Revisiting African-American history

Updated

Let me finish tonight with a correction of history.

Remember how we were taught in school about what happened right after the Civil War? Remember the picture we got of the evil “carpetbaggers” who came down from the North to “reconstruct” the defeated South? Remember being told how the freed slaves elected to office in those years, members of Congress and the Senate, were so awful, and how great the white Southerners were who ridded them from office, and returned the South to the old ways? This is the picture we got from Hollywood, how great the south was before the Civil War - with its great mansions and aristocracy - how noble the Scarlet O’Haras and Ashley Wilkes were who tried to restore it. 

Years ago I remember President Kennedy wondering out loud whether this history we were all taught at school and at the movies was a sham, wondering whether the real heroes just might have been those so-called “radical Republicans” who fought for reconstruction, who insisted that the Civil War lead to a better life, full citizenship, for the freed slaves. Well, today’s Washington Post, in its lead editorial raises the same question and answers it.

That history we were all given, the Post argues in this Martin Luther King Day edition, was not the real history. The truth, the hard truth, is that “reconstruction” was a worthy attempt to build a new south after the horror of the Civil War, a south in which the freed slave would have a real opportunity to build an economic life for themselves, not just be dumped off the plantations, then brought back as servants and share croppers.

Imagine if the freed slave had gotten those forty acres and a mule that the great Pennsylvania Republican Thaddeus Stevens proposed. That stake might have made all the difference. In millions of cases, it might have created small farmers and business people engaged in full economic citizenship, a small payment, one could say, for their families’ hundreds of years of unpaid toil on this land.

So check the history books. Google it if you want. Make up your own mind about what you find. The birthday of Martin Luther King is, you might say, pretty good day to think about it? After all, as it says on the national archives, “The Past is Prelude.” Our history is how we got to where we are today.

 

Revisiting African-American history

Updated