And yet, Black Reconstruction is one of the essential texts about our national history and perhaps the essential text for understanding the enduring, never-completed democratic (small "d") struggle against racial caste and white supremacy. Writing in 1935, DuBois upended historical accounts of the post-Civil War period which had been dominated by apologists for southern Jim Crow rule, putting Black freed-people at the center of their own story. This was not easy; as a Black scholar located at Emory University in Atlanta, DuBois was not even allowed into many archives because his skin was the wrong color. But he persisted ...
The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 only ended the legal bondage of slaves held within Confederate (Southern) territories that the Union (North) had not yet conquered. That is, it is a war measure designed to encourage slaves to down their tools and run away, crippling the Southern economy. This they did -- and, as Lincoln had hoped, many enlisted and fought bravely for the Union army. Without this movement, what DuBois calls a strike, there would have been no Union victory.
And so, once the Confederate insurrection was put down, what was to be done about the four million Black former slaves set free without means of support? In DuBois telling, we are reminded that the freed people knew quite clearly what they wanted:
The rest of the book is DuBois' narrative of the intricate struggle between the many forces at play in post-bellum South and the industrializing North, principally free black labor, free white labor often newly-immigrated, southern planters who had lost their human possessions but kept the legal right to most of the land, and Northern capitalist industry which wanted to exploit the resources and labor of the entire nation. There were radical anti-slavery politicians who aimed to enact a generous vision of black (male) citizenship; many who saw opportunities for personal gain in this unstable situation; and plenty of vile white racists whose main aim was to re-subjugate Black people, South and North. On the one hand, the country came out of Reconstruction with the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments which, however incompletely, create the most democratic elements of a barely democratic citizenship and Constitution. On the other hand, the South succeeded in disenfranchising black people for generations and constituting itself as a bulwark against the more generous impulses of the popular will -- to this day.
For a short period along the way, roughly 1867-1873, while the old planter class remained out of power, in a few Southern states radical governments deriving their force from black voters and the presence of the occupying Union army, showed what might have been possible if the freed men had been able to keep the vote. Everywhere they founded public school systems (which endured after Reconstruction mainly for white children), founded teachers colleges (many of which still survive as "Historically Black Colleges and Universities"), built hospitals and mental health facilities (which the South quickly stopped paying for), subjected local law enforcement officials to popular control, and regulated the terms of labor. For a brief season, the rule of law applied to both black and white, largely equally. The enduring hope that Black citizens still place in government intervention for justice is an experiential residue of this period. Until the northern army withdrew and the Klu Klux Klan imposed white terror, the U.S. South was inventing the social welfare state we still lack!
DuBois argues that the ins and outs of the struggle during Reconstruction set the parameters of the US state up to his time (and still do, I would say, though the Civil Rights era of the '50s and '60s changed some of the terrain of struggle.)
I was lucky enough to read this book as part of a course offered by the Center for Political Education. Course materials are still online at the link.