Learning from the Failure of Reconstruction
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By, The New Yorker
Last Wednesday, January 6th, a day after Georgia elected its first Black senator, a mob encouraged by Donald Trump and his false claims of election fraud stormed Capitol Hill, resulting in at least five deaths. Despite widespread condemnation of these events, the F.B.I. revealed on Monday that it expects protests at all fifty state capitals in the days leading up to next Wednesday, when Joe Biden will be inaugurated as President. These events have drawn comparisons to coup attempts around the world, but also to the Reconstruction era, when white mobs inflicted violence on citizens and legislators throughout the South.
To better understand the lessons of Reconstruction for our times, I recently spoke by phone with Eric Foner, an emeritus professor of history at Columbia, and one of the country’s leading experts on Reconstruction. During the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we also discussed the use of Confederate imagery by those who stormed the Capitol, balancing unity and punishment in the wake of terror, and the historical significance of the two Georgia Senate runoffs.
The most common historical parallel over the past four years has been to European fascism, for a variety of reasons. But there have also been references to American history going back to Jim Crow and the Civil War. How does what we’ve seen in the past week, and specifically what we saw on Wednesday, fit into the larger American story and make those American comparisons especially vivid or interesting in your mind?
Well, I guess the sight of people storming the Capitol and carrying Confederate flags with them makes it impossible not to think about American history. That was an unprecedented display.
It was straight white supremacy. Maybe one might say there were two different tacks. One was to say that the Reconstruction government was corrupt or dishonest or their taxes were too high, things like that. That was meant to appeal to the North to not intervene, and say that these people were trying to restore good government in the South. But mostly it was straight-out white supremacy: Let the white man rule, this is a white Republic…
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