The Black Radical Success Story Your History Class Ignored
Photo illustration; Image source: Bettmann/Getty Images

The Black Radical Success Story Your History Class Ignored

The Reconstruction era as it’s taught…

Earlier this week, journalist Taylor Crumpton screenshotted a bewildering Google autocomplete suggesting that Shaun King was the founder of the Black Lives Matter Movement. This is… not true. (For years, the movement’s true founders — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi — have had to battle assumptions that King and DeRay McKesson are co-founders.) Yet somehow, it took less than 48 hours before King’s latest stunt: threatening to dox police officers in response to the vicious shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

That King is still seen as a leader in the movement for Black liberation despite numerous troubling issues — in this case putting Black people in immediate harm by riling up police officers who need no extra encouragement, in other cases a history of questionable business practices and harassment toward Black women — is more than an annoyance. It’s an unnecessary intraracial obstacle that creates more confusion than real change. Both King and McKesson have used their modest celebrity to appeal to white liberals (most recently McKesson’s short-sighted plan to curve police brutality by nationalizing practices like “no chokeholds” that have been in place for many municipalities for two decades) at the expense of attention paid to actual factual Black radical politic.

But both cases make clear the benefits of the leaderless movement, like the one we’re engaged in today. Not only is it harder to squash a decentralized effort, but it’s harder for an ideologue to become weaponized against the resistance. Radical Black politics is a discipline — a science, as Assata Shakur would say — a study in care, freedom, and accountability writ large. And the proof lies more than 150 years in our past.

The era of Black Reconstruction, between 1865–1877, is the most radical and understudied period of American history. It was a time where both Black statesmen and masses of Black women survived the onslaught of racist animus to establish some of the most egalitarian institutions in U.S. history. Public education. Universal suffrage. Homestead acts.

Why don’t more people know about it? The era occupies a precarious place in Black politics: too radical to be taught in public schools, but because it utilized White institutions to achieve Black liberation, it can read as not radical enough.

Absent national institutions of their own, the first generation of freed Black people were also the first to conceptualize and manifest what freedom in America actually meant. Recalling this radical period in a 2013 speech at Birkbeck University, Angela Davis marveled, “We had Black elected officials, the development of public education. As a matter of fact, former slaves fought for the right to public education — that is to say, education that did not cost money.”

But even more remarkable is what happened when community-led Black leadership thought progressively: an intersectional politic emerged that threatened the social differentiation of racial identity groups. As Davis went on to point out, the struggle of former slaves led to poor White children gaining access to education as well.

Those former slaves were often massed in Louisiana, which emerged as the battleground for many of the rights and institutions that Reconstruction sought to establish. “If this experiment in Reconstruction had been attempted anywhere but in Louisiana,” W.E.B. DuBois writes in his epic Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880, “it is possible that the whole question of Negro suffrage would not have been raised then or perhaps for many years after.”

Black men voting in a state election in the South during Reconstruction in an 1867 illustration from Harper’s Weekly. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What made the state unique was not just its number of free Black people — around 18,000 — but that those free Black people owned $15 million worth of property, today’s equivalent of nearly half a billion. But at the time, in 1863, when free men petitioned then-governor George Foster Shepley to grant universal suffrage based on economics and Union loyalty, these statistics worked against them. “However strongly this petition appealed to Shepley,” DuBois wrote, “it was manifestly impossible to grant it at this time. The decisive reason was that if Negroes had been allowed to vote in this election they would have formed the majority of the voting population of Union Louisiana!”

When Michael Hahn won the gubernatorial election in 1864, though, he pressured the state legislature to “pass laws extending the right of suffrage to such persons, citizens of the United States, as by military service, by taxation to support the government, or by intellectual fitness.” Basically, if you were a free person in Louisiana, you’d be able to vote. It’s important to note that many in Hahn’s position — relatively wealthy property (read: slave) owners of both Black and European descent — were most prioritized when it came to the wording of the law.

During that convention Hahn was also able to pass legislation ensuring a tax to fund public schooling, the first of its kind in the South. (Before Hahn, Mary Peake, a Black and British teacher in Virginia, opened a school in Hampton to teach Black people how to read and write. “Her school was not only the first one at Hampton, DuBois posits, “but the first of its kind in the South.”)

A freedmen’s Bureau school in Richmond in 1866. Photo Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Black Reconstruction’s chapter on the founding of public schools tells the stories of the Black free women and men, abolitionists, clergy, activists, and neighbors keeping their feet on the necks of legislatures trying to give them the runaround. The zeal these folks had for the education of their people was genuinely inspiring — if ultimately tragic, given the White supremacist co-opting of public education in the South by the 20th century.

Black people organized a multipronged, national movement that didn’t just dream of freedom, but implemented it — in both policy and society.

Their efforts are not lost, with many revolutionary activists today serving as educators. But history’s overall erasure of Radical Reconstruction shows that the period was particularly dangerous to White America. Black people organized a multipronged, national movement that didn’t just dream of freedom, but implemented it — in both policy and society. While Frederick Douglass was in President Lincoln’s ear, Michael Hahn was fighting for universal suffrage; the Freedmen’s Bureau was busy supporting teachers and schoolhouses across the nation; Black ministers from Boston to Georgia were fellowshipping on strategies to fund schools and Black churches; Black soldiers were fighting for their literal freedom from bondage; and the Black mass was fending off direct violence from White racists. A multitude, working in concert to realize the liberation they had imagined all those years in bondage.

But that freedom came at a cost. Any time Black people get a taste of humanity, a racist backlash lurks. White lawlessness bookended reconstruction, hastening its demise. Poor planters and deputized White men murdered Black people by the thousands. The hospital reports DuBois describes are harrowing, if familiar: “reports of colored men and women whose ears had been cut off, whose skulls had been broken by blows, whose bodies had been slashed by knives or lacerated with scourges. A number of such cases, I had occasion to examine myself. A veritable reign of terror prevailed in many parts of the South.”

The massacre of Black people in the South coincided with converging interests between poor planters in the South, White capitalists in the North, and a federal government that had grown tired of protecting what it saw as the inferior race. When Union troops sent to the South to safeguard Black folks’ matriculation into society were called home, it signaled that the federal government believed its task finished. That pullout allowed physical violence to thrive — as well as more clandestine and conspiratorial measures to dissemble Black self-determinism.

It’s easy to consider Black radical reconstruction’s demise a sign of failure. That, because we weren’t able to protect our own, Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan would wipe the Black radical slate clean. But folks like Davis and Ruth Gilmore Wilson ask us to think of the evidence of progress as a success — and the malevolence of those afraid to lose their hold on the world as a defect.

The agenda was not simply to Blackwash the Southern legislature; it was to to fundamentally interrogate the classism inherent in American Dreaming.

Part of this pessimism, too, is tied to an idea of Reconstruction — as posited by historian Eric Foner and others — as simply an attempt at “interracial democracy.” Yet, the agenda was not simply to Blackwash the Southern legislature; it was to fundamentally interrogate the classism inherent in American Dreaming. It made poor White planters question why they’d never considered public schooling for their own children. It cajoled White women (spiteful as they might have been toward recently freed Black folks at the time) to think about themselves as more than just homemakers. “While the Reconstruction Era was fraught with corruption and arguably doomed by the lack of land reform” writes Michelle Alexander in her seminal book The New Jim Crow, “the sweeping economic and political developments in that period did appear, at least for a time, to have the potential to seriously undermine, if not complete eradicate, the racial caste system in the South.”

We also find that the demands of Black people at the time might have been cast a bit narrowly. Because there was an intense focus on the plight of Black men specifically, the power they were able to accumulate was necessarily limited. Yes, the South went from having zero Black legislators in 1867 to around 15% of its makeup being Black men three years later. But how did those Black men use their influence to empower Black women? How did they use their political clout to protect Black communities that were being ravaged by lynch mobs? And why couldn’t they reverse the racial segregation developing in both the North and the South that would be the mechanism of legal oppression for the next century?

Extract from the reconstructed Constitution of the state of Louisiana, with portraits of the distinguished members of the Convention & Assembly. Photo: Photo12/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

What we observed during Reconstruction is the origin of the freed Black man as a symbol. The debates between DuBois and Booker T. Washington stemmed not just from their disagreements about education but because of the strength and significance of the Black male ego. Their legacies. Racial segregation widened the political and social divide between Black elites and the Black poor. What we glean from the history is that Black politics does indeed suggest more egalitarian views — but that without a distinct awareness of class and gender, nor a push for Black people to arm themselves for White backlash, the project might be doomed.

Our current moment of fervor faces the same threats as those of the past. While the uprisings, mutual aid funds, and mainstreaming of abolition all show potential for revolutionary change, there are still scrubs in the passenger side of the Black radical whip, trying to collect benefits from those of us providing its fuel. That’s why it’s important to note the work and minutiae of Black life as it’s lived by the masses. The working class folks who marched. The ones who decided that they’d cause some trouble by rousing up workers from the inside. It’s significant not only to understand the White backlash against Reconstruction as a reaction, but as a model for America’s empire of policing.

We have to learn from the political losses, too. How the symbolic wins of the Black Southern Legislators were easily dismantled by new voting laws that had been carefully crafted to allow for discrimination. How, through the advent of the convict leasing system that would sustain slavery for the foreseeable future by the farcical Thirteenth Amendment, we must be especially attuned to the implications of language.

But we can also learn from the wins. Reconstruction wasn’t the only radical moment in our history that seems to have fallen short but offers cause for hope. As Davis has pointed out, both the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring were a response to America’s global military dominance and its connections to billionaires on Wall Street. Similarly, the movements for Palestinian liberation and Black Lives Matter shared resistance strategies on social media — and solidarity on the streets.

The success of Reconstruction is the fundamental idea that Black people could create and organize a program to radically influence American institutions. The fact that it was met with such genocidal violence is more a judgment on the failure of America’s moral conscience than anything else. Once again we are in a time where Black people have judged America’s morality as coming up short. The question now isn’t whether we’re doing enough — it’s whether the same narrowmindedness will doom us to exhaustion before we can see our demands answered.