A tall, caramel-complexioned man marched across the steps of the U.S. Capitol to be sworn into office as a jubilant crowd watched history being made.
The man was an African-American of mixed-race heritage, an eloquent speaker whose election was hailed as a reminder of how far America had come.
But the man who placed his hand on the Bible that winter day in Washington wasn’t Barack Obama. He was Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first African-American elected to the U.S. Senate.
His election and that of many other African-Americans to public office triggered a white backlash that helped destroy Reconstruction, America’s first attempt to build an interracial democracy in the wake of the Civil War.
To some historians, Revels’ story offers sobering lessons for our time: that this year’s presidential election is about the past as well as the future. These historians say Obama isn’t a post-racial president but a “post-Reconstructionist” leader. They say his presidency has sparked a white backlash with parallels to a brutal period in U.S. history that began with dramatic racial progress.
Some of the biggest controversies of the 2012 contest could have been ripped from the headlines of that late 19th-century era, they say: Debates erupt over voting rights restrictions and racial preferences, a new federal health care act divides the country, an economic crisis sparks a small government movement. And then there’s a vocal minority accusing a national black political leader of not being a “legitimate” U.S. citizen.
All were major issues during Reconstruction, an attempt to bring the former Confederate states back into the national fold and create a new era of racial justice. And many of the same forces that destroyed Reconstruction may be converging again, some scholars and historians say.
Ruha Benjamin points to this as proof that change is fragile – and reversible. The backlash that swept aside Revels lasted nearly a century.
“When white Americans helped put this African-American in the Senate, it seemed that they were really welcoming African-Americans and they wanted them to have full equality,” said Benjamin, an African-American studies professor at Boston University. “We know in hindsight that it was about to get worse.”
The notion that the country is poised to enter a new post-Reconstruction era may seem outlandish, even offensive. That period, known as the Jim Crow era, saw the establishment of American apartheid: segregated public facilities, race riots and white racists murdering blacks and their white allies with impunity.
Today, too many white Americans are “militantly anti-racist” for the country to return to the post-Reconstruction era, said Mark D. Naison, a history professor at Fordham University in New York City.
“You hold a racist demonstration in this country and the anti-racist protesters will have as many whites and blacks in their group, maybe more,” Naison said. “We are definitely not post-racial, but we aren’t going back to the days of legal segregation.”
Yet there is another slice of white America that seems stuck in a time warp, as if it never left the post-Reconstruction era, other historians argue. While not calling for the return of Jim Crow segregation, some white Americans are recycling the same political rhetoric and legal strategies that snuffed out Reconstruction, these historians say.
They are also resurrecting some of the most racist images from the post-Reconstruction era, some black commentators say.
While it is no longer acceptable to call a black person the N-word publicly, people do it all the time in social media, video games and in the comment sections of online news stories, said Nsenga Burton, a writer for The Root, an online news site with an African-American perspective.
Much of this racism is aimed at Obama, she says. Among examples, he’s been called “tar baby” and “the ultimate Affirmative Action N******” and depicted as a chimp. People are not shocked anymore by overt displays of racism, she says.
Burton said in a Root essay entitled, “It’s a Great Time to be a Racist,” that Obama’s presidency didn’t inaugurate a post-racial era. “Try post-Reconstruction,” she said, “because the harmful slurs and images being tossed around the public space hark back more to a racist past than to a racially ambiguous future.”
A recent Associated Press online poll concluded that racial prejudice in America has slightly increased since Obama’s election. The survey said that a majority of Americans, 51%, express explicit racial prejudice toward blacks, compared to 48% in 2008.
While the poll on its own doesn’t prove the country has become more racist in the last four years, it does offer evidence that the “post-racial” world some thought Obama’s inauguration would bring has yet to materialize.
“We’re in a racist renaissance,” Burton said. “It’s a rebirth of the oldest forms of racism. It’s not new, not different. It’s like the 1800s, the most archaic abusive terms are applied to black people every single day.”
Some conservatives have a different take, on history as well as current events. Everyone who criticizes the president is labeled a racist, they say. And describing Obama as a post-Reconstruction president is absurd.
“It’s race-baiting of the highest order; it’s bunk,” said Niger Innis, a black conservative and son of civil rights activist Roy Innis who has defended the Tea Party movement against accusations of racism.
“The America of today is not the America of the 1870s,” Innis said. “When the American people voted for their first black president, the Union Army didn’t occupy the country.”
Some conservative commentators also say Obama isn’t a victim of racism, but to the contrary has inflamed racial divisions to advance his political agenda.
“Obama was falsely portrayed in his campaign as a post-racial president who would bring healing to the nation’s racial divisions,” said Larry Schweikart, co-author of “A Patriot’s History of the United States.”
“Obama has done everything he can to ensure that there were stark racial differences. … Obama has focused his entire administration around racism, a sort of reverse racism on his end,” Schweikart claimed.
It is a view that has been reflected by conservative talk-show hosts such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh’s brother David, author of “The Great Destroyer.” David Limbaugh would not talk to CNN for this story.
Hope and change in another time
Reconstruction, which lasted from the end of the Civil War in 1865 to 1877, was filled with dueling perceptions of race as well. The political changes unleashed by the Civil War unnerved many white Southerners: As blacks achieved positions of power that previously had been reserved for whites, historians say, many whites felt like their country didn’t belong to them anymore.
After the Civil War, the U.S. Congress passed the 13th, 14th and 15th “Reconstruction Amendments” that abolished slavery, granted citizenship rights to blacks and prohibited denying the right to vote to newly freed slaves.
The term “civil rights” was coined during Reconstruction, said Eric Foner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution.” A century before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a segregated bus, Congress passed the 1866 and 1875 Civil Rights Acts, which banned the discrimination of blacks in “public accommodations” such as streetcars and theaters.
The reforms provoked what some historians say was white Southerners’ greatest fear: “Negro Rule.”
During Reconstruction, at least 2,000 blacks were eventually elected to political offices throughout the South. They included congressmen, judges, tax collectors, sheriffs, even a governor, said Philip Dray, author of “Capitol Men,” which examines Reconstruction through the lives of the first black congressmen.
“Expectations were high,” said Dray, who has also written books about the rise of labor unions and lynchings in America. “People felt like there was change, and they were going to be part of it.”
Revels rode that wave of optimism into high office. In 1870, he became the first African-American elected to the U.S. Senate when the Mississippi legislature appointed him to fill a vacancy left when the state seceded from the Union.
Opponents initially insisted he wasn’t a legitimate U.S. citizen because the Constitution required a senator be a citizen for at least nine years. He also had an unusual background, having been born to a free black family in North Carolina when slavery was legal.
“He wasn’t radical or over the top,” Dray said of Revels. “He was a minister, a conciliatory figure. The idea was that it would be easier for him to weather the scrutiny.”
Revels himself would anticipate the white backlash that would follow when he told the Senate early in 1871: “I find that the prejudice in this country to color is very great, and I sometimes fear that it is on the increase.”
Obamacare, 19th century style
Beyond Revels, there are other parallels between today and the post-Reconstruction era, according to some historians.
The most commonly cited link revolves around the debate over voter ID laws. Since Obama’s election, 34 states have considered adopting legislation requiring photo ID for voters, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. Seven have passed such laws, which typically require voters to present a government-issued photo ID at the polls.
During the post-Reconstruction era, many white Southerners viewed the onset of black voting power in apocalyptic terms. They created a thicket of voting barriers – “poll taxes,” “literacy tests” and “understanding clauses” – to prevent blacks from voting, said Dray.
The idea was to invalidate the black vote without directly challenging the 15th Amendment,” Dray said.
“It just goes on and on. They’ve never completely gone away. And now they’re back with a vengeance.”
Some opponents of the voter ID laws note that these measures disproportionately affect the elderly and the poor, regardless of race.
Supporters of voter ID laws say they’re not about race at all, but about common sense and preventing voter fraud.
“That is not a racial issue and it certainly isn’t a hardship issue,” said Deneen Borelli, author of “Blacklash,” which argues Obama is turning America into a welfare nation.
“When you try to purchase over-the-counter medication or buy liquor or travel, you present photo ID. This is a basic part of everyday transactions.”
Historians say there are other ways the post-Reconstruction script is being dusted off and that some of them appear to have nothing to do with race on the surface.
Consider the debate over “Obamacare,” the nation’s new health care law. The controversy would be familiar to many 19th-century Americans, said Jim Downs, author of “Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction.”
The notion that the federal government should help those who cannot help themselves wasn’t widely accepted before the Civil War. There were a few charities and municipal hospitals that took care of the sick, but most institutions ignored ordinary people who needed health care, said Downs, a Connecticut College history professor who studies the history of race and medicine in 19th-century America.
Reconstruction changed that. Post-Civil War America was marked by epidemics: yellow fever, smallpox and typhus. Freed slaves, who were often malnourished and had few clothes and little shelter, died by the “tens of thousands,” he said.
The federal government responded by creating the nation’s first-ever national health care system, directed at newly freed slaves. It was called the Medical Division of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The division built 40 hospitals and hired hundreds of doctors to treat more than a million former slaves from 1865 until it was shut down in 1870 after losing congressional funding, Downs said.
“It absolutely radicalized health care,” he said. “You can’t argue that government intervention in health is something new or a recent innovation. It originated in the mid-19th century in response to the suffering of freed slaves.”
Critics at the time said the new health care system was too radical. They said it would make blacks too reliant on government. The system was expanded to include other vulnerable Americans, such as the elderly, children and the disabled. Yet some still saw it as a black handout, Downs said.
“The whole notion of the modern day “welfare queen” can be traced to the post-Civil War period when people became very suspicious of the federal government providing relief to ex-slaves,” Downs said. “They feared this would create a dependent class of people.”
A campaign to ‘save’ America
Economic fears in the post-Reconstruction era also fueled the white backlash, a pattern that some historians say is repeating itself today.
A national economic collapse took place just as freed slaves were gaining political influence. The Panic of 1873 started with a banking collapse and a stock market dive. The result: Tens of thousands of workers, many Civil War veterans, became homeless. People lined up for food and shelter in cities across America.
“It made it more economically competitive for everybody,” Dray said. “You saw whites become even less generous to African-Americans [than] they might have been.”
Some white Southerners channeled their economic anxiety into a systemic attack on the federal government, historians said.
Before the collapse, Southern states controlled by Northern politicians and their allies had built hospitals and public schools and created social services to help freed slaves as well as poor whites, said Jerald Podair, a historian at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.
But the notion of an activist federal government helping blacks amid tough times created an opening for Reconstruction opponents. One group that took advantage of that opening was the Redeemers, a popular movement led by conservative, pro-business politicians who vowed to “save” the South, said Podair, who is writing a book on Bayard Rustin, a close aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Redeemers gained control of most Southern statehouses and pledged to reduce the size of government. They defunded public schools, closed public hospitals and halted road construction, Podair said, all while cutting taxes for the wealthy plantation owners, the 1 percenters of their day.
The Redeemers cloaked their rhetoric in the need for more government efficiency, but their goals were also racial, Podair said.
“The Redeemers were interested first and foremost in power,” Podair said. “If freed slaves received education and medical care, they were that much closer to economic and, eventually, political power. And if the federal government had a major role in the South, that also meant less economic and political power for the Redeemer class.”
Podair said some contemporary governors are recycling the same talking points used by the Redeemers. They are invoking the need for austerity while cutting government jobs that employ a high number of blacks and reducing public services that help the poor, a disproportionate number of whom are black.
“There may well be a new post-Reconstruction era of slashed federal budgets and policies that transfer power and resources to state and local governments,” Podair said. “Once again, initiatives that sound race-neutral on their face will have a devastating racial impact.”
Innis has a different take.
He said state and local governments can’t afford to keep the same number of jobs because of generous benefits negotiated by unions. Race has nothing to do with it.
“If you have a government job and the pay and benefits is more than a private sector job, something is wrong,” he said.
Government cutbacks are designed to help the economy, not inflict pain on any particular group.
“Until we get our economy on track, black and brown people are going to suffer,” he said.
‘White Girl Bleed a Lot’
The primary weapon white Southerners used to halt Reconstruction was violence. Mobs attacked and killed blacks gathering to vote. They assassinated black officeholders and their white allies. Newspapers sparked race riots and warned of race wars by printing false accounts of black-on-white attacks.
We are not seeing anywhere near the level of violence toward black people that followed Reconstruction. But some people fear that the inflammatory rhetoric that helped trigger racial violence in that era is returning.
A Google search of the phrase “black mobs attack white people” yields tens of thousands of hits. Conservative bloggers and columnists say a “wave” of black mobs attacking whites at random has spread across the nation in places such as shopping malls, downtown tourist spots and even “Beat Whitey Nights” at Midwestern fairs.
Syndicated conservative columnist Thomas Sowell – himself African-American – wrote in a May 15 column for National Review Online that “race war” has returned to America because black gangs are “launching coordinated attacks on whites in public” across America. A Republican state legislator in Maryland, Patrick L. McDonough, warned earlier this year in a letter to the governor that “roving mobs of black youths” had been attacking white tourists in Baltimore.
One author, Colin Flaherty, wrote a book about this alleged wave of racial violence called, “White Girl Bleed a Lot: The Return of Race Riots to America.” The various accounts follow the same pattern: Black “flash mobs” suddenly attack whites in public, followed by a media cover-up.
Flaherty, also a talk radio show host, said he first noticed the attacks in 2010. Since then, he claims he has seen “thousands” of videos of black mobs attacking whites.
People have called him racist, but Flaherty said he’s just a “guy standing on a corner” reporting what he sees.
“White liberals go nuts on this,” he said of his book. “When people use names like ‘racist,’ they’re using it to shut down conversation, not engage in it.”
The return of race war rhetoric has disturbing historical echoes, said David Godshalk, author of “Veiled Visions: The 1906 Atlanta Race Riot and the Reshaping of American Race Relations.”
Godshalk said neither Sowell nor Flaherty have offered any statistical evidence that reports about “black mobs” are anything more than isolated cases. Sowell did not respond to interview requests.
Scores of blacks died during the post-Reconstruction era because newspapers spread false or grossly exaggerated reports of blacks as predators, particularly accounts of black men raping white women, Godshalk said.
Some whites used those reports to justify violence and political oppression against blacks, he said.
“Longstanding notions that African-Americans were criminals were used to argue that they shouldn’t be leaders in society because they didn’t have the same capabilities as whites, and they weren’t trustworthy enough to hold positions of authority,” said Godshalk, a history professor at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania who has also written about Reconstruction and lynchings.
Those notions of black inferiority eventually infected the legal system during the post-Reconstruction era, historians say.
The post-Reconstruction Supreme Court played a major role in destroying what Congress had created through its racial reforms. The court delivered a series of decisions that nullified the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875 as well as additional laws designed to protect blacks from mob violence at the voting booth, said Peter Irons, a civil rights attorney and author of “A People’s History of the Supreme Court.”
In 1883, the court imposed a judicial death sentence on Reconstruction in the “Civil Rights Cases” decision, which allowed private individuals and businesses to discriminate against blacks. Associate Justice Joseph Bradley wrote in the decision that freed slaves should stop being “a special favorite of the laws.”
The most notorious post-Reconstruction decision involving race took place in 1895 when the Supreme Court legally sanctioned Jim Crow laws by enshrining the “separate-but-equal” doctrine in Plessy v. Ferguson. The court upheld a Louisiana law requiring that federal rail cars provide different facilities for white and black passengers.
By the late 19th century, the Supreme Court had “turned its back on the claims of blacks and opened its arms to those of corporations,” Irons said. It was the onset of the Gilded Age, an era of widening income inequality that saw the court first introduce “corporate personhood,” the concept that a corporation has the legal rights of a person.
“People were getting tired of concerns about racial minorities,” said Irons, an activist whose book on the Supreme Court was partly inspired by the late liberal historian Howard Zinn and his book, “A People’s History of the United States.”
“The court is generally a mirror of the broader society, and that was the way most people felt at the time.”
Irons and other liberal observers fear the current Supreme Court is drifting in a similar direction and anticipate that it will overturn or weaken a key section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as well as affirmative action in college admissions.
The court is expected to hear a challenge from Shelby County, Alabama, to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires nine Southern states and parts of others to “pre-clear” with federal officials any voting measures that could potentially restrict black voters.
The court is also due to rule on a case on affirmative action in college admission policies in Fisher v. University of Texas.
Irons said the conservative majority on the contemporary court would be doing what their counterparts did during Reconstruction, avoiding a frontal assault on civil rights laws and other measures that protect women and workers, while eviscerating the laws.
“It’s unlikely that the court would render any decisions that would be totally reactionary on issues of race,” said Irons, “but what they’re doing in the current court is whittling away and cutting back very gradually on things like racial, gender and wage discrimination.”
From post-racial to most racial
Some conservatives, though, have a different perspective on Reconstruction and any modern parallels.
Most historians say Reconstruction ended with the disputed presidential contest of 1876. An election too close to call was resolved when candidate Rutherford B. Hayes agreed to pull Northern troops out of the South in exchange for the presidency.
Schweikart, co-author of “A Patriot’s History of the United States,” said the United States abandoned Reconstruction because the nation could not call itself a democracy while keeping half its population under military occupation.
“Reconstruction ended, pure and simple, because the North could not afford economically, politically or socially to maintain a standing army in a part of the U.S. for an indefinite time and still call America a democratic republic,” said Schweikart, a history professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio.
Borelli, author of “Blacklash,” does see one contemporary link with 19th-century America. She argues that Obama is actually encouraging a new form of servitude to what she calls the “Big Government Plantation.”
Since Obama became president, a record number of Americans, at least 46 million, now receive food stamps. And one in six Americans receives some form of government aid as the nation struggles to recover from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
“There are a lot of people who are relying on government for their basic everyday needs: food, clothing and shelter,” said Borelli, who is outreach director for FreedomWorks, a Washington-based group that advocates for smaller government and lower taxes. “When you rely on government, your liberties are reduced.”
Another conservative said Obama has tacitly endorsed reverse racism.
“You can’t have a legitimate disagreement with the president if you’re white without being called a racist,” said Stephen Marks, creator of FightBigotry.com, a Super PAC that produced a television ad accusing Obama of not standing up to racism.
Marks said Obama said nothing when Vice President Joe Biden recently told an audience of black and white voters that Republicans were “going to put y’all back in chains.”
“They’re the ones who play the race card, 100% of the time,” Marks said of Obama and Democrats. “The Republicans don’t have the gonads to respond because they’re so afraid of being called a racist.”
What happened to Revels?
There’s little disagreement among contemporary historians about what happened to the South when the nation abandoned Reconstruction. The region became a divided society where race filtered into everything, said Dray, author of “Capitol Men.”
“It had a paralyzing effect. Business interests didn’t want to invest there. Immigrants didn’t want to go there,” Dray said. “The South became this tainted place. Instead of moving into the 20th century, it stayed put in the 19th century.”
The Jim Crow laws that marked the end of Reconstruction stayed put for at least 60 years. It would take a century before the contemporary civil rights movement restored the political and civil rights of blacks. Some historians argue that the United States did not actually become a democracy until 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Black pioneers like Revels disappeared from the history books. After serving his Senate term, he didn’t seek reappointment and returned to Mississippi, where he eventually became president of Alcorn State College and pastor of a church.
He lost much of his black support for not speaking out against the abuses that ended Reconstruction, said Benjamin, the Boston University professor.
“He was an accommodationist,” Benjamin said. “He was in the Senate standing up for white folks and telling people not to be so hard on Southern plantation owners. He didn’t use his platform to represent African-Americans.”
In 1901, Revels collapsed and died during a church meeting in Mississippi. That same year, the last black member of the House of Representatives finished his final term. Congress resumed being an all-white institution. Blacks had been driven out of office by beatings and assassinations.
Revels’ death barely got a mention in the Southern press. His fellow black congressmen received the same treatment. Revisionist historians were already depicting Reconstruction as a fatal example of government overreach and Northern “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags” coming South to profit off of the regions’ misery, said Dray, author of “Capitol Men.”
“When some of them passed away years later, the Southern press barely mentioned it,” Dray said. “It was a part of American history that people did not want to remember. No one wanted to talk about it or think about it.”
One group of Americans, however, never forgot what Revels represented.
During the Great Depression, Dray said, the federal government dispatched interviewers from the Works Progress Administration to the South to collect oral histories from former slaves.
The interviewers noticed a curious sight as they walked into the shacks of the former slaves. They saw faded copies of an 1872 lithograph depicting the first seven black members of Congress, including Revels.
The image is still haunting.
Revels and his fellow racial pioneers are posed together, dressed in vested suits and bow ties. They exude pride and determination, even though only several years earlier they weren’t even considered fully human by many Americans.
Revels sits in the front row of the group portrait. He stares forward in the picture, a man who seems confident in what the future would bring.
What would he think of Obama if he could somehow see him today? Would he be delighted at what America has become in 2012?
Or would he think the future he embodied still seems far away?
Published November 1, 2012 INAmerica / CNN