An alternative politics of memory

Richard Vallely in American Prospect notes that we could always start putting up statues to something else.

Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee have vanished from Baltimore and New Orleans. Chief Justice Roger Taney, who authored the truly infamous part of the Dred Scott decision, is gone from Annapolis. So many have come down—or are up for possible removal—that The New York Times posted an interactive map to chart them all.

But there is an alternative politics of memory that Americans can also practice, and it might help to keep fascists out of public squares and do something concrete, literally at the same time: honor Reconstruction. Remembering Reconstruction ought not to shunt aside the politics of Confederate memorials. Yet remembering this pivotal era certainly deserves to be built into the new national politics of memory.

The way Reconstruction was taught for decades is a scandal.

The sesquicentennial of Reconstruction is September 1, 2017. Under the First Military Reconstruction Act of March 1867, a Republican-controlled Congress, having become justifiably concerned about profound legal and extra-legal threats to the statutory civil rights of black Southerners, gave the U.S. Army an administrative deadline of September 1 to directly register all black and white adult males in 10 of the 11 ex-Confederate states (Tennessee, the 11th, already had a biracial electorate.) Echoing the Freedom Summer of the civil rights movement, University of Chicago historian Julie Saville has called the summer of 1867 “Registration Summer.”

In the fall of 1867, this new biracial electorate elected delegates to state constitutional conventions. These elections set in motion deliberations in 1868 about the proper design and structure of new state governments that were designed to be radically more democratic than any of the South’s previous incarnations. Those state governments were also expected to formally support the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which established African American citizenship and more broadly a new, expansive view of civil rights.

But that’s not as thrilling as guys in uniforms shooting at each other.

Writing during the Great Depression, W.E.B. Du Bois carefully showed how deeply weird the then-dominant literature on Reconstruction was—he did this at the close of his 1935 masterpiece, Black Reconstruction. The standard view was that it was all a terrible mistake. Du Bois argued, rightly, that it was much more of a triumph than most educated whites understood. In colleges and graduate programs all around the country, people were buying into a racist caricature.

Thanks to that work’s enduring impact, and to the careful work of Du Bois’s great successors, historians John Hope Franklin and C. Vann Woodward, and of theirstudents and successors like Eric Foner, Du Bois’s alternative view—that Reconstruction was a great democratic expansion—has become largely accepted.

So let’s start with the monument program.

There is an obvious place to start: Congress and the 16 (yes, 16) African American members from that era who served in both the House and Senate. Not a single bust of any one of them can be found in the U.S. Capitol. That should change. They were literally the world’s first black parliamentarians. It is a disgrace that the world’s most powerful legislature has ignored their service.

Another possibility is for the Supreme Court of South Carolina to memorialize its first African American justice, Jonathan Jasper Wright, who wrote some 90 opinions during his seven-year tenure on that court. At the time, the South Carolina Supreme Court was the only state supreme court to have an African American member.

Let’s do this thing.

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