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ISR Issue 57, January–February 2008


W.E.B. Du Bois

Black Reconstruction in America 1860–1880


THE CIVIL War and the Reconstruction period that followed represent one of the most heroic moments in modern history. The American South remained one of the last vestiges of Western slavery in 1860, yet within the span of a decade its slaves would be freed and obtain not only the right to vote, but would hold political office. The Civil War resulted in a pitched battle to determine the future course of American politics and society, a battle that continues to reverberate today. W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America is an epic retelling of that history.

Written in 1935, Black Reconstruction literally rewrote the official history of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. Prior to Du Bois, it was commonly accepted that the Civil War was a tragic conflict that set brother against brother, with the generic slaves acting merely as an historical backdrop. It was equally accepted that the Reconstruction period following the Civil War was disastrous, caused by the “premature” granting of civil and political rights to African Americans. As Du Bois states in the book, “the common three theses [about] Reconstruction [were]:

All Negroes were ignorant;
All Negroes were lazy, dishonest, and extravagant;
Negroes were responsible for bad government during Reconstruction. (711–12)

For Du Bois, this version of history is easily explained: “One fact and one alone explains the attitude of most recent writers toward Reconstruction; they cannot conceive Negroes as men.” (726)

It was this reality that compelled Du Bois to write Black Reconstruction as a history of the contribution of Black slaves and Black freedmen in the shaping of their own destiny in the United States which indelibly shaped the future of American society. This alone would be a seminal achievement, but Du Bois made a more lasting contribution to history and politics that makes Black Reconstruction useful as a political tool today.

Du Bois was not simply interested in writing a history book—a fact that meant the book was much maligned when first published. Du Bois was castigated for failing to use archival resources, an impossibility for a Black historian studying the South where Jim Crow segregation made such research utopian. In Black Reconstruction, Du Bois has written a history that utilizes Marxism as a political framework for understanding and explaining the history of Black oppression within the United States. Moreover, in total command of Marxist dialectics, Du Bois connected the oppression and exploitation of Black slaves and then Black freedmen to the development of U.S. capitalism and the rise of American imperial domination.

It was thus the black worker, as founding stone of a new economic system in the nineteenth century and for the modern world, who brought civil war in America. He was its underlying cause, in spite of every effort to base the strife upon union and national power.

That dark and vast sea of human labor in China and India, the South Seas and all Africa; in the West Indies and Central America and in the United States—that great majority of mankind, on whose bent and broken backs rest today the founding stones of modern industry—shares a common destiny. (15)

Echoing Marx’s description of the primitive accumulation of capital that laid the basis for the development of capitalism, Du Bois goes on to describe capitalism as

spawning the world’s raw material and luxury—cotton, wool, coffee, tea, cocoa, palm oil, fibers, spices, rubber, silks, lumber, copper, gold, diamonds, leather…. All these are gathered up at prices lowest of the low, manufactured, transformed, and transported at fabulous gain; and the resultant wealth is distributed and displayed and made the basis of world power….

Out of the exploitation of the dark proletariat comes the Surplus Value filched from human beasts…. The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black. (15–16)

Du Bois moves African Americans from the margins of American history and places them at the center of a global struggle for emancipation of the oppressed and exploited.

In this regard, it is important to read Black Reconstruction for two reasons. First, it is a fascinating history whose contribution is now easily taken for granted. Most of the revisionist history of the Civil War and Reconstruction began in the 1960s in the midst of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, meaning many of Du Bois’s original observations about Reconstruction are regularly accepted today. Eric Foner’s work Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution—the definitive work on that period—says that Du Bois, “anticipated the findings of modern scholarship [on Reconstruction]. At the time, however, it was largely ignored.”1 Du Bois analyzes slavery in the Americas, the causes of the Civil War, the Reconstruction period, including a state-by-state analysis of the former Confederacy to determine how Reconstruction was conducted in each state, and finally looks at the impact of Reconstruction’s failure up to the time the book was written.

However, to get the full intention of Du Bois requires closer reading. His clarity on the dialectic of race and class in capitalist economy is unmatched. He sees clearly that the context for the development of the vitriolic racism that then underpinned all of American politics was the scramble for unprecedented wealth. At one point, commenting on the naiveté of Charles Sumner and other Radical Republicans in their hopes for radical reform in the U.S. Congress, Du Bois commented that “[He] did not realize, and that other Charles—Karl Marx—had not yet published Das Kapital to prove to men that economic power underlies politics…. They did not know that when they let the dictatorship of labor be overthrown in the South they surrendered the hope of democracy in America for all men.”(591–92)
He argued that racism was used to justify economic exploitation:

The espousal of the doctrine of Negro inferiority by the South was primarily because of economic motives and the inter-connected political urge necessary to support slave industry…. The South could say that the Negro, even when brought into modern civilization, could not be civilized, and that, therefore, he and the other colored peoples of the world were so far inferior to the whites that the white world had a right to rule mankind for their own selfish interests. (39)

This materialist framework for understanding racism extended to his understanding of the condition of the white poor and white workers as well. For Du Bois, the white poor and white labor are linked to the fate of Black workers, and their inability—or their labor leaders’ inability—to recognize this had led to the mutual degradation of both Black and white labor.

[T]he plight of the white working class throughout the world today is directly traceable to Negro slavery in America, on which modern commerce and industry was founded, and which persisted to threaten free labor…. The resulting color caste founded and retained by capitalism was adopted…and approved by white labor. (30)
And even though racism was “approved by white labor,” for Du Bois, it was also their undoing. Quoting Percy Shelley’s poem “Men of England,” Du Bois wrote at the end of the chapter titled, “The white worker,”

Have ye leisure, comfort, calm,
Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm?
Or what is it ye buy so dear
With your pain and with your fear?

The seed ye sow, another reaps;
The wealth ye find, another keeps;
The robes ye weave, another wears;
The arms ye forge, another bears. (30–31)

One of the things that accounts for Black Reconstruction’s continued relevance today is Du Bois’s use of the materialist method as a means of understanding the primacy of the capitalist economy, and the class formations that arise from it, as the starting point for how we understand the creation and persistence of race and racism in capitalist society—particularly in the United States. To insist on the centrality of class as the main divide in capitalist society does not diminish the myriad ways in which racism distorts, confines, and undermines the lives of those devastated by racial oppression. Nor is it an abstract exercise of “privileging class over race.”2 It is merely an attempt to locate the roots of racism—to answer the question of “where” racism came from and “why” it persists from one historical period to the next. The answers have to be grounded in fact and material reality or we run the risk of grasping for the metaphysical “it’s always existed” and the paralysis of “and it always will.” That is as inadequate an explanation as believing that God made Eve from Adam’s rib or the Earth in seven days from a handful of dirt.

For the last two decades the Marxist analysis of racism has been in retreat, replaced by “whiteness theory” and “critical race theory”—essentially the widespread belief that all whites benefit from racism and are racist. Insofar as class exists, it is seen as no more or less important than any other oppression. David Roediger argues in his book, The Wages of Whiteness, for whom he credits Du Bois as his inspiration, that white workers are also responsible for “creating” racism, independently of the ruling class.3 Moreover, many historians—and the activists on the Left who read them—have tended to stress what they consider the apparent continuity between antebellum racial attitudes and the racism of white workers today. The impression is that above all else American society is one in which the mass of whites have been pitted against the mass of Blacks since the nation’s inception. Whiteness theory focuses on what the defeat of Reconstruction meant for African Americans—second-class citizenship, abject poverty, and racial terrorism at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan.

But the defeat of Reconstruction was not a foregone conclusion. The revolutionary nature of the Civil War created a world of possibilities that could only be determined by the actions of those involved. Thus, the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction is complex, and Black Reconstruction is an excellent place to begin. It is the story of the rise of the modern American state, the political and economic consolidation of its bourgeoisie, and the means by which that class came to power—through war, exploitation, oppression, terrorism, and racism; and on the backs of all of the workers that created its fabulous wealth.

Roots of the Civil War

The United States was born with a contradiction. The country was created on the promise of political freedom and economic prosperity. The colonies successfully fought for and won independence from Britain in the eighteenth century. Yet, “from the day of its birth, the anomaly of slavery plagued a nation which asserted the equality of all men, and sought to derive powers of government from the consent of the governed. Within sound of the voices of those who said this lived more than half a million Black slaves.”(3)

Slavery flourished on U.S. soil for more than 250 years. While the holding of slaves in the North waned in the aftermath of the American Revolution, the American South became a more entrenched, full-blown slave society. In two states, Georgia and South Carolina, slaves made up the majority of the population. In total, by the onset of the war, there were more than four million enslaved African Americans in the United States. Their labor provided the chief source of wealth for the dominant class in the South—the planters.

Their arduous labor on the South’s plantations produced millions of pounds of cotton, rice, and tobacco, bringing in billions of dollars in profits; profits that ensured that the system of slavery was not going to simply die away because of the developing wage labor system in the North. Plantation profits were very much an integral component of the global capitalist economy. Karl Marx commented on the centrality of cotton to the industrial revolution, saying:

Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large scale-machine industry.4

The impact on slaves was set. Du Bois writes,

Black workers of America bent at the bottom of a growing pyramid of commerce and industry, and they not only could not be spared, if this new economic organization was to expand, but rather they became the cause of new political demands and alignments, of new dreams of power and visions of empire. (5)

In the American colonies, slave labor and the enormous profits it produced was the fuel for budding industry along the Eastern corridor. Politically the South dominated the country. The notorious three-fifths clause of the Constitution allowed Southerners to count slave bodies toward Congressional representation and, consequently, gave Southern states disproportionate representation. Nine of the first twelve presidents were from Virginia or South Carolina. Thomas Jefferson, in his day, was disparaged as the “Negro president,” not because of his affections for his slave Sally Hemings, but rather because of the way in which the counting of slaves was used to give the South more “electors” in the electoral college.5 Eric Foner describes the Old South as “the largest and most powerful slave society the world has ever known.”6

But wealth and power were not equally distributed in Southern society. More than two-thirds of white Southerners did not own slaves. Moreover, many who did own slaves owned one or two and often worked side by side with their slaves tending crops. According to Du Bois, only 7 percent of the total Southern population owned almost three million of the four million enslaved Blacks. Above all else, the South was an extreme and rigid class society in which everyone had a proscribed place—slaves, masters, and impoverished small white farmers. In a chapter titled, “The White Worker,” Du Bois quotes an observer of the world of the poor whites.

“For twenty years, I do not recollect ever to have seen or heard these non-slaveholding whites referred to by the Southern gentlemen as constituting any part of what they called the South.” They were largely ignorant and degraded; only 25 percent could read and write. (26)

Small Southern farmers eked out their existence mired in poverty, illiteracy, disenfranchisement, and hunger. It was reported that in the desperation caused by hunger some white farmers would eat clay. Despite the obvious oppression of white workers, their hatred was directed against both the planters and the Black slaves. In the South, Du Bois explains that slavery shaped the entire society so that even whites who did not own slaves were dependent on the slave system for their livelihood. Whites were employed as overseers, slave drivers, and members of the slave patrol—whose job was to catch runaway slaves. According to Du Bois, “Gradually the whole white South became an armed and commissioned camp to keep Negroes in slavery and to kill the Black rebel.”

These were the conditions under which the racism of poor whites developed against Black slaves. Obviously anti-Black racism was widespread in the North as well, where there was no slavery. In the North, Black labor and white labor were in direct competition with one another, furthering hatred between the two. “The Negroes worked cheaply, partly from custom, partly as their only defense against competition. The white laborers realized that Negroes were part of a group of millions of workers who were slaves by law, and whose competition kept white labor out of the work of the South and threatened its wages and stability in the North.” (19)

The issue of white labor in competition with Black slavery became an accelerant in the drive toward civil war. Plantation slavery was a system that could not stand still. There were two reasons for this. The first was the objective need to expand the plantations so that there would be new soil on which to plant new crops. The second reason was the enormous profits reaped from cotton. The problem of expansion was renewed continually as new states and territories became incorporated into the American nation. With the entry of every new state, a new crisis was spawned as increasingly tense debates ensued over whether the new area would be “free” or “slave.” White workers, who had taken to referring to themselves as “white slaves” because of the horrid conditions in which many worked and lived in the developing industries and cities, were deeply resentful and angry about the potential spreading of slavery—seeing it as a direct threat to their livelihoods. This did not mean that these white workers were abolitionists—most were not—but it did mean they were hostile to the expansion of slavery and the increasing power of the Southern planters.

A series of events during the 1850s brought the U.S. to the precipice of civil war. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 incensed the growing abolitionist movement in the North; the showdown in “Bloody Kansas” in 1854, where white abolitionists (including John Brown) physically confronted pro-slavery forces to stop Kansas from becoming a slave state; the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision of 1857, which said Blacks were not citizens and “had no rights a white man is bound to respect”; and John Brown’s October 1859 assault on the U.S. armory in Harper’s Ferry in an attempt to incite a massive slave rebellion. Finally, the election of Abraham Lincoln from the newly formed anti-slavery Republican Party was a signal to the South that control of the federal government had slipped from its hands.

When Lincoln of the Republican Party—the party of “free labor, free soil” as well as the party of the radical abolitionists—became president, southerners knew their fantasies of turning most of the U.S. into a gigantic plantation would never happen. The South preempted any formal debate on the question of slavery by launching the secession crisis in 1861—and the Civil War was on.

The Civil War

In 1865 Frederick Douglass said of the Civil War that it was begun “in the interests of slavery on both sides. The South was fighting to take slavery out of the Union, and the North fighting to keep it in the Union; the South fighting to get it beyond the limits of the United States Constitution, and the North fighting for the old guarantees;—both despising the Negro, both insulting the Negro.” (61)

While it was clear to the South that slavery’s preservation was at the center of the struggle between North and South (though their propagandists did not always candidly admit it), Abraham Lincoln, principally, stipulated that the North’s war aims were to “keep the Union together.” A combination of factors finally convinced Lincoln that the war could only be won if it was transformed from a war for the Union into one of liberation for four million Black slaves.

Class tension in the North clouded support for the Union Army. White labor was resentful about fighting in a war in which the fate of Black slaves was so central. White elites were able to avoid service by paying a steep fee to have others serve in their place. The infusion of 200,000 Black soldiers, who were clamoring to fight in the South, helped to relieve the pressure on Lincoln and the Republican Party. Finally, the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation effectively turned the war into a war of liberation. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed on January 1, 1863, and freed all of the slaves in the Southern states that had seceded from the union. While it did not free slaves in the border-states, its impact was unmistakable. Du Bois described the effect:

What did the war mean to the Negroes, and what did the Negroes mean to the war?…

What the Negro did was to wait, look and listen and try to see where his interest lay. There was no use in seeking refuge in an army which was not an army of freedom; and there was no sense in revolting against armed masters who were conquering the world. As soon, however, as it became clear that the Union armies would not or could not return fugitive slaves, and that the masters with all their fume and fury were uncertain of victory, the slave entered upon a general strike against slavery by the same methods that he had used during the period of the fugitive slave. He ran away to the first place of safety and offered his services to the Federal Army. So that in this way it was really true that he served his former master and served the emancipating army; and it was also true that this withdrawal and bestowal of his labor decided the war. (57)

Du Bois’s formulation of Southern slaves “going on strike” has been lampooned across the political spectrum. Criticisms from the right are predictable in that they followed the same line of reasoning that wrote Blacks out of the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction in the first place. The criticism from the Left is doctrinaire and overly concerned with the theoretical “correctness” of Du Bois’s admittedly idiosyncratic approach to Marxism. Typical was the review from the liberal Nation magazine when Black Reconstruction was originally published. Sterling Spero wrote,

Marx’s hero was the proletariat. Du Bois’ hero is the Negro. Du Bois, fresh from his reading of Marx, makes the Negro the proletariat. Everywhere throughout the book, in many ways an extraordinary work, Du Bois’ race consciousness distorts his Marxism; so that the net result of Black Reconstruction is to add more confusion than light to the understanding of one of the most crucial epochs of American history. The Negro masses did not play a conscious and decisive role in their own emancipation.7

There exists an even more crude “Marxist” formulation that because Blacks were slaves and not workers they could not develop the collective consciousness to go on “strike” because only workers have that capacity of collective action. Leaving aside slave rebellions from Spartacus, to Nat Turner, to the Haitian Revolution as proof in and of itself that slaves have collective consciousness and can act collectively, these readings miss Du Bois’s intent. The book is named Black Reconstruction because Du Bois is writing Blacks back into the history from which they have been historically left out—in fact they played the central role. His description of slave desertions from Southern plantations is apt and incisive for one specific reason. Du Bois is very obviously ascribing agency to Black slaves in their own emancipation. His argument is that Blacks were the decisive factor in the North’s victory. In a nod to the literary undertones of Black Reconstruction, “the Negro” is the hero at the epicenter of this history. When analyzing the impact of slave desertions on the Confederate war effort (as well as Blacks’ participation as soldiers in the Northern war effort), it is hard to argue with Du Bois’s conclusions.

The South had a clear advantage over the North in the war. Because of slavery, the Confederacy could use all of its manpower without concern that munitions would continue to be produced as well as food and other commodities and all else that was needed to support the war effort. By removing their labor and escaping to Northern military lines, Black slaves crippled the South’s war effort. By taking up arms against their former masters and becoming Northern soldiers, they dealt an even more crippling blow. Moreover, those slaves that did not escape still played a crucial role in the North’s war against the South—primarily as spies and saboteurs.

Du Bois quotes several Union officers on the contribution of Black soldiers to the war effort. He writes, “Of the Negro soldiers in the Northern Army, there can be no doubt.” He goes on to quote a Southerner who spoke on a government committee concerning the war:

The enlistment of Negro troops by the United States was the turning-point of the rebellion…when the Negroes deserted their masters, and showed a general disposition to do so and join the forces of the United States, intelligent men everywhere saw that the matter was ended. (120)

The Civil War lasted from 1861 until 1865. It was the deadliest war of the nineteenth century with more than 650,000 men killed in a revolutionary effort to uproot a backward, stagnant, and despicable system based on the forced labor of four million. The slaves themselves played the decisive role, turning the militarily and politically drifting North into a force of liberation.

A brand new world

The Civil War turned Southern society upside down in a way that is difficult for any of us to comprehend. For 250 years Blacks had been enslaved and debased as humans—and now they were free. In one fell swoop the majority of the Southern aristocracy was destroyed—physically, morally, and economically.

The instantaneous freeing of the slaves was an economic disaster for the South. At the time of the war more than $4 billion was wrapped up in slaves. After the war that property value was completely erased. Compounding the economic catastrophe facing the South, the Civil War was also the most destructive war of its era. Industrialization had magnified the destructive powers of weaponry, which was a major reason for the high casualty and death numbers. Southern cities, factories, banks, bridges, machinery, livestock—had been reduced to rubble. One-fifth of the white male population in the South died as a result of the war. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of acres of Southern land was either confiscated or left deserted during the war. The federal government had in its possession more than 800,000 acres of confiscated land in 1865 when the war ended.

The central questions governing Reconstruction at the end of the war were what would become of the emancipated slaves?; what kind of society would replace the old?; who would control the land?; and who would control labor? In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, these were all open questions.

For the freedmen (both men and women) freedom was otherworldly. Du Bois describes what freedom meant to the newly freed slaves, writing,

It was the Golden Dawn, after chains of a thousand years…. For the first time in their life, they could travel; they could see; they could change the dead level of their labor; they could talk to friends and sit at sundown and in moonlight, listening and imparting wonder-tales. They could hunt in the swamps, and fish in the rivers. And above all, they could stand up and assert themselves. They need not fear the patrol; they need not even cringe before a white face, and touch their hats. (122)

The slaveocracy of the South popularized the myth that slaves had been happy and content, with all of their needs met. Many slaveowners—having believed their own propaganda for years—were genuinely shocked when slaves deserted plantations and in many cases partook in the destruction of the plantation master’s home and personal property. Freed slaves immediately began to engage in all of the activities that free people do, including buying liquor, acquiring dogs, and taking up arms. Many former slaves changed their first names to titles demanding respect like General, King, or Queen. They demanded to be referred to by courtesy titles like mister and miss. But the clearest expressions of this newfound freedom were the creation of churches and schools—both of which were illegal under slavery—and the desperate attempts of former slaves to reunite their families. It is estimated that the internal slave trade resulted in more than one million Blacks being sold and moved throughout the United States. The lasting legacy of American slavery was the utter disregard of family relations and the careless dissolution of Black families in the name of profit.

Importantly, freedmen also took up political action, organizing conventions and attending mass meetings to actively participate in the shaping of their new world. The two immediate questions for the freedmen were access to land and the right to vote.

Part of the land question began to be answered before the war itself ended. In January 1865, General William T. Sherman met with representatives of freed slaves on the Georgia Sea Islands to ask them what freedmen actually wanted. Sherman had grown embarrassed by what he considered the spectacle of the thousands of slaves tramping behind his military caravan during his march through the South.

Former slaves from the Sea Islands indicated that they wanted land of their own. Within a few months 40,000 freedmen were settled on 400,000 acres of what became known as “Sherman land.” Sherman’s revolutionary Special Field Order Number 15 made this possible. The order designated forty acres for each family on the South Carolina coast and Georgia Sea Islands.
Most freedmen thought Sherman’s order was a prelude to land redistribution for all. In fact, the issue of “land confiscation” was to become a key struggle throughout the Reconstruction period. Land was central to freed slaves because it would define what was to become of their lives. If they were not going to be small farmers, were they to go back to work on plantations? While most of the Southern aristocracy had been destroyed, not all plantations had been wrecked. Moreover, because of the enormous amount of debt old planters were in, those that still had land had to sell at low prices. Northerners hoping to get rich quick came South and bought up land, Union officers who could, bought land—all with the hope that freed slaves would simply be redirected back to the plantations and resume growing cotton—for which there was still an enormous market, both in the North and in Europe.

But the former slaves would not go along. They did not want to work on plantations—they wanted to plant food and some cotton or tobacco to make a living on their own land. They also refused to work in “labor gangs” as they had previously done under slavery.

A South Carolina planter summed up the mood of his class when he said, “The nigger, sir, is a savage whom the almighty maker appointed to be a slave. A savage! With him free, the South is ruined, sir, ruined.”

One factor that shaped the outcome of the freedmen’s future was the assassination of Abraham Lincoln just a few days after the Confederacy surrendered. Lincoln had gradually shifted to an abolitionist position. He began the war advocating colonization for Blacks and was reluctant to verbalize slavery as the central issue of the war for fear of alienating the North’s tentative relationship with the border states. By the end of the war he was obviously for abolition, yet still equivocal about defining the meaning of Black freedom.

Would it mean the right to vote? Would it mean the right to land? What would it mean? Lincoln was killed before any conclusions could be reached, but an indication of what direction he may have gone in can be surmised from an impromptu speech he delivered in Richmond, Virginia, shortly after the Confederate capital had been sacked. Lincoln, surrounded by newly emancipated slaves said

In reference to you, colored people, let me say God has made you free. Although you have been deprived of your God-given rights by your so-called masters, you are now as free as I am, and if those that claim to be your superiors do not know that you are free, take the sword and bayonet and teach them that you are. (112)

Vice President Andrew Johnson was no Abraham Lincoln. (237) Johnson was a crude racist who openly talked about biological differences between Blacks and whites and obsessed about “miscegenation”—the Southern-coined term for interracial sex. Johnson had secured his status among Republicans by being virulently anti-planter, as many poor white farmers from the hills of East Tennessee were. Yet Johnson’s anti-planter and anti-slavery attitude was not to be confused with being for abolition or being for the emancipated slave. Johnson’s ascendancy into the presidency brought in a period of what has been referred to as “Presidential Reconstruction.” Once in power, Johnson’s anti-planter attitude subsided when he realized that the implication of Reconstruction was citizenship for the freedmen. He quickly signaled to the wealthy remnants in the South that he was ready for quick reconciliation between North and South and that he wanted the Southern states to resume their position in government. In the summer of 1865 when Congress was between sessions, Johnson tried to let the former Confederacy back into national politics through the back door. He set up reconstituted Southern state governments and appointed racist conservatives from the South to lead them.

What this essentially meant was re-enfranchising former Confederate generals and officials. It meant not a single Confederate official or officer served a prison sentence—except for Jefferson Davis, who served a two-year sentence—or was executed for dragging the country into the bloodiest war in the history of the hemisphere, the height of treason. It meant that war criminals like Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate officer who orchestrated the worst atrocity of the Civil War when more than 200 Black soldiers attempting to surrender at Fort Pillow in Tennessee were massacred, walked free. In the months after the defeat of the South, Forrest went on to organize the Ku Klux Klan.

Under Presidential Reconstruction, Johnson also moved to restore land rights to Southerners—including rescinding Sherman’s radical order granting land tracts to freed slaves. Johnson also gave permission for planters to recoup their land on the Sea Islands of both Georgia and South Carolina. He bowed to the demands of the Southern elite that Black soldiers be removed or at least kept out of sight, as their presence was, in the words of one planter, “a painful humiliation.”

Planters took Johnson’s cue as an opportunity to get things back as close to slavery as possible. In the months after the war when it became clear that Johnson was, in fact, a friend of the slaveowners, the sham state governments instituted Black codes across the South. The aims of the Black codes were fairly straightforward. If Blacks would not willingly work on plantations, planters would force them to. Above all, Black codes were meant to control the movement of newly freed slaves and forcibly coerce them into plantation labor. Every Southern state came up with its own statutes aimed at controlling Black labor. In Georgia, it was illegal for Black freedmen to “stroll or wander in idleness.” In Alabama, the former “master” had first rights in compulsory apprenticeship of Black children—without parental consent. There were laws against fishing and hunting aimed at depriving freedmen of independence and autonomy. Where the law would not work, violence, murder, and terrorism replaced it.

The Freedman’s Bureau in Texas reported more than 1,000 Blacks were murdered in the state in the year after the end of the war. In New Orleans and Memphis in 1866, more than eighty Blacks were murdered in acts of political violence. The arrogant abuse of Blacks and the open attempt to return them to slavery in every way but name enraged many in the North. The prevailing question was: Did 400,000 men in the North die only for things in the South to regress to where they were during slavery?
The actions of the Johnson-established legislatures in the South brought front and center the question of Black citizenship. If Blacks were not allowed to vote in the South there would be nothing to stop the South from resuming its dominant political position that had been enjoyed since the inception of the country. In fact, the South would now be able to benefit from counting Blacks as whole citizens—while not allowing them to vote.

There were two responses to this attempt at counterrevolution. First, newly politicized and radicalized Blacks mobilized themselves—even in the face of murderous repression. In Charleston, South Carolina, for example, more than 2,000 Blacks crowded into a local church to strategize about fighting for their political rights. The other response was organized by the Radical Republicans—led by the heroic Congressmen Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner—who became energized with a sense of purpose and set out to define the parameters for a Radical Reconstruction.

Black Reconstruction

The true significance of slavery in the United States to the whole social development of America, lay in the ultimate relation of slaves to democracy. What were to be the limits of democratic control in the United State? If all labor, black as well as white, became free, were given schools and the right to vote, what control could or should be set to the power and action of these laborers? Was the rule of the mass of Americans to be unlimited, and the right to rule extended to all men, regardless of race and color, or if not, what power of dictatorship would rule, and how would property and privilege be protected? (184)
This was the dilemma facing the Northern bourgeoisie in the face of the audacious lawlessness of the South. Northern industrialists had their own reasons for pursuing civil war with the South.

They looked upon free Negro labor as a source of profit, and considered freedom, that is, a legal doing away with individual physical control all, that the Negroes or their friends could ask. They did not want for Negro labor any special protection or political power or capital, any more than they wanted this for Irish, German, or Scandinavian labor in the North….

When, however, the South went beyond reason and truculently demanded not simply its old political power but increased political power based on disfranchised Negroes, which it openly threatened to use for the revision of the tariff, for the repudiation of the national debt, for disestablishing the national banks, and for putting the new corporate form of industry under strict state regulation and rule, Northern industry was frightened and began to move towards the stand which abolition-democracy had already taken; namely, temporary dictatorship, endowed Negro education, legal civil rights, and eventually even votes for Negroes to offset the Southern threat of economic attack. (185)

In the Republican Party, both Radical Republicans as well as pragmatic industrialists struggled for control of the party. Eric Foner describes the Radical Republicans as “a self-conscious political generation with a common set of experiences and commitments, a grass-roots constituency, a moral sensibility, and a program for Reconstruction.… Radicals had long insisted that slavery and the rights of Blacks must take precedence over other political questions.”8These radicals, or in Du Bois’s words the “abolition-democracy,” took the reins of the Reconstruction process and dashed to the left. Stevens and Sumner led the charge.
The pursuit of a Radical Reconstruction reflected these priorities. Congress quickly took three actions to protect the rights of Southern Blacks.

• Drafting the Fourteenth Amendment as a way to guarantee the rights of freedmen as citizens.9 This was necessary because the 1857 Dred Scott decision ruled that Blacks were “property not people.” Moreover, without the rights of citizenship there would be no way for Blacks to protect themselves from the excesses of racist state governments.
• Congress moved to extend the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Freedmen’s Bureau was an agency in the South meant to advocate for newly freed slaves in the transition from slavery to freedom. The Bureau was charged with establishing schools, dividing the confiscated land of Confederate planters, supervising contracts between Black freedmen and their landlords, and mediating other disputes.
• Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Under its provisions ex-slaves became citizens who enjoyed “the full and equal benefits of all laws.” The bill gave federal courts the power to intervene when state and local governments denied full protection of the law.

Andrew Johnson, of course, vetoed all of this legislation. But his actions only angered moderate Republicans and pushed them toward the Radicals, giving the Radicals the two-thirds majority needed to overturn a presidential veto. Johnson became more vitriolic in his race hatred and openly campaigned with Democrats to undo all civil rights legislation. This only led to his intense political isolation, resulting in a landslide electoral victory for Republicans in the fall of 1866—helping to usher in Radical Reconstruction.

The radicals tied Black suffrage to Reconstruction. Before Congress, Sumner persuasively argued,

Without their votes we cannot establish stable governments in the Rebel States. Their votes are as necessary as their muskets; of this I am satisfied. Without them, the old enemy will reappear, and under the forms of law take possession of the governments, choose magistrates and officers, and in alliance with the Northern Democracy, put us all in peril again, postpone the day of tranquillity, and menace the national credit by assailing the national debt. (199)

Fairly quickly, support for Black suffrage spread throughout the North. Even the New York Times argued, “The government cannot, without the worst dishonor, permit the bondage of the black man to be continued in any form.” (201)

But the greatest advocates for Black suffrage were the former slaves themselves. In one of many conventions of African Americans, Frederick Douglass helped to pen the following appeal:

In the ranks of the Democratic Party, all the worst elements of American society fraternize; and we need not expect a single voice from that quarter for justice, mercy, or even decency. To it we are nothing; the slaveholders everything.… How stands the case with the great Republican Party in question? We have already alluded to it as being largely under the influence of the prevailing contempt for the character and rights of the colored race…[we want] the complete abolition of the slavery of our race…we cannot be free while our brothers are slaves…we want the elective franchise in all the states now in the Union. (234)
Yet it would not be until five years after the war before Black men in the former Confederacy were formally given the right to vote. The main reason for this is because Southern state governments refused to ratify the congressional amendment. To underline the intransigence of the Southern governments, consider that Mississippi did not ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, until 1995—130 years after the war.

Despite the efforts of the former Confederacy, Radical Reconstruction went forward. The radicals were never able to get the full extent of what they and the freedmen wanted, but what was achieved in this short period of time was stunning.

In early 1867, Congress passed three Reconstruction Acts, which included the following:

• The replacement of Johnson’s state governments;
• The division of the South into five military districts;
• The calling for the election of new state constitutional conventions by loyal Black and white Southerners under the armed protection of federal troops (and temporarily barring former Confederate officials from voting in these conventions and banning them from holding public office);
• The ordering of these conventions to draft new constitutions with provisions for Black suffrage;
• Decreeing the election of new state governments under the provisions of the recently drafted constitutions;
• Requiring ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment—guaranteeing Black citizenship—as a condition for readmission of Southern states to the Union;
• The empowerment of the Freedmen’s Bureau to assist freedmen and poor whites in the transition from feudal slavery to freedom.

The Reconstruction Acts absolutely transformed life in the South for freed Blacks and poor whites had also been disenfranchised and disempowered by the slaveocracy for centuries. Du Bois made a point of emphasizing the extent to which Reconstruction created the potential for unity between ordinary Blacks and whites in the South:

Here for the first time there was established between the white and Black of this country a contact on terms of essential social equality and mutual respect…. The freeing of the nation from the strangling hands of oligarchy in the South freed not only Black men but white men. (210)

An organization called the Union League sprang up all over the South attempting to unite both ordinary Blacks and whites in their efforts to reshape the South in their own interest. Chapters of the league conducted political activity for the Republican Party, built churches and schools, launched labor strikes and protests, trained Black political leaders, created armed militias to defend Black communities, and helped to organize and mobilize Blacks to take political office.

In the call for new state governments and state elections, Blacks were able to exercise new political power. Displaced Confederates and Confederate sympathizers boycotted the state constitutional conventions, assuming that without their participation there would not be quorum and decisions could not be made. But, thousands of Blacks and ordinary whites proved them wrong as they flocked to the conventions to have their say on what their new states should look like. In the elections of 1867 and 1868, to the shock of Democrats everywhere, the Republican Party swept the elections—with 90 percent of eligible Black voters participating. But in only two states were there Black majorities. This meant that across the South, poor whites were also exercising their newfound rights in the hopes of forming a new society by giving their support and votes to the Republican Party.

Blacks for the first time—two years removed from slavery—were elected to state governments and the United States Congress. Six hundred Black Republicans joined state legislatures, fourteen went to the U.S. House of Representatives, and two went to the U.S. Senate. Six became lieutenant governors, and thousands more took lesser offices including as judges and sheriffs. In this period it was not uncommon to have Black judges hear cases involving Black tenants and white landlords—and decide in favor of the Black to the shock of the whites. The reconstructed state became a tool for Blacks and poor whites to exercise some control over their own lives, whereas the previous state had mainly been used as a means of controlling Black labor. This is what Du Bois is referring to in his repeated references to the “dictatorship of labor” and the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” He is specifically contrasting the nature of the state under the control of the planters to the state under the control of the freedmen and poor whites. Under the dictatorship of labor—with backing from the U.S. military—the state expanded massively to include public schools, public hospitals, public aid, and a commitment to care for the poor. This was to lead to a period of unfettered democracy. He says of the political experiment,

[Radical Reconstruction] was a test of the whole theory of American government. It was a dictatorship backed by the military arm of the United States by which the governments of the Southern states were to be coerced into accepting a new form of administration, in which the freedmen and the poor whites were to hold the overwhelming balance of political power. As soon as political power was successfully delivered in to the hands of these elements, the Federal government was to withdraw and full democracy ensue. (345)

Even if what was achieved through Radical Reconstruction did not reach this level of democracy, it was something completely revolutionary, which turned a backward society upside down.

Summing up the Reconstruction era, a white lawyer in South Carolina commented, “We have gone through one of the most remarkable changes in our relations to each other, that has been known, perhaps in the history of the world.”

He was correct.

Retreat from Reconstruction

The revolutionary nature of Reconstruction laid the seeds for its ultimate unraveling. Even though major pockets of Black and white poverty persisted and anti-Black violence could break out at any moment during the course of Radical Reconstruction, in many ways the reforms descended on the South like a cleansing wind. But the United States was not utopia; it was a young, thriving, emergent capitalist power. Northern capital embraced some form of Reconstruction because it thought it to be the most orderly way to open up the Southern market to both consumers and producers.

Racial violence, instability, and turmoil, and spiraling debt are not a sound basis upon which to invest and develop. Reconstruction was meant to stabilize the South, create an infrastructure that would be conducive to an inflow of capital, and create the laborers who would finally create a Southern market for Northern goods.

For the Northern ruling class, Radical Reconstruction went too far. It went way beyond simply stabilizing the South into challenging fundamental beliefs about how a capitalist society should be organized. Northern capital, moderate and right-wing Republicans were all ideologically opposed to notions of governmental assistance. “Free labor” ideology was based on the idea that hard work and thrift were all that were necessary to ascend in the United States. The Northern bourgeoisie was opposed to economic assistance to the poor in the South—deeming it state-sponsored charity, a thing they did not want applied in the North. They opposed the continued armed occupation of the South—again because it constituted government interference. And they universally believed that the Freedman’s Bureau amounted to special privileges for Negroes and looked to suspend its funding.

These shifting political ideas did not happen in a vacuum, rather they unfolded in the midst of a growing labor movement in the North. Karl Marx commented on the future of the U.S. labor movement, in the aftermath of the Civil War.

In the USA, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first fruit of the civil war was the eight hours agitation that ran with the seven-leagued boots of the locomotive from the Atlantic to the Pacific.10

How much longer could Reconstruction be explained as a means for only “reconstructing” the South? Why were Blacks being extended suffrage and actually elected to political office in the South at the point of bayonets, but not in the North? Why was there all of this talk of civil and political equality for Blacks in the South but not the North? After all, the first Black Northern congressman was not elected until 1920. Why were the rich being taxed in the South but not in the North, where so much of capital was concentrating in monopolies? Why was there land redistribution in the South but not the North?

On the most contentious issue of land confiscation and distribution, the Nation magazine spoke for the liberal bourgeoisie: “The division of rich man’s land among the landless…would give a shock to our whole social and political system from which it could hardly recover without the loss of liberty.”11

Moreover, if there was to be mass redistribution of land across the South for Blacks, who would do the work on the still profitable plantations? This was not only a source of tension with Southern property owners, but as capital looked to unite across regions, Black labor became a concern for the North as well.

With rising class conflict, the American ruling class was much more conscious of itself as a class. This was also the period of the Paris Commune of 1871, which led to a heightened consciousness and paranoia about workers’ struggle and revolt. There was a growing need to ideologically break with the idea of Reconstruction and government intervention to correct injustice. “The North and Europe were still under the sway of individual laissez-faire in industry and ‘hands off’ in government.” (632)

The pending dissolution of Radical Reconstruction exposed the inevitable limitations of a bourgeois revolution pressured from above and below. The pressure from below is what made Reconstruction radical. But above all, Reconstruction led to the consolidation of American capitalism. As Du Bois writes,

We see this more clearly today that the nation of 1868, or any of its leaders, could possibly envisage it…. Northern industry knew that universal suffrage in the South, in the hands of Negroes just freed from slavery, and of white people still enslaved by poverty, could not stand against organized industry. They promptly calculated that the same method of controlling the labor vote would come in vogue in the South as they were already using in the North, and that the industry which used these methods must in the meantime cooperate with Northern industry; that it could not move the foundation stones upon which Northern industry was consolidating its power; that is, the tariff, the money system, the debt, and national in place of state control of industry. (346)
Politically, the Republicans were no longer committed to Reconstruction. Radical Republicans found themselves a minority faction in a party ready to move on from Reconstruction.

But other factors played into the Northern public’s exhaustion with what seemed like a neverending process of reform in the South. The economic depression of 1873—the first widespread economic downturn in American history—and an unprecedented level of political and economic corruption that came at the dawn of a consolidated American state, created an enormous amount of cynicism about government.

In an effort to initiate economic development throughout the South and into the West, thousands of miles of railroad tracks were laid. Railroad magnates were successful in getting states to subsidize the costs of labor and materials. Railroad bosses paid out thousands of dollars in bribes to get the lucrative deals involving state subsidized railroads that would ultimately be controlled by private enterprise. Many states spent millions in tax dollars to subsidize railroads even when the work was not guaranteed. While the federal government balked at giving land to freedmen and poor whites, it gave more than 180 million acres of land to railroad companies by the end of the nineteenth century. Citizens North and South were outraged by the open corruption and bribe taking. Democrats banned from office in the South pointed to this as an example of why the federal government could not be trusted to oversee Reconstruction.

The Depression of 1873 lasted until the end of the decade. It was absolutely devastating to the poor and to workers both North and South. The economic crisis sparked labor disruption and strife. In some Northern mining and railroad towns—officials called up soldiers from the South to put down strikes in the North. Vagrancy laws were passed across the North—not for the purpose of controlling labor but more to remove the “menace” of the unemployed. But their similarity to the Southern Black codes was not lost on many. The confluence of these factors created the political vacuum that the deposed planter class was more than eager to fill. Even though the Southern ruling class had been forced to the margins of power—it reconstituted itself and methodically plotted its return.

The planter class had continued to rely on the terrorism of white supremacist organizations like the KKK. There was a resurgence of Klan activity in 1870 and another wave of murders and assassinations. Congress moved to act, as Republicans were afraid that attempts at disenfranchisement of Blacks in the South would weaken their grip on electoral power. Surprisingly, still in the spirit of Reconstruction, in 1871 the Ku Klux Klan Acts and the Enforcement Acts were passed, which called for legal and military assistance in rooting out the Klan. They were remarkably successful. Hundreds of Klansmen were arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned.

But four years later, in the midst of a depression and corruption scandals that plagued the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, the federal government retreated from government intervention to stop the KKK. The Southern elite took that as a major cue to make a power grab through murder, assassination, and, finally, a series of political coups.

In 1875 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, armed whites calling themselves the Whites Party—led by the political elite—struck during municipal elections to oust Republicans and install Democrats. Whites patrolled the streets, shooting Blacks on sight. Within a couple of days, 300 Blacks were killed. Across the state, whites mobilized to intimidate Republicans—particularly Blacks—from voting. Ballot boxes were stolen or stuffed with ballots for Democrats. The Whites Party was successful in smothering the Republican vote and assuming office. Where they could not win the vote, they simply shot and killed Black officeholders and replaced them with white men.

In an atmosphere of political corruption, the counterrevolutionary whites blamed the continuing problems in the South on corrupt Reconstruction governments led by Black freedmen. This undermined the project of Radical Reconstruction, and also racialized the political and economic crisis that was unfolding throughout the country. Du Bois argued,

The South proved by appropriate propaganda that Negro government was the worst ever seen and that it threatened civilization. They suited their propaganda to their audience.… It happened that the accusation of incompetence impressed the North not simply because of the moral revolt there against graft and dishonesty but because the North had never been thoroughly converted to the idea of Negro equality. (631)

While all of this was happening the federal government refused to intervene. Grant famously said that the government was “tired” of intervening in the South and would do so no longer. That refusal gave the racists the green light, and the incidents in Mississippi became a model for the former planter class to assume state power. It was formally called the Mississippi Plan. In South Carolina, a similar plan was called the Hamburg Massacre.

Finally, there was the electoral compromise of 1877. In the presidential election there were contested electoral college votes. The compromise was that the Democrats would throw the election to the Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes, if they were guaranteed that Reconstruction would end. Since Hayes ran his campaign on ending Reconstruction, the deal was struck. Hayes became president and began the process of withdrawing the remaining troops from the South. According to Du Bois, “It was easy…for the North to persuade itself that whatever happened politically in the South was right. If the majority did not want Negro rule, or Negro participation in government, the majority was right, and they would not allow themselves to stop and ask how that majority was made.” (632)

Black Reconstruction and white racism

When people ask today whether or not revolution in the United States is possible, they either do so because they are completely unfamiliar with what Reconstruction represented or they emphasize what came in the wake of its overthrow—white supremacy enforced by Jim Crow segregation.

The emancipatory Civil War and the revolutionary struggle that was Reconstruction completely transformed both the South and the North. That they went as far as they did was a testament to the political intervention of freed people, abolitionists, and those who fought for a different kind of South. The aftermath of the Civil War created the opportunities for the social and political development of the American working class—and in turn the potential for its emancipation.

Nevertheless, the “unfinished” nature of Reconstruction and the its replacement with white supremacy, both North and South, meant that it would be almost one hundred years before Blacks’ full rights as citizens of the United States were realized during the civil rights movement—referred to by some as the “Second Reconstruction.”

Many have used Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction as a text upon which to build a thesis of intractable white racism and white privilege as the true legacy of Reconstruction. Du Bois’s references to the inability of the white poor in the South to identify with the plight of the slaves, as well as the inaction of the white labor movement in the North, is held up as proof that ordinary whites had a common bond with the white ruling class against Blacks. This has become the basis of arguing that racism, rather than being a product of capitalism, is an oppression that exists “autonomously” from class.

Du Bois laments that Reconstruction did not go further. He blames its limitations on the inability of ordinary Blacks and whites in the South to get beyond the obstacles placed between them. It is a point he alludes to over and over again throughout the book.

In the displacement of Southern feudal agriculture by Northern industry, where did the proletariat, the worker stand? The proletariat is usually envisaged as united, but their real interests were represented in America by four sets of people: the freed Negro, the Southern poor white, and the Northern skilled and common laborer. These groups never came to see their common interests and the financiers and capitalists easily kept the upper hand. (216)

He also explains his view of why, in the South in particular, a labor movement never developed.

The race element was emphasized in order that property-holders could get the support of the majority of white laborers and make it more possible to exploit Negro labor. But the race philosophy came as a new and terrible thing to make labor unity or labor class-consciousness impossible. So long as the Southern white laborers could be induced to prefer poverty to equality with the Negro, just so long was a labor movement in the South made impossible. (680)

For Du Bois, racism is not metaphysical, nor does it exist autonomously from class; its development is a result of one class’s efforts to keep power from another. Du Bois does come up with his famous formulation of poor whites gaining a “psychological wage”—as opposed to a material wage—from racism. The psychological wage was to make the white worker feel superior because he was not Black even though he would have nothing material to show for it. But this does not contradict Marxism. Frederick Engels first used the term “false consciousness” in the nineteenth century, an idea George Lukács would later develop fully.12 False consciousness is simply ruling class ideology that is used to explain away or cover up material reality––usually rationalized as “common sense.” The point is that white workers, to the extent that they accepted white supremacy, contributed to capitalism’s ability to exploit them more effectively. The purely “psychological” benefit covered over the very real material deficit that racist oppression helped reinforce.

Du Bois does refer to white labor in craft unions as a “labor aristocracy” benefiting from U.S. imperialism in the twentieth century, but makes a point of distinguishing between craft workers and the rest of the “common laborers” North and South—hardly an indictment of the entire white working class. In his book The Wages of Whiteness, referring to Marx’s statement, “labor in the white skin cannot be free where it is branded in the black,” David Roediger asks,

Why should Black freedom and that of the white working class have been connected at all? If Reconstruction proved Marx far closer to the mark that the proslavery Democrats, the link between Black freedom and white labor mobilization still needs explanation. The meager record of biracial organization does not allow us to fall back on the generalization that Black-white unity automatically placed labor in a better tactical position from which to attack capital.13

Du Bois’s answer to this question is devastating:

The political success of the doctrine of racial separation, which overthrew Reconstruction by uniting the planter and the poor white, was far exceeded by its astonishing economic results. The theory of laboring class unity rests upon the assumption that laborers, despite internal jealousies, will unite because of their opposition to exploitation by the capitalists. According to this, even after a part of the poor white laboring class became identified with the planters, and eventually displaced them, their interests would be diametrically opposed to those of the mass of white labor, and of course to those of the black laborers. This would throw white and black labor into one class, and precipitate a united fight for higher wage and better working conditions.

Most persons do not realize how far this failed to work in the South, and it failed to work because the theory of race was supplemented by a carefully planned and slowly evolved method, which drove such a wedge between the white and black workers that there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently and who are kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest. (700)

The potential for multiracial working-class struggle created by the abolition of slavery—even if not realized—was a crucial development in the international class struggle as the U.S. became the center of world capitalism. Du Bois also generalizes the use of race in American politics by presciently connecting it to the rise of American imperialism and the politics of “the white man’s burden.” Du Bois writes,

International and commercial imperialism began to get a vision. Within the very echo of that philanthropy which had abolished the slave trade, was beginning a new industrial slavery of black and brown and yellow workers in Africa and Asia. Arising from this, as a result of this economic foundation, came the change in the attitude towards these darker people…they were inferiors…to be governed for their own good…to be raised out of sloth and laziness by being compelled to work. (632)

Black Reconstruction consistently connects racism to a purpose rooted, as Du Bois argued, in an “economic foundation.” Given the Northern bourgeoisie’s reluctance to follow through on Reconstruction, Du Bois was able to generalize this idea as a united ruling-class effort to suppress the entire working class—Black and white.

One can surmise that this is why Du Bois approvingly quoted a statement, usually attributed to Frederick Douglass, but which was actually the response of several Black men of which Douglass was one, who had gone to meet with President Andrew Johnson. Johnson, in an incoherent rant, said that he was opposed to Reconstruction because freedmen and whites would descend into a race war. In an attempt to explain that the hostilities between the two were not natural, the written response to Johnson said that the enmity between Black and white in the South was stoked by the planter class—“They divided both, to conquer each.” Finally, if it is true, as Du Bois claims in Black Reconstruction, that poor whites and Blacks mutually benefited from the creation of public schools, hospitals, and all that we have come to expect from a modern state, the question remains: How could ordinary whites both benefit from uniting with Blacks to reconfigure the Southern state to produce wide ranging reforms while simultaneously benefiting from the rise of white supremacy which was primarily responsible for the overthrow of those same reforms?


There was more than potential for a united movement between Blacks and whites in the South—and the North—there was a real possibility. The exclusive focus on the racism of ordinary white workers ignores the important instances when that racism broke down and the extent to which struggle was possible. The point is not to make a fetish out of instances of interracial unity under narrow circumstances that often failed to transcend a particular moment. The point is to understand how profound this new possibility was and how it underlined the extent to which a genuine social revolution had occurred. While Blacks were still, in most cases, denied their political rights, the Civil War and Reconstruction revolutionized the social forces of production in both the South and North. Du Bois alludes to what could have been possible in the following passage:

White labor in the Populist movement of the eighties tried to realign the economic warfare in the South and bring workers of all colors into united opposition to the employer. But they found that the power which they had put in the hands of the employers in 1876 so dominated political life that free and honest expression of public will at the ballot-box was impossible in the South, even for white men. (353)

The Populist movement showed the possibility of a united struggle, as did an important strike of dockworkers in New Orleans—both in the shadow of failed Reconstruction.

Reconstruction opened up the potential for multiracial organizing. Whether or not that was acted on was not just an economic question, but also a political question. After the Civil War, there were a great number of militant strikes primarily around economic questions, but it wasn’t until the politics of racism were taken up inside the labor movement that the class was able to move forward qualitatively—that is, in the 1930s. In the 1920s, a number of objective factors changed that made this qualitative shift possible: the mass Black migration to the industrial centers of the United States; the use of racial divisions to defeat the 1919 steel strike; and, finally, the direct intervention of the Russian revolutionary Lenin to convince the U.S. Communist Party to reorient its perspective around the primacy of the Black question in the United States.

Struggles would move forward, but then be pulled back by racism. And even where there were challenges to racism, whether in the coalmines of Alabama or on the docks of New Orleans, the employers could still use racism to break down solidarity. The pressures of societal racism would, moreover, be back on as soon as a particular struggle ended. Without a consistent political intervention challenging racism inside the working class it was impossible for those struggles to progress beyond a certain point. But the end of slavery raised the potential for a united struggle of the oppressed and exploited against capital, and this, beyond the assertion of Black rights and self-determination, is the lasting importance of slavery’s overthrow.

The overthrow of slavery meant that the U.S. would not develop a South African-style full-blown apartheid in which Black workers would be restricted to a separate labor market while the white working class developed material interests binding them to the state.14 Black and white workers’ common condition as free wage laborers in the U.S. created objective common interests—not only in fighting for equality, but also in fighting for socialism and Black liberation. Black Reconstruction places Black workers at the center of that fight. Triumphantly, Du Bois wrote,

This the American black man knows: his fight here is a fight to the finish. Either he dies or wins. If he wins it will be by no subterfuge or evasion of amalgamation. He will enter modern civilization here in America as a black man on terms of perfect and unlimited equality with any white man or he will not enter at all. Either extermination root and branch, or absolute equality. There can be no compromise. This is the last great battle of the West. (703)

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a regulara contributor to the ISR, is author of "Rediscovering race and class after Katrina," ISR 44 (November-December 2005). She is a member of the International Socialist Organization. Page references are for the Free Press edition of Black Reconstruction (1998).She can be reached at [email protected]

1 Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988), xxi.
2 The argument put forth against Marxism by “whiteness” theorists such as David Roediger.
3 David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, Revised Edition (New York: Verso Press, 2000), 9.
4 Karl Marx, “Marx to Annenkov, December 28, 1846,” Collected Works, Volume 38 (New York: Progress Publishers, 1982), 101–102.
5 Garry Wills, “Negro President:” Jefferson and the Slave Power (New York: First Mariner Books, 2003).
6 Eric Foner, Slavery and Emancipation: Origins of Slavery in the New World, 2004, online seminar,
7 Sterling Spero, “The Negro’s role,” Nation (July 24, 1935), 108.
8 Foner, Reconstruction, 228–29.
9 The Fourteenth Amendment’s first paragraph reads: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
10 Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 301.
11 Quoted by Foner, Reconstruction, 309–10.
12 George Lukács, History and Class Consciousness (Boston: MIT Press, 1972). See the essay entitled, “Class Consciousness.”
13 Roediger, 169.
14 Lee Sustar, “Racism and class struggle in the American Civil War era,” International Socialism Journal 55 (1992), 59,

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