The Reconstruction and Roots of White Backlash


Careful observers of current events in America will note a strong resurgence of racist hate groups, legislation, attacks on Affirmative Action,and ultra-conservative sentiments directed at Black people. Groups like the Tea Party promote and embody a white backlash best expressed as “We have to make this country ours again.”

Undergirding this statement is the perception that Black people wield too much power, enjoy too much progress, and that these developments stem from Blacks subjugating and emasculating whites, who represent, in their opinion, the only authentic American citizens. Feeling cheated out of their “American birthright,” and ignorant of how corporations and opportunistic politicians truly violate them, such whites target Black people as the cause of their woes.  Flowing from this misguided thinking are increased racial assaults, murders, and organized movements to reclaim white identity by restricting and oppressing Blacks. To recognize and understand contemporary expressions of such nonsense, we must understand these people as the ideological descendants of white slaveowners, confederates and later, creators of Jim Crow. In other words, we must study the Reconstruction era in America.

The Reconstruction era, from 1865-1877, remains an important, though, misunderstood and often debated period in American history. The situation in the aftermath of the Civil War was bleak; millions of soldiers were killed, families disbanded, and southern infrastructure (land, bridges, buildings, businesses) was decimated. Hostility deepened between the Union and the Confederacy, and the status of millions of slaves changed seemingly overnight was the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Constitutional Amendments.

These post-war circumstances generated a number of concerns: What is the most expedient way to rebuild southern infrastructure? How do we disband the Confederacy and re-admit southern rebels back to the Union? How do we create new structures to govern the south? What laws, resources and institutions should be created to assist in black empowerment and full citizenship opportunities? The Reconstruction era concerned itself very tangibly with these concerns.

Leon Litwack, in his book, Been in the Storm So Long, describes the Reconstruction, seeking to discover how newly freed blacks perceived freedom and how they sought to shape their future as free people after the Civil War.[1] To do this, he uses a wide array of sources including letters, personal papers, newspaper articles, and books. He draws heavily from the famous interviews conducted with former slaves by the Federal Writers Project during the Great Depression years.[2] Scholars of southern slavery have often questioned the reliability of the last source; Litwack anticipates such criticism and skillfully defends his use of these interviews by suggesting that all sources must be scrutinized with care, and by suggesting that the information produced by former slaves was consistent with other modes of research.

The book is colossal in size, structured thematically, and discusses typical topics like the causes of the Civil War, Lincoln as a pragmatic and strategic wartime president, and the forces leading to arming black soldiers for the Union cause. Litwack also includes interesting tidbits of information that helps us better understand the nuanced thoughts and motivations of black people after emancipation. For instance, Litwack discusses how freed blacks often demonstrated a surprising level of loyalty to former masters, sometimes caring for whites wounded in the war.[3] Other times, according to the author, slaves moved into the “big house” to watch over the plantation mistress in the master’s absence, and became protective of their owners.[4]

The chapter entitled “Black Liberators” was particularly important as it highlighted the role played by black Union soldiers in the Civil War, underscoring what was perhaps the greatest embodiment of agency: blacks literally fighting their former slaveholders for their own freedom. Litwack’s research highlights the feelings of pride black union soldiers received from fellow blacks in addition to the scorn and resentment they received from both white Confederate and Union soldiers.

In all, Litwack successfully  accomplishes his stated goal by providing the reader with snapshots of various individual black experiences after emancipation. Using a collection of anecdotes, letters, speeches, and black testimonies, the author convincingly describes the day-to-day experiences of blacks as soldiers in the Union army, how black people defined and expressed (and tested the limitations of) their newfound freedom, and blacks’ attempts to create their own schools and churches in the 19th Century.

Eric Foner, in his book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Business, 1863-1877, aims to provide a clear, balanced, comprehensive modern account of the Reconstruction Period.[5]  Foner’s concerns include: racial attitudes and race relations in the “new” south, the agency and activity of blacks during the Civil War, and the affect of Reconstruction on the political and racial development of the south.

Foner briefly chronicles the historiography of Reconstruction writing, and sees his own book as a synthesis of revisionist and post-revisionist critiques of the Dunning interpretation of Reconstruction (which among things, describes corrupt and greedy northerners, child-like blacks unprepared for the responsibilities of freedom, and a defeated south unfairly forced to suffer the perils of “Black rule”). His periodization of the Reconstruction differs with traditional assessments; most historians begin Reconstruction in 1865 with the conclusion of the Civil War. Foner marks the beginning of Reconstruction in 1863, when President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Using dissertations, national archives, newspaper and journal articles, in addition to private letters, and relevant illustrations, Foner does provide a comprehensive account of the Reconstruction period. Of equal importance, the author clearly identifies blacks as active and central agents of Reconstruction, and places black people at the center of this discussion.

In chapter 3, The Meaning of Freedom, Foner discusses how blacks, upon learning of their emancipation, began to individually exercise control of their existence by dressing flamboyantly, being disobedient to white slaveholders, and renaming themselves.[6] On a collective level, according to Foner, newly freed blacks began the task of building black schools, political organizations, and churches. In an attempt to test the parameters of their freedom, many former slaves used their new mobility often traveling to seek better economic opportunities, or to reunite families separated by the legacy of chattel slavery.[7]  Black abolitionists searched for and recruited former slaves to enlist in the army, and in Mississippi slaves created the Lincoln’s Legal Loyal League to disseminate news of the Emancipation.

The narrative exposes important information often glossed over in Reconstruction history. For example, we learn about the class tensions that existed between wealthy planters and yeoman farmers, leading as many as 100,000 Confederate soldiers to desert the war effort. There was also ample evidence of racial conflicts caused by the resentment some white Union soldiers felt about fighting a war to protect the rights of black people, a phenomenon best expressed in the New York City Draft Riot.[8]

Foner theorizes that the Civil War functioned as a “Breeding Ground” for new black women’s leadership, noting the multiple roles women played in the war effort, and how those politicized women eventually became active in the temperance and suffrage movements.[9]  According to the author, this was not just the case with black women. According to Foner, “For some, the Reconstruction experience became a springboard to lifetimes of social reform.”[10] Foner documents how people involved in the war effort later became leaders in housing reform, populism, and the labor movement. Foner generally argues that the Reconstruction was a failure, due to widespread violence against former slaves, the failure to distribute land to blacks, and lack of law enforcement.

With Trouble in Mind, Leon Litwack examines the brutal and inhumane treatment black southerners suffered during the age of Jim Crow. Referring to the obscure black southerners about whom he writes, Litwack mentions, This is the story of what they confronted, how they sruggled, worked, tried to educate themselves, and found ways to temper their accommodation to the new racial order. And it is a story of what happened to their aspirations and expectations.[11]

Picking up from where Been in The Storm Too Long left off, Trouble in Mind also uses various sources, giving voice to black southerners who, not being born in slavery, were less likely to defer to whites or be as long-suffering as their antecedents. Confronted by this southern whites created as Litwack cites the years of 1890 until WWI “The most violent and repressive period in the history of race relations in the United States.”[12]

This book could well be titled “Staying in Their Place,” for it describes in painful detail the rigid racial hierarchy created by whites during the Jim Crow era, the status or “place” assigned to blacks within this social order, and the myriad ways blacks either stayed in their assigned place, or attempted to carve out a new one (at their own risk). Blacks in the south had to participate in daily “rituals of subordination” designed to characterize themselves to whites as non-threatening, unassuming, child-like, and unremarkable. Actions or statements that in any way presented blacks as competent, intelligent, often became grounds for the social sanctions including ridicule, firing, brutality, and in the worse cases, death.

The first chapter, “Baptisms,” provides blacks’ testimonies of the stressful juggling act they had to perform in efforts to satisfy and not inflame white sensibilities. Charlie Holcombe recalls his grandfather comparing a nigger to catfish, suggesting that both are fine if they stay in the mudhole, but will get in trouble once they leave that “place.”[13] Black parents and caregivers therefore had the daunting task of transmitting the knowledge of white accommodation to their children, for their failure to do so might result in violent reprisal. According to Litwack, these “rites of racial passage” governed childhood play with whites, observing segregated restrictions in restaurants and modes of travel, respecting whites’ property, restraining from acts of sexuality toward white women, and much more.

Given this situation, education for blacks in the south was a touchy subject.  Blacks were to learn skills that would render them economically useful and socially non-threatening. As Litwack notes, “Many already judged schooling an abject failure, likely to transform the black man from a humble servant into a ferocious and obnoxious disturber and breeder of race equality.”

Although Trouble in Mind, is a history text, it makes a strong contribution in the psychological arena. One cannot read the anecdotes, letters, and articles Litwack provides without wondering why white southerners during the period in question placed such energy into cultivating, observing, and enforcing a rigid racial hierarchy. Why was it so important to remind black people of their innately inferior status? Why the brutal lynchings and mutilations?  Why the preoccupation with black men’s sexuality and the obsessive fear of them raping white women? Was this a function of as Litwack suggests, whites’ twisted sense of “sport” or restlessness?

Perhaps a more accurate analysis is that white identity was so closely tied to the dehumanization and degradation of black people. It would appear that whites elevated their own status by consistently reducing that of blacks. When blacks were freed following the Civil War, and when they began to enjoy citizenship rights previously denied them, this must have affected the national white identity. Perhaps this is why 1890 until WWI was so violent for black people. It was during this time that whites faced perceived threats to their economic and political power. These might be the greatest explanation for the extreme violence of the time. Another factor we might argue, was that it was precisely during this historical period that whites faced their greatest national identity crisis. For if whiteness was based on the debasement of blackness, and blacks were now presumed equal, where did that leave whites in terms of racial and national identity?

Interestingly, this same dynamic of whites becoming reactionary when they perceive Black empowerment continues to this day, as evidenced by increased gun sales after both Obama elections, the rise of the Tea Party, and the increased appearance of racist “White Student Unions” on American college campuses. Researching both the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras helps us to recognize and confront the ideological descendants of those that enslaved and re-enslaved Black people and resented even the appearance of Black progress.

[1] Litwack, Leon.  Been in The Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), xii

[2] Litwack, xiii

[3] Litwack, 7

[4] Litwack, 110

[5] Foner, Eric.  Reconstruction: American’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1867  (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), p. xxiv.

[6] Foner, 81

[7] Foner, 82

[8] Foner, 32-33

[9] Foner, 25

[10] Foner, 606-607

[11] Litwack, Leon.  Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, New York: Vintage Books, 1998, p. xv.

[12] Trouble in Mind, xiv

[13] Trouble in Mind, 4


Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at

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