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The Scars of Reconstruction

We look around and we see racial strife. How did it start? Why didn’t the Civil War fix it? The answer is Reconstruction, the period following the end of the Civil War and lasting to roughly 1876. A lot of the points of contention in race relations as well as other government practices started in Reconstruction. For instance, many Southern States have strong county governments and utilize excise taxes because prior to the Civil War legislatures favored the wealthy planters. Empowering county governments helps smaller farmers. Excise taxes on equipment were a compromise that taxes planters without overburdening them with property taxes.

The idea of “law and order” did not start in the late 60s but it was coded language. Prior to the civil war, law enforcement meant capturing escaped slaves and this was handled by the plantations. However, after the civil war, planters still wanted to regulate the freed slaves but now looked to the government to do so. Their calls were framed as maintaining “law and order”.

Reconstruction also teaches us that the end of slavery meant freedom, it did not mean economic justice. Freed slaves were subjected to harsh contracts that limited their movement and kept from earning enough to become self-sufficient. African-Americans, elected in the South during the era, also were prevented sometimes from taking part in government. In an instance of a Confederate General changing for the better, James Longstreet, led constabulary forces against white supremacists to protect the Reconstructionist government.

Much of Reconstruction has been forgotten or distorted. As Reconstruction ended, the gains that were made were quickly erased by the imposition of Jim Crow. The “Lost Cause” myth about the South and its motives for secession allowed for the rewriting of the history of Reconstruction. Reconstruction governments were described as corrupt and African-American officeholders as lazy. Longstreet became a villain. However, thanks to historians such as Eric Foner and Henry “Skip” Gates, we know have scholarship to learn the true story of Reconstruction.

If the Civil War was about ending slavery, Reconstruction was about the struggle for African-Americans to be able to take their place in the social, political and economic activity of the nation. It seems that this struggle continues. Knowledge of Reconstruction is one of the best resources we have for the forces of good to win this struggle.

This article was a submission by Joseph I.

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