The United States Needs a Third ReconstructionRoundup
tags: Constitution, racism, civil rights
Wilfred Codrington III is Assistant professor at Brooklyn Law School and fellow at the Brennan Center.
Along the unbroken chain of racism that links America’s past to its present, there have been two points when the federal government—otherwise complicit or complacent—saw the mistreatment of African Americans as intolerable. During these periods, the country had a response: Reconstruction. The Reconstruction efforts were not without their flaws but, without them, the U.S. would not have made what racial progress it has. Today, another Reconstruction is needed to avoid wasting the promise of its predecessors.
The first Reconstruction came in the Civil War’s aftermath. But the concept of reconstruction—that is, what a postwar, reunified America would look like—was being discussed even before the opening shots were fired at Fort Sumter. “If another Union is formed,” one newspaper wrote in 1861, “the slave States can have no part in it except on the principles of entire and perfect equality.”
Not surprisingly, the emphasis of that first Reconstruction was on the South. Ratified shortly after the war, the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, thereby ridding the South of its “slave bonus” in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. Then, in fairly quick succession, the Fourteenth Amendment bestowed citizenship on the newly freed and Congress forced the South to enfranchise African American men, before the Fifteenth Amendment extended the franchise to men nationwide. The scale of progress ushered in over a decade was so consequential that historians have termed the era “America’s second founding.”
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.
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