Depending on one’s point of view, reconstruction was both a success and a failure. But overall, it was successful. Reconstruction was successful in meeting its basic goals of returning the South to the Union and increasing economic, political, religious and social freedoms and citizenship for former slaves. All the former slave states pledged loyalty to the U.S. Government, drafted new state constitutions and acknowledged the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. However, reconstruction was a failure in that, despite initial successes, creating and maintaining civil rights for African-Americans was difficult to achieve.
The successes of reconstruction were many as it gave African-Americans the ability (right) to participate in all levels of government, attend public school, establish institutions such as churches and schools and their own families, acquire land of their own and achieve full civil rights enshrined in our constitution. In short, reconstruction established a new democracy where all people, black and white, are equal.
Despite these successes, reconstruction failed many federal and state governments failed African-Americans because they didn’t secure the rights guaranteed them by constitutional amendments. Some failures of reconstruction are the failure to preserve black-white voter alliances that were necessary to maintain if political change were to be effected, Radical Republican governments didn’t (weren’t able to) allow needed land reform that would have provided former slaves needed economic resources to break their cycle of poverty, racial bias against African-Americans nationally was rampant, the Supreme Court ruled that most civil rights were ruled to be state rights and therefore, unprotected by the 14th amendment, the 15th amendment was determined not to grant voting rights to anyone, but rather to restrict certain types of voter discrimination and former slaves, in spite of and at the end of reconstruction, found themselves at the bottom rung of society as second-class citizens. Reconstruction, despite all the good it brought to former slaves, can be seen as a failure because in many ways they were still slaves: slaves to poverty, to a court system that didn’t allow for blacks to sit as jurors where whites were on trial), to uncertain economic futures for themselves and their families (e.g., sharecropping, shut out on land sales), to anti-progressive legislation meant to reverse rights to African-Americans and to the those who wished to inflict pain and suffering on them (i.e., they wished to repudiate the results of the war). All this showed that some of the greatest successes of the reconstruction era were also its greatest failures—slavery has many names (e.g., apprenticeships, convict leasing).
But, despite all the failures (horrors) of reconstruction, the success most important was that African-Americans never fully returned to slavery. It is on this foundation that I consider reconstruction a success. Without this, our nation wouldn’t have survived as one nation.
The legacy of the reconstruction is immense. It drastically changed the lives and societies in the South as they had to change to adjust to the emancipation of slaves. Reconstruction’s legacy is not necessarily a pretty one as after reconstruction, the South became solidly Democratic. The Democrats, once in full control, did away with many social programs, decreased expenses and limited the rights of tenants and sharecroppers. As a result, white Southerners became a powerful political force for many decades to come both in the South and nationally. Sharecropping became a way to make a living by many for many former slaves. Also, the crop lien system held a tight hold over African-American farm production. Both sharecropping and the crop lien system held African-Americans back economically. After discrimination became illegal, segregation—”separate but equal”—became the practice in the South to keep African-Americans separate from whites.
But, I believe the biggest legacy of the era of reconstruction is on the effect it had on politics of the South. Looming large in seemingly every serious political conversation was the thought of Federal interference in the lives of white Southerners. Wanting more control over their state (local) affairs, Republican state governments in the South were soon replaced with Democrats. Democrats used reconstruction, with its many horrors that brought unwanted change to the South, they reasoned, was used as a tool for changing as many things as they could (back) to the ways they liked. The southern politicians who acted along these, of course, acted nominally for the good of the South, but in reality, banded together with other like-minded politicians, to work for their own incentives to create wealth for themselves and favored others. African-Americans did not flourish as intended after reconstruction ended. In the years following reconstruction, true freedom for African-Americans was not yet a reality. It took nearly a century for America to once-again combat racial inequality. As a result of politics shaping, encouraging, condoning and/or permitting laws, customs, thoughts, traditions, etc. that forbade, did not enable, did not permit, etc. African-Americans to advance as many had hoped they would under reconstruction, many became disillusioned, remained poor and seemingly forgotten in America.
Thankfully, the thoughts of African-Americans that they played a huge part on freeing themselves was carried with them as a collective struggle for survival, as seeds to use for future success. The legacy of reconstruction is seen here because of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. They were the “seeds” that blossomed in the Constitution as it was rewritten by the inclusion of the amendments in it. All should work to ensure the Constitution is enforced as written. To quote Fannie Lou Hamer, a Civil Rights Activist from Ruleville, Mississippi, speaking before Congress in 1965, correctly spoke of the struggle for freedom when she said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” As to the legacy of reconstruction, I believe the most important lessons of reconstruction is that it reminds all of us that our Constitutional rights are not self-enforcing, and we should never take our liberties for granted. Nothing is inevitable or predetermined in our lives. We must be vigilant in ever-securing our equality and freedom.