Echoes of Reconstruction: MLK on How the Dunning School Distorted the Echoes of Reconstruction

W.E.B. DuBois and William Dunning

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. 

19 Responses to Echoes of Reconstruction: MLK on How the Dunning School Distorted the Echoes of Reconstruction

    1. Virginia was not “insolvent.” You might mention that Virginia entered the Civil War in 1861 with the largest pre-war debt of any Southern state, “$34 million in debt that the Commonwealth of Virginia incurred when it sold bonds between 1822 and 1861.” This prewar debt was not finally paid off until 1937. [Encyclopedia Virginia] A major sticking point in the resolution of the debt was Virginia’s dispute with West Virginia over the newer state’s share of the debt. I recommend Eric Wittenberg’s “Seceding from Secession” for a discussion of this dispute.

  1. Obviously how this author views Reconstruction has more to do with Leftist political agenda than it does an objective investigation of the historical evidence. To think that a Columbia history professor from New Jersey became a leader of some imagined “Lost Cause School” because his examination of the historical evidence was somehow skewed is nonsense on steroids! His examination of the evidence occurred when many first hand historical witnesses were still alive, and memory wasn’t so easily influenced by virtue seeking and politically motivated ideology. Because our universities have been overrun with champions of Leftist ideology, Dunning is dismissed in full exercise of the PC strategy!

    The strategy of Political Correctness was birthed in the post World War Two period as a means weaponizing psychological influence toward shutting down debate. In the 60’s an element of that stratagem was applied to historiographical method to dismiss “a priori” and without debate any interpretation of the war and reconstruction as skewed by supremacist ideology. To this the late great Dr. Ludwell Johnson, Professor of History Emeritus at the College of William and Mary, warned:

    “Various theoretical “isms” arriving from Europe in the 1960’s still endanger the very existence of what has so long been thought of as history… Of all fields of scholarship, history is perhaps most attractive and vulnerable to Political Correctness.  It decrees that some things should be accepted without question – otherwise the elaborate machinery of academic control and social hostility will exact their full measure of retribution on the dissenter… Readers with special interest in the period of the Civil War need to be particularly alert because the South and Southerners offer many tempting Targets to the holier-than-thou.”

    So never mind that it was the North more than the South who pronounced black human beings as incapable of assimilation, EVER, into white society. Perhaps you’ve read the words of a man named Lincoln: “ There is a physical difference between the white and black races, which I believe, will FOREVER forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality. And I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” (Emphasis mine). Meanwhile, while Lincoln was making such pronouncements in a State he had helped to segregate by the most infamous of the Northern “Black Codes,” Jefferson Davis was writing a slave masters handbook on how to prepare the slaves for eventual assimilation into American society. Alexander Stephens, in his most maligned and misunderstood speech labeled “The Cornerstone Speech” (a label referring to a few paragraphs buried in the middle of the speech, while the remainder is ignored), stated that blacks by education could be assimilated into Christian civilization.

    The author champions the opinions of two of the most politically motivated individuals of the 20th. century, one (du Bois) who admitted his Marxist motivations while the other (MLK) had many ties to the ideology; while dismissing the work of a Northern born university historian. Do you see the disconnect from any objective analysis here? Du Bois, even in his day, states only “one tenth” of black people were qualified to lead, describing the rest a “lazy.” How much less would that fraction be in the immediate years following slavery? Again this is not a matter of race, but rather circumstance.

    To expect a people only two generations removed from a tribal existence far different from that of the American Union, and only days removed from an existence as slaves with limited access to a knowledge of the intricacies of American government, to be able to step in and run things is an impossible expectation regardless of skin color!!! The Republican Party had two motivations for placing these ill prepared black people in offices which doomed them to failure: First, they wanted to punish the Southern people who had long thwarted their ambitions for economic exploitation of the Union. Second, they saw the former slaves as a means of establishing a Republican voting block, which combined with disenfranchising most of the whites, would mean Republican political control of the South. And so the Republicans set out to create racial animosity where it did not previously exist, in order to turn the freed slaves against their former masters; something President Johnson noted would be necessary because the slaves would otherwise vote with their former masters.

    Was all this a fabrication of Dunning that played into the hands of Southern white supremacist historians? That is Leftist fantasy on steroids! The first black congressman, Hiram Rhodes Revels, in a letter of complaint to President Grant, tells the true story of how his people were “used,” by the Republicans; how that Party intentionally inflamed racial animosity for political gain. Is he to be dismissed like Dunning? Hear his scathing words regarding Republican tactics in the reconstruction South:

    “Since reconstruction, the masses of my people have been . . enslaved in mind by unprincipled adventurers, who, caring nothing for country, were willing to stoop to anything, no matter how infamous, to secure power to themselves and perpetuate it. My people are naturally republicans and always will be, but as they grow older in freedom so do they in wisdom. A great portion of them have learned that they were being used as mere tools… My people have been told by these schemers when men were placed upon the ticket who were notoriously corrupt and dishonest, that they must vote for them; that the salvation of the party depended upon it; that the man who scratched a ticket was not a republican. This is only one of the many means these unprincipled demagogues have devised to perpetuate the intellectual bondage of my people… I cannot recognize, nor do the masses of my people who read recognize, the majority of the officials who have been in power for the past two years as republicans. We do not believe that republicanism means corruption, theft, and embezzlement. These three offenses have been prevalent among a great portion of our office-holders… The bitterness and hate created by the late civil strife has, in my opinion, been obliterated in this State, except, perhaps, in some localities, and would have long since been entirely obliterated were it not for some unprincipled men who would keep alive the bitterness of the past and inculcate a hatred between the races, in order that they may aggrandize themselves by office and its emoluments to control my people, the effect of which is to degrade them.” (Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first African-American to serve in the United States Congress.)

    Perhaps Dunning, Owsley, and other so called “Lost Cause School” historians were not so lost after all! From my own personal perusal of the primary records, I’ve found the tenets of the Lost Cause School to be far more accurate than those of the current “Pious Cause School.”

    I’ve even read comments here that reveal the antics of modern deception. The State of Virginia had incurred a planned debt for the purpose of future economic benefit. Such debt is not a sign of incompetency, it is just the opposite. Incompetency is when a President provokes and initiates a war of cupidity; while at the same time denying the Southern people their founding right to a government of their own consent, and destroying the Southern economy for decades to come. It was an economy during the antebellum period wherein the lowest per capita income State in the South (Arkansas) exceeded the highest per capita income State in the North (Connecticut).

    The history discipline today is dominated by Leftist at a ratio of 33:1. And they only hire and tenure their own. For those of you students with a semblance of objectivity remaining given the current academic environment, be alert to the bias and look on much that emerges from the modern academic discipline with a critical eye. Else, you will be led to believe half truths, out of hand dismissals, and never realize the mountain of suppressed history to promote agenda more than historical truth. It will take courage, but we need individuals willing to stand up to the PC strategy. Truth is far more important than agenda.

    1. There is actually a TON of documented evidence on the Dunning School’s role as a major architect of Lost Cause mythology. I mean, that’s not even in dispute among historians.

      I’m always amazed by people who criticize DuBois (and MLK) for subscribing to certain aspects of Marxism, and thus believe they should be written off entirely, yet they think we shouldn’t hold Lee’s support of human bondage and exploitation against him because there was more to him than that.

      While not a Marxist myself by any stretch, I can see how blacks, as an oppressed “proletariat,” particularly in DuBois’s time, would see the appeal to Marxist ideology. As a group of people, they had immense social and economic leverage even if not power, and the Civil Rights movement demonstrated time and time again what could happen if they used that leverage.

      1. You assume “Lost Cause Myth” is a credible category. You can’t prove Dunning to be an architect of the “Lost Cause mythology” if the latter is a fabrication of a modern history discipline committed more to a political determination than history. Certainly the civil rights movement was justified, but not the fabrication of history, which has happened because Marxist ideology imposed itself upon a movement for ulterior political motives. Marxist lens became the means by which history was forced to fit a narrative that the historical evidence does not support. Much is obscured or suppressed in the historical record in order to place the focus on an oppressor vs oppressed limited history of victimology. While that might be used for leverage in support of the civil rights movement, it, by design, distorts what the historical evidence might otherwise reveal. People like Raven and Pat Young might resort to ridicule instead of meaningful analytical rebuttal, But they are just further evidence of the blinding indoctrination that modern academia, skewed Left by a 33:1 ratio, has substituted for genuine history. You end up with their kind of adolescent dismissals instead of a critical examination of the evidence.

      2. Oh, and I forgot to mention how superficial is your characterization of Lee, and by implication the CSA, as “support of human bondage and exploitation. Evidently you have not been immune to viewing history through the lens of Marxist style analysis yourself! Your characterization is fanciful and special pleading; not to mention ahistorical!

      3. I’m sorry, Rod, but you’re on the wrong side of history by a vote of 33 to 1. Sounds like you’re mad about it, too–but that still doesn’t make the 33 votes against you wrong.

    2. Oh, look, Frankfurt School conspiracy theories combined with slavery apologism. All we need is a defense of Pinochet and we’ll have completed the set!

    3. Well Rod, your defense of Jefferson Davis had me when you wrote that “Jefferson Davis was writing a slave masters handbook.”

    4. “To expect a people only two generations removed from a tribal existence far different from that of the American Union, and only days removed from an existence as slaves with limited access to a knowledge of the intricacies of American government, to be able to step in and run things is an impossible expectation regardless of skin color!!!

      Black ppl who were in the South after the Civil War were in the US for multiple generations. They were enslaved but were artisans, craftsmen, ship builders, foresters, iron workers, plasteres etc. Post slavery they organized churches and schools and elected leaders among themselves. they observed and learned how to survive in a terrorist state. that takes a lot of know how.

      your comments about them belies your primal racist ideas about black people in the 19th and 20th century.

  2. Good post. But, it does not explain in what way Dunning was inaccurate. Perhaps that post is for another day. Is there also a problem with Charles Nordhoff?

    Nordhoff traveled the South in 1875 on a tour requested by his boss, James G. Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald. Mr. Nordhoff’s mission was to find out the “truth” of Reconstruction. The northern public was aware of charges of corruption. Mr. Nordhoff was sent to either verify those charges or discount them. His resulting book, The Cotton States in the Spring and Summer of 1875, largely verifies the charges of corruption by “carpet-baggers” and by African-American men who appeared to be under the control or instigation of white northerners now living in those Cotton states.

    Mr. Nordhoff in his tour of Louisiana talks about seeing “colored” members of the Louisiana legislature – men who were slaves ten years before – now “driving magnificent carriages, seated in stylish equipages, and wearing diamond breast pins.” The concern being that the salary of a state legislator would not seem to support such luxury.

    Nordhoff discussed a box containing election returns from one of the upstate parishes being carried into New Orleans by a Conservative politician (i.e., a Republican) to a house of prostitution in New Orleans. The Conservative politician was holding it ransom for some large reward from the Conservatives in that parish.


  3. This post deserves a lengthy reply that I don’t have time for, but a quick refresher viewing of Dunning’s “Reconstruction” reveals it to still be what it’s always been – a succinct, incisive recounting of the political facts of Reconstruction, with no embellishment or heavy economic analysis or philosophizing. His recounting of the election of 1874 is classic. Without dragging in the entire Dunning School, suffice it to say that Reconstruction was a mixed bag of success/failures for all, including the African Americans who achieved office. Amazingly, Wikipedia has a good summary of who the Representatives were and how it worked out for them, with some being popular and re-elected and others not so much (“Black Representatives”, or similar). A quick look at the State debt loads by 1877 says all that needs to be said, even to you non-economist/financial types – astronomical and very little to show for any of it. Even an outgoing Republican Governor commented on how bad it had become. By 1900, there were no more African American US Representatives in the South, but it’s also a fact that there never had been even one in the North. The next was in Illinois in 1929….also the only one anywhere until Adam Clayton Powell was elected c. 1945. What say you, Just Causers? As I read through all the tossing around of “Lost Causers” as an insult and blathering away about how awful we all are, without a lot of substance to the blather, keep in mind that 90% of African Americans were still in the South in 1940, and it was illegall for an African-American to live in Oregon until 1926….and not easy anywhere else north of the Mason Dixon line. A very relevant book, if you can get a copy online, is “The Republican Party and Black America, 1896-1934”, prominently featuring Booker T. Washington, until his death in 1915 and the Repubican Party, by Richard Sherman. One relevant fact here, never mentioned, is the Panic of 1893, which affected all but the South disproportionately; cotton was selling for $.04/lb. in 1900. I’ll let you look up what it should have been selling for, for practice. For the record, I am a fan of MLKing and his efforts for peaceful change, even if he wasn’t a fan of Dunning. If he had contact with leftist groups, they seem not to have been able to dislodge him from his specific mission, to deal with the 100-year fallout from a very flawed resolution of sectional differences and key social issues in 1861-65. Some other key activists of the ’60s had legitimate issues as well, but chose to incite violence, leaving fallout for future generations. It’s never the best answer. And the kind of sophomoric champing at the bit, knee-jerk, sneering reactions, so eager to dismiss anything that disturbs your sanctity, and to do it with insults, so often seen in these comments, undermines your stance as historians for your entire body of work. “Irishconfederates”, just above, mentions some interesting and relevant facts, showing how important the ground level history of these events is, and how inappropriate it is to make sweeping, simplistic statements about any of it.

  4. Great post! Thank you for sharing how some things have NOT changed. Censorship in academia is something the world is continually dealing with and it takes people like Du Bois and MLK to stand up against that injustice to history. Thank you again!

  5. Pingback: Emerging Civil War
  6. Pingback: Emerging Civil War

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!