Monday, September 13, 2010

The myth of Reconstruction

For young people growing up during the Civil Rights Movement - young people with liberal tendencies such as myself - the era of Reconstruction following the Civil War was an insufferable blot on U.S. history. This was the period that had ended up completely subverting the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments and set in motion the Jim Crow world of not only segregation but blatant discrimination that persisted for so many generations.

But, since the aftermath of the Civil War, quite another image of Reconstruction has persisted in this country - the image of corrupt Blacks, carpetbaggers (northerners who moved south to take advantage of white southerners), and scalawags (southern turncoats) taking over state governments and woefully oppressing what had been the confederacy.

This image was a myth. Although at the beginning, Blacks constituted 80 percent of Republican voters in the south (most whites had refused to register), it was whites who dominated the party. And, no more corrupt than their counterparts among state and local governments in the north, these Republican state governments compiled a credible record, enacting social, judicial and government reforms despite terrorist opposition from such groups as the Ku Klux Klan.

Still, the image lingered, helping to perpetuate racial discrimination. (It was abetted by such movies as "Birth of a Nation," in which Klan members were the heroes, and "Gone With the Wind," in which a Black and carpetbagger politician rode to confiscate Tara, the camera zooming in on the carpetbagger's ... carpetbag.) From my school-boy history studies in the late 1950s, the picture that remains most vivid is that of carpetbaggers and their exploitation.

Back then, I had yet to learn the myth was a lie. But despite that, all I really knew was that Rose Parks still, close to a century later, remained legally obligated to sit in the back of the bus. No twisting of history was going to change that grim fact.

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