Was Reconstruction a Success or Failure? And Why It Matters.
By Paul Richards PhD
Part 1: The Civil Rights Movement and Guns
In This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed, Charles E. Cobb, Jr. has told an amazing story about how armed self defense helped make the civil rights movement of the 1960s successful. His book wrestles with the tension between the non-violent approach of the civil rights movement, including the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the need for armed self defense in the black communities of the south. For Cobb, non-violence was just a tactic made necessary by the ugly realities of the segregated south. It was not a Gandhian crusade. SNCC’s acceptance of armed self defense inside black communities they were trying to organize helped keep the organizers alive.
As I read his story of the armed black communities, a question rose up in my mind. Why didn’t the ending of Reconstruction in 1877 result in the disarming of the black population? How could all those guns (and the right to bear them) have stayed in place all those years in a population that was being systematically suppressed? Guns did not get confiscated. Pretty remarkable. Almost a miracle.
Take, for instance, Cobb’s story about Mr. Joe, a black Mississippi sharecropper in his 70’s who gave shelter to Cobb and other civil rights workers in the 1960s. One morning shortly after Cobb arrived, the local sheriff raided Mr. Joe’s farm. During the illegal search of the house, the sheriff confiscated Mr. Joe’s shot gun. After the sheriff left, the organizers told Mr. Joe, who was illiterate, that he had a right to his gun because it was guaranteed him in the constitution, which was in this book they held up to show him. A little while later, the organizers found that Mr. Joe and the book were gone. Joe had gone to the sheriff’s office to demand the return of his shot gun. He walked alone into the sheriff’s office and told him he had come to get his gun back. The sheriff said no, he couldn’t have it. Joe held up the book and said he had a right to that gun because it said so in this book. And the sheriff gave him back his shotgun.
Just when everyone back at the farm was beginning to worry about having encouraged Mr. Joe with stories about a book with laws in it, and was about to go searching for him, he returned to his farm with his shotgun in hand, his arms raised over his head in triumph. Everyone was relieved and amazed. How could this happen? It doesn’t fit the image of the armed segregationists looming over the meek nonviolent crusaders. It was a small moment of triumph that caused amazement, and gave everyone who witnessed it a glimpse of the sometimes mysterious power which the movement had at its disposal.
Not only did the black community hold on to their guns during even the grimmest years of racial segregation and violence, but white southerners seemed to be operating under the assumption that the right to bear arms transcended segregation. Could this be true? The search for answers takes us back into the period we know as Reconstruction, 1865 to 1877.
Cobb says “Reconstruction did not fail; it was destroyed.” He reviews the history of that period (1860-1877) recounting the role of blacks in the Civil War and Reconstruction and the violent rise of segregation and lynchings all over the south after 1877. “Redemption”, as our history books call the brutal ending of Reconstruction, gave rise to the New South and its separate but equal fiction that lasted all the way until it was rejected by the famous1954 Supreme Court decision “Brown vs. the Board of Education.”
Somehow, through all of these years, blacks kept their guns. While guns were part of rural life and used for hunting and subsistence, the widespread ownership of guns in the black communities still seems like an anomaly. It certainly does not fit the history of the south we have been spoon fed since “Birth of a Nation” hit the silver screen back in 1915. It is no secret to anyone who knows the South and black people living there.
Looking at the history of segregation, it would seem obvious that Reconstruction failed. After all, how else could white supremacy have achieved the predominance we all witnessed? But do we ask ourselves if the civil rights movement failed because racism did not end and defacto segregation has grown all over the country, north and south, since then? No, there is no doubt that the civil rights movement triumphed. Segregation was outlawed. Martin Luther King, Jr is the name of a national holiday. Streets are named after him. Today we even have a black President. No, we all know that the civil rights movement did not fail, even after Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. It achieved a limited but very significant goal.
If we take this same understanding of what success means, i.e. the achievement of limited but significant goals, and apply it to Reconstruction, we may find that Reconstruction did not fail after all and that it too triumphed. If black armed self defense made all the difference in the eventual triumph of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, as Cobb shows in his book, perhaps it is not unreasonable to look more deeply into the role armed blacks played in the history of the 19th century and the outcome of the Civil War. Our history books do not tell this story.
One history book written in the 1930s, Black Reconstruction in America: Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 by W.E.B. DuBois, does tell the story. DuBois tells the story of class conflict and revolution that under laid the Civil War. Because DuBois associated himself with the U.S. Communist Party, he has been ignored in our schools, pilloried and rejected as historians defend the myths of official history. While Cobb brings the real story of armed self defense in the 1960s into the light, he stops short in his analysis of how those guns impacted the history of Reconstruction.
What Du Bois shows in Black Reconstruction is that the Civil War would not have been won by the Union without black soldiers and that slavery would not have ended without the empowerment of black ex-slaves during Reconstruction when they lead the revolutionary transformation of southern society. This is a shocking notion that contradicts what most of us have been taught about that period. But it is a powerful notion that throws a whole new light on reconstruction, just as Cobb threw new light on the civil rights era by pointing out how guns made all the difference in the 1960s.
In the first chapter of This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed, where he reviews the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Cobb rightly points out that the guns which came back from the civil war battlefields with black Union soldiers played a major role in Reconstruction. Later in the book he also credits black soldiers returning from World War II to the segregated south for their leadership role in the fight for voting rights in the 1960s. From DuBois class conscious perspective, the difference is that during and after the Civil War, armed black soldiers and veterans played even a larger role than we give them credit for. They went beyond self defense to armed insurrection against slavery, to the overthrow of the slave owning class.
End of Part 1.