Carl Degler: Surfaces to dispute claim that the struggle for civil rights ended with Reconstruction

Historians in the News

Kevin Boyle’s review of “The Colfax Massacre” and “The Day Freedom Died” (May 18) details one of the truly infamous terrorist attacks during Reconstruction. “Reconstruction was dead,” Boyle wrote, within a year after the perpetrators of the massacre were freed. Furthermore, “the United States began its descent into a systematic segregation so powerful it would endure for almost 100 years.” This interpretation, however, underestimates the full character of the post-Civil-War Reconstruction. Reconstruction was in fact revolutionary. At its center was a valiant struggle by both Southern and Northern white men (Scalawags and Carpetbaggers) defending the constitutionally based civil rights of Southern black men against conservative Southern white men like the perpetrators of the Colfax massacre.

That struggle, however, did not die with Reconstruction, as Boyle suggests, since thousands of white Southern men (by then Republicans) voted together with black Southern men in defense of civil rights. During the 1880s, Republicans captured a third of the counties in upper Southern states like Tennessee and North Carolina. Yet the most successful persistence of the spirit of revolutionary Reconstruction was the establishment, from 1880 to 1883, of the black and white Readjuster government of Virginia. The Readjusters, led by William Mahone, a Confederate major general who had accepted Appomattox, transformed Virginia both politically and socially. They developed mental hospitals separately for blacks and whites, as well as public schools. They abolished whipping posts and the poll tax, lowered taxes for farmers of both races and enabled blacks as well as whites to serve on juries, work in state offices and serve as policemen and prison guards. As happened in Reconstruction, the Readjusters were defeated by vicious and fraudulent appeals to white superemacy, ending in the Danville riot in 1883. Further successful examples of Reconstruction also include the black and white supporters of the Southern wing of the Populist Party.

Carl N. Degler
Stanford, Calif.

The writer is the emeritus Margaret Byrne professor of American history at Stanford University and the author of “The Other South.”

Read entire article at Letter sent to the Editor of the NYT Book Review

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Kevin Boyle - 7/17/2008

Not surprisingly, I read Professor Degler's letter to the NYT Book Review with some interest, since he was responding to a review I wrote. I agree completely with his central point that African Americans and some whites fought for racial justice throughout the nineteenth century. But I do take objection to HNN's headline that I "claim that the struggle for civil rights ended with Reconstruction." I didn't say that in my review -- since I don't believe it to be true.
Thank you.