Time for a Third Reconstruction
from The Nation -- February 2, 1993

Last month, the original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation was displayed at the National Archives. Issued on January 1, 1863, the proclamation sounded the death knell of slavery, thereby closing one chapter of American history and opening another, whose central issue was whether freedom for blacks implied genuine equality. Today, 130 years later, the task of bringing the descendants of slaves fully into the mainstream of American life remains to be accomplished.

It is unfortunate that Bill Clinton was out of Washington when the proclamation was exhibited. Had he perused the document and pondered its meaning, he might have been led to reflect on the First and Second Reconstructions--two moments, a century apart, when black and white Americans struggled to breathe substantive meaning into the freedom decreed during the Civil War. Their successes and failures suggest that the time has arrived for a Third Reconstruction, a renewed national effort to address the racial divide that afflicts our society.

The Emancipation Proclamation not only transformed the nature of the Civil War but opened the turbulent period of Reconstruction, in which the national government made its first effort to protect the equal rights of all Americans. Reconstruction is the most misunderstood era of our history. It was long viewed as a time of rampant corruption presided over by unscrupulous Northern carpetbaggers and former slaves unprepared for the freedom that had been thrust upon them. This interpretation helped to justify the subsequent policies of segregation and black disfranchisement in the South and the North's prolonged indifference to white Southerners' nullification of the federal Constitution.

In fact, Reconstruction was a laudable attempt to create, for the first time in our history, an interracial democracy. National civil rights laws and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution accorded the former slaves equality before the law and granted black men the right to vote.

Beginning in 1868, state and local governments resting on support from black voters and a minority of whites came to power throughout the South. They greatly expanded the states' social responsibilities, establishing public school systems, for example, where none had ever existed. These policies, and the spectacle of black men replacing the old slave holding elite in offices from justice of the peace to U.S. senator, provoked a campaign of violent opposition led by the Ku Klux Klan that, by 1877, had driven the last Reconstruction government from power.

Not until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, often called the Second Reconstruction, did Americans again attempt to implement the unfulfilled social and political agenda of the post-Civil War years. In dismantling legal segregation, restoring to Southern blacks the right to vote and opening doors of economic and educational opportunity from which blacks had been almost entirely excluded, the Second Reconstruction achieved gains even more far-reaching than the first.

Nonetheless, we remain nearly as far from the ideal of a color-blind society as a century ago. As the First Reconstruction drew to a close, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who had commanded a black regiment during the Civil War, commented, "Revolutions may go backward." Both Reconstructions were times of momentous hopes, followed by retrenchment, reaction and an attempt, sanctioned in the highest offices of the land, to undo much of what had been accomplished.

In both the late nineteenth century and the era of Reagan and Bush a century later, the federal government abandoned its commitment to the principle of equality and an active role in guaranteeing the rights of American citizens. Because it threatened traditions of local autonomy and was so closely associated with the new rights of blacks, the increased power of the federal government during the two Reconstructions generated powerful opposition. In both eras, opponents of equality raised the specter of a federal bureaucracy trampling on the rights of white citizens, warning that government efforts to combat the heritage of discrimination violated the immutable laws of the marketplace and made blacks privileged wards of the state. In both, social theories flourished that explained poverty as a consciously chosen way of life rather than a structural problem affecting the entire economy but for historical reasons most severe among the former slaves and their descendants.

The end of the First Reconstruction was a disaster for black Americans and profoundly affected the course of the nation's development. By 1900, Southern blacks were locked in a system of political, economic and social inequality, and the ideologies of social Darwinism and racism reigned supreme in both North and South. The exclusion of former slaves from the "political nation" left the Solid South under the control of a reactionary elite and shifted the spectrum of national politics significantly to the right.

The verdict is still out on the ultimate fate of the Second Reconstruction. But separate and unequal still rules in our schools, housing, job markets and conditions of life.

Indeed, both Reconstructions foundered, in large measure, because they failed to address the problem of economic equality. The first granted blacks equal rights before the law, but the government's refusal to redistribute land in the South left the freed people with no alternative but to compete as "free laborers" in a society in which all the economic cards were stacked against them. The second failed to confront effectively the economic gap separating black and white Americans.

The workings of the free market will not solve this problem, nor will a general policy of economic growth, whose benefits, history suggests, will not trickle down to the least fortunate. A Third Reconstruction is needed to address directly the economic inequalities that are the accumulated consequence of 250 years of slavery and a century of discrimination.

Today, of course, the nation's racial landscape is far more complex than in the nineteenth century. "Black and white" no longer adequately describes, if it ever did, the makeup of our society. The multiplicity of groups now claiming the status of victimized minority obscures the unique social and economic exploitation black Americans have suffered.

The black community itself is more divided than a century ago. An expanded middle class has arisen in the past generation, while social disintegration stalks the bottom of black society, spawning a pattern of violence that has fueled a rightwing backlash, making the task of addressing racial inequalities all the more difficult,

A national commitment to a Third Reconstruction would require the kind of moral leadership and political courage this generation is unaccustomed to in its Presidents. But let us not forget that emancipation itself was not universally popular.

In 1864, some Republicans feared that a reaction against the destruction of slavery would cost their party the next election, and urged that the proclamation be rescinded. If he were to do so, Lincoln replied, "I should be damned in time and eternity." Can we hope for the same courage and sense of historical obligation from the incoming Administration?