America, or at least my America, is reeling from Donald Trump’s victory, and we need a reference point to anchor our fears, frustrations, and confusions as we chart a path forward. To me, that reference point is clear—and frightening. Reconstruction—America’s long-forgotten era where progression and regression were in perpetual conflict—mirrors the traumas of today to an alarming degree.
From 1865 to 1877, the federal government embarked on an ambitious agenda to reconstruct American society by enfranchising African American men after the Civil War. During the war, many slaves fled to the North in search of freedom, and many of them enlisted in the Union army and fought to defeat the Confederacy. This yearning for freedom and willingness to die for their country in many ways necessitated the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
Then, upon conclusion of the war, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution were passed in 1865, 1868, and 1870, which abolished slavery, granted citizenship to freed slaves, and ensured that the right to vote could not be taken away because of one’s race, color or previous condition of servitude.
America’s identity, and especially the South’s, was going through revolutionary changes. To the surprise of no one, many factions hated these changes and fought them bitterly. And unfortunately, these same progressive and regressive factions still dominate America’s political climate today.
In the 1860s, the progressive agitators who supported Reconstruction were an extension of the abolitionist movement. They were primarily classified in three categories: carpetbaggers, scalawags, and enfranchised black Americans.
Carpetbaggers were Northerners who relocated to the South after the Civil War. Southerners perceived them to be opportunists who moved to the South to capitalize on the destruction by building industries and running for elected office. Southerners described them as untrustworthy people who wanted to take advantage of them. Yet clearly a carpetbagger should be viewed as a progressive American who uprooted his life and relocated to the oppressive South to build a more equitable society. Alarmingly, though, our society still employs the Southern usage.
Scalawags were Southern white Republicans (who were the progressives of this era) who sided with the carpetbaggers and worked together to reshape the South and America for the better. In the South, a scalawag is considered a traitor. Scalawags were mostly white people whose way of life was less dependent on slave labor: non-slaveholding, small-time farmers; middle-class professionals and others who sided with the Union.
African Americans who voted and won elected office represented the third major group. They demonstrated the progress of this era. Roughly 2,000 African Americans held public office during Reconstruction, including elected positions at the local, state and national level. Hiram Revels was born a free person of color in North Carolina, but relocated to Mississippi during Reconstruction and became America’s first black U.S. Senator in 1870. Robert Smalls of South Carolina was America’s longest serving black congressman until Harlem’s Adam Clayton Powell Jr. left office in the 1970s.
While many of the complexities of today and 150 years ago are not the same, the three progressive protagonists have not changed much. President Barack Obama clearly represents an example of our progress toward equality and enfranchisement. Additionally, the Clintons changed America’s political landscape in the 1990s by aligning a progressive Southerner (a modern-day scalawag) in Bill Clinton with a progressive Northerner (a modern-day carpetbagger) in Hillary Clinton. And they successfully appealed to disenfranchised African Americans and poor whites in the South to reshape America and launch our current progressive movement. Bill was even half-heartedly called America’s first black president, prior to the election of Barack Obama, and jokingly referred to as “Bubba” to highlight his crossover appeal.
In today’s America, the geographical distinctions between carpetbaggers and scalawags has become less rigid, but the necessity of viewing our society through a racial equity lens remains paramount. Nowadays, carpetbaggers reside within a racially diverse cosmopolitan environment, and they need to align with today’s scalawags from more rural, racially homogenous or divided landscapes. Without this partnership the importance of racial equity can become lost, and now economic concerns, which may perpetuate economic and racial inequities, can sway well-meaning and potential scalawags to side with ending Reconstruction.
The progressive protagonists’ pursuit of progress and equality also represented an existential challenge to the regressive, racially unjust status quo that America has grown accustomed to since the end of Reconstruction. And not surprisingly, Trump’s rise also embodies the backlash from 150 years ago.
In addition to harassing carpetbaggers, scalawags and freed black Americans, white Southerners organized into various groups with the mission of returning the South to its pre-Civil War heyday. Leading businessmen from across the South united and formed the Redeemers movement. They wanted to redeem the South to a previous, more prosperous era. You might say they wanted to make the South great again.
Additionally, the white nationalist movement rose to prominence in the South, and the Ku Klux Klan was formed in order to terrorize black Americans to prevent them from voting and living as free men. Also, poor and middle-class white Southerners felt the brunt of the post-war economic hardships, and they craved for leaders who could improve their economic station. While poor and working-class whites might have had many economic similarities with the recently liberated and enfranchised blacks, many of them instead sided with the rhetoric of the Redeemers and white terrorists. They had a greater familiarity with Southern whites, and their economic interests trumped their moral concerns and the necessity of racial equality. These factions formed the core that could defeat the federal government and end Reconstruction and progressivism in the 1870s.
Trump’s claim to “Make America Great Again,” his quasi-association with and endorsement by the KKK and white nationalists, and his surprisingly strong support amongst economically distressed whites, all fit within the antagonistic, regressive ideologies of 150 years ago.
Despite the progressiveness of this era, Reconstruction only lasted for 12 years, and upon its demise the Southern states began implementing regressive policies that would remake the South into its pre-Civil War image. The Southern states all drafted oppressive constitutions that included voting impediments such as poll taxes, literacy exams, and more.
Blacks who could no longer be forced into slavery were instead arrested for minor charges such as vagrancy and sent to prison and subjected to slave-like conditions. A conservative Supreme Court in 1896 made separate-but-equal the law of the land via Plessy v. Ferguson and segregation and Jim Crow became the standard in the South. A progressive ideology that included racial justice and equity did not re-emerge until the 1960s when black Americans finally re-earned the equality that had been taken away from them 100 years ago.
Trump’s rise shows how America has hardly progressed beyond the antiquated battle lines of yesteryear that have always divided our country, and how quickly we can succumb to our lesser selves. We need to learn the lessons of Reconstruction so to avoid potentially a century of oppressive, racially divisive and unjust policies disguised as democracy.