped to shape New Deal policies. The Social Security Act and other measures were shaped so they wouldn’t include African Americans because of the power of the white racist South. We are still living in some ways with the long-term consequences of the failure of Reconstruction. It is a tragedy that it didn’t succeed.