ECW is pleased to welcome back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog
Martin Luther King delivered a speech in 1968 at Carnegie Hall in New York to commemorate the 100th Birthday of W.E.B. DuBois. In his speech, King spoke about how the Dunning School had distorted the history of Reconstruction and how DuBois’s book Black Reconstruction had challenged that white consensus. We may not usually associate King with the historiography of the post-Civil War period, but, like Frederick Douglass, he saw the political uses segregationists made of the history crafted by the Lost Cause partisans and its academic paladins of the Dunning Schools.
During the first half of the 20th Century William Dunning of Columbia University was the seminal figure in the study of the Reconstruction Era. Dunning, who was from New Jersey, became a hero to aspiring historians from the South. Vanderbilt University Professor Frank Lawrence Owsley applauded Dunning because, he wrote in 1920, Dunning “scorned the injustice and hypocrisy of the condemnation of the South,” and challenged “the holiness of the Northern legend.” The southern historians who gathered around him wrote studies of slavery and Reconstruction that continue to influence how many people today think about the period.
King addressed this conscious falsification of history:
“White historians had for a century crudely distorted the Negro’s role in the Reconstruction years. It was a conscious and deliberate manipulation of history and the stakes were high. The Reconstruction was a period in which black men had a small measure of freedom of action. If, as white historians tell it, Negroes wallowed in corruption, opportunism, displayed spectacular stupidity, were wanton, evil, and ignorant, their case was made. They would have proved that freedom was dangerous in the hands of inferior beings. One generation after another of Americans were assiduously taught these falsehoods and the collective mind of America became poisoned with racism and stunted with myths. Dr Du Bois confronted this powerful structure of historical distortion and dismantled it.”
King said that “In Black Reconstruction Dr Du Bois dealt with the almost universally accepted concept that civilization virtually collapsed in the South during Reconstruction because Negroes had a measure of political power. Dr Du Bois marshaled irrefutable evidence that far from collapsing, the Southern economy was recovering in these years. Within five years the cotton crop had been restored and in the succeeding five years had exceeded prewar levels. …Beyond this he restored to light the most luminous achievement of the Reconstruction — it brought free public education into existence not only for the benefit of the Negro but it opened school doors to the poor whites.”
Martin Luther King also offered an explanation for this Big Lie about Reconstruction:
“[DuBois] revealed that far from being the tragic era white historians described, it was the only period in which democracy existed in the South. This stunning fact was the reason the history books had to lie because to tell the truth would have acknowledged the Negroes’ capacity to govern and fitness to build a finer nation in a creative relationship with poor whites.”
As Du Bois and King understood, maintaining the lie that Blacks were unable to function as citizens justified their marginalization. History was, they knew, not merely a matter of the past.