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Reconstruction in Perspective

Current scholarship depicts Reconstruction as a critical period in the development of post-Civil War political, economic and social relations in the United States and as a struggle in which African Americans played a significant role. Over time, historians have characterized the Reconstruction era as "tragic," "conservative," and a "failure."

In the early twentieth century this period was portrayed as "tragic" by the racist assumptions of historians who declared that a "monstrous" mistake was made by northern Republicans granting political privileges to an inferior race. On Febuary 8, 1915, D.W. Griffith's controversial silent film, The Birth of a Nation, premiered in Los Angeles, California. Released under the title, The Clansman, the movie debuted only after Griffith sought an injunction from the court. Although local censors approved the film, city council members responded to concerns about the racist nature of the picture by ordering it suppressed. Griffith's story centers on two white families torn apart by the Civil War and reunited by what one subtitle calls, "common defence of their Aryan birthright."

Promoting a vision of a wartorn South further abused by carpetbaggers, scalawags, and radical Republicans, the film remakes Lincoln as a friend of the South. "I shall deal with them as though they had never been away," Griffith's Lincoln says. In The Birth of a Nation, the Ku Klux Klan rushes in to fill the void left by Lincoln's untimely death and the chaos of Reconstruction. President Woodrow Wilson said of the movie: "It is like writing history with lightning." The film's release was timed with a great resurgence of the Klan, with burgeoning enrollments and a regained national visibility.

The author, Thomas Dixon, wrote in 1904, "The chaos of blind passion that followed Lincoln's assassination is inconceivable to-day. The Revolution it produced in our Government, and the bold attempt of Thaddeus Stevens to Africanise ten great states of the American Union, read now like tales from "The Arabian Nights." ... How the young South, led by the reincarnated souls of the Clansmen of Old Scotland, went forth under this cover and against overwhelming odds, daring exile, imprisonment, and a felon's death, and saved the life of a people, forms one of the most dramatic chapters in the history of the Aryan race".

Gone with the Wind was one of the most popular novels and motion pictures of all time. The movie, which premiered in December 1939, is a romantic Civil War epic in which the forceful and ruthless heroine Scarlett O'Hara and war profiteer Rhett Butler play out their tempestuous love affair against the background of the war torn South. This was a mythical South, where vast plantations were a way of life, with villas as old and stately as the fine families who lived in them. The novel has little to do with the Civil War and the Deep South, but is more a reflection of the real life and loves of book author Margaret Mitchell.

Revised scholarship, influenced by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, saw the Radical Republicans as idealists attempting to realize an interracial democracy. Still, further studies of the 1970s and 1980s portrayed Republican efforts as "conservative" measures that recognized blacks' citizenship while upholding racist ideology and keeping them in an oppressive system of plantation labor. Finally, while Reconstruction was a time of radical and dramatic change, it was a "failure" in its aspiration to create an egalitarian and prosperous post-emancipation South.

Historians have tended to judge Reconstruction harshly, as a murky period of political conflict, corruption, and regression that failed to achieve its original high-minded goals and collapsed into a sinkhole of virulent racism. Slaves were granted freedom, but the North completely failed to address their economic needs. The Freedmens Bureau was unable to provide former slaves with political and economic opportunity. Union military occupiers often could not even protect them from violence and intimidation. Indeed, federal army officers and agents of the Freedmens Bureau were often racists themselves. Without economic resources of their own, many Southern African Americans were forced to become tenant farmers on land owned by their former masters, caught in a cycle of poverty that would continue well into the 20th century.

Reconstruction-era governments did make genuine gains in rebuilding Southern states devastated by the war, and in expanding public services, notably in establishing tax-supported, free public schools for African Americans and whites. However, recalcitrant Southerners seized upon instances of corruption (hardly unique to the South in this era) and exploited them to bring down radical regimes. The failure of Reconstruction meant that the struggle of African Americans for equality and freedom was deferred until the 20th century when it would become a national, not just a Southern issue.



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