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Review | During Reconstruction, a brutal ‘war on freedom’


Even in the 21st century, the events of the Civil War and Reconstruction remain a national pivot, a moment when a new future came into view. WEB Du Bois called Reconstruction “the best effort to achieve democracy for the working millions this world had ever seen.” It was indeed an epic event like the Reformation and the French Revolution. But despite its ambition—or perhaps because of it—the era has been universally regarded as a “failure” by Du Bois and generations of historians from the early 20th century to the present day. But that assessment amounts to a puzzling generalization for a political project so radical it was almost utopian in scale.

In “I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction,” Kidada E. Williams focuses on “the ‘failed’ story of Reconstruction.” What she offers instead is an account of the era as a brutal “war on freedom,” waged against newly liberated black people by white people who want to deny their aspirations for personal security and meaningful equality. The reconstruction has not failed, she emphasizes; it was overthrown by violence.

Williams provides a chillingly detailed account of the ways black people were attacked, often in their own homes, in acts of depraved violence, by people they knew, in a campaign of terror that began under slavery and took on a new dimension with emancipation. The brutality took an organized paramilitary form during the Ku Klux Klan attacks after 1867, when black men earned the right to vote and hold office. It is impossible to reliably calculate the number of people killed – black politician Robert Smalls put the figure in 53,000 African Americans. To date, the US government has not provided an estimate. What is clear, Williams points out, is that there were too many to count and that “the successive violence [White Southerners] used, reject just liberated rights of people to all rights, was genocidal in nature.” She concludes: “Black Reconstruction did not ‘fail’, as so many are taught. White Southerners toppled it, and the rest of the nation let them in.

What’s most powerful here isn’t the forensic analysis of the violence, though devastating, but the way Williams conveys the victims’ experience. As in her excellent first book, “They Left Big Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I” (2012), Williams, a historian at Wayne State University, focuses the story on personal accounts of black survivors, the people who lived to bear witness. Based primarily on testimony provided during an 1871 Congressional investigation of the Ku Klux Klan, and on accounts of formerly enslaved people collected by the Works Project Administration in the 1930s, she paints a compelling picture of the hope and energy of liberated people as they began their life after slavery. She records the strides they made toward family security and independence, even prosperity, in their first five years of freedom, and then the tsunami of violence that descended upon them as impenitent slavers turned into bitterly defeated Confederates.

Williams draws on contemporary theory and comparative literature on war and conflict zones, torture, genocide, trauma and recovery, and reparations to explain the “multi-layered nature of the injuries suffered by victims” and the intergenerational loss of health, wealth, skills and confidence that they have incurred, to expose. past. She highlights the material wealth that was destroyed when people were driven from their homes, leaving behind crops, working animals and tools, all painfully earned. She adds a chart that calculates the estimated losses. She also makes sure we understand the aftermath – the physical, psychological and moral injuries that have marked survivors. Quoting the neuropsychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, she notes, “The body keeps score.” But so is the mind, she notes, describing white supremacist strikes as “traumatic injuries, leaving some victims in an existential crisis” unable to “live fully in the world.”

Williams is certainly right about the overthrow of Reconstruction and the role of white supremacist violence in it. But there are a number of other dynamics that need to be worked out to support the argument that are just beyond its scope. For example, the author points to the complicity of ‘the rest of the nation’ in the overthrow of the Reconstruction and speaks in very general terms about the role of ‘white northerners’. But the tight focus on racial violence in the South means she’s not addressing that part of the story. As a result, “white Northerners” remain a shadowy, undefined force in the book, and the larger national terrain on which white supremacist violence unfolded is also left out of the picture. Williams is correct in claiming that white Southerners did not act alone, and while it’s understandably not her main concern here, these other factors are also important to any argument about how Reconstruction was overthrown.

I Saw Death Coming’ is an unwavering and deeply compassionate account of what black people achieved, lost and fought in resisting the war on freedom. It is about what it meant to not only endure, but also live with violence and its traumatic effects on individuals, families and communities. This is what stays with you when you put this book down. As well as the question of what is owed to survivors and their descendants, as the author put it: what “Americans who profess to believe in freedom owe them today.”

Stephanie McCurry is the R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of History at Columbia University and the author of “Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South.” She is currently writing a book on reconstruction.

A history of terror and survival in the war on reconstruction

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