Monday, December 8, 2008

Some Thoughts on Reconstruction

I was recently doing some reading on Reconstruction and I happened upon a book review by Jean Edward Smith of Eric Foner's Forever Free in the CRB. The review had some real zingers, which I thought I would share:

The Civil War was not a war between the states and certainly not a war between sovereign nations. It was a treasonous rebellion mounted by the governments in eleven Southern states for the primary purpose of protecting slavery. It was suppressed by the United States Army after four years of bloody conflict. The bravery of those Confederate soldiers who fought to perpetuate the cause of slavery should not be disparaged. But it is for good reason that the rebel dead are not interred in cemeteries maintained by the United States.

Ouch! But I'm inclined to agree. Works like Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens' Cornerstone Speech demonstrate rather unambiguously that the war was about slavery from day one. Indeed, Smith notes that "today, to reject slavery as the Civil War's root cause is akin to denying the Holocaust." He's right; no serious historian would do either.

In an eloquent epilogue titled "the Unfinished Revolution," Foner charts the progress made during the civil rights era, which he calls the Second Reconstruction, and in the half-century since. He pays just tribute to Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and alludes to John Kennedy's use of federal power to enforce integration at Ole Miss in 1962. He neglects President Eisenhower's more decisive action five years earlier when he ordered the 101st Airborne Division into Little Rock, Arkansas, to compel compliance with a court order desegregating Central High. Although Eisenhower believed that the Supreme Court's original decision in Brown v. Board of Education was wrong, he took his Article II responsibility to "take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed" at face value. No focus groups were convened and no opinion polls were taken even though it was a presidential election year. Eisenhower responded instantly with overwhelming force to prevent mob rule. Had he not done so, desegregation in the South would have been set back at least a decade.

Eisenhower is one of the more underrated presidents and one I am increasingly coming to admire.

Among other things, [Foner's] ideological preconceptions keep him from recognizing the role of athletics and the large national chains in breaking down segregationist attitudes in the South. Wal-Mart is a favorite whipping boy for liberal activists, but it is also an equal-opportunity employer in which African-American shoppers no longer are required to step aside for a white customer. Sam Walton put thousands of small merchants out of business in county seats throughout the rural South and he advanced the cause of racial justice in the process, just as McDonald's, another equal-opportunity employer, drove hundreds of segregated Mom and Pop greasy spoons to the wall.

But it has been athletics that has changed the face of the South. When Bear Bryant desegregated the Crimson Tide in 1971, every team in the Southeastern Conference followed suit. When the colleges and universities integrated their squads, the high schools did the same. It is sometimes difficult for ivory-towered academics like myself to appreciate the role of high school athletics in shaping the South's community values. But Friday night football and basketball are major social events. And it is almost impossible to retain the racial hostility that once came instinctively while cheering on the local team with young black men and women playing prominent roles.
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