The story of civil rights in the twentieth century has the shape of a great wave climbing a beach. A low swell, moving slowly, gains momentum. At a certain point it surges to a mighty crest that crashes with a roar. A wash of water flows onward, but the force is gone. The wave is receding. This is the pattern of modern racial reform: quiet, gradual improvement in the 1920s and 1930s; accelerating power after World War II; a dangerous, breathtaking climax in the 1960s; an aftermath of persistence and retreat.
At the crest of the wave in 1965, C. Vann Woodward called attention to similarities between what was happening at that moment and the dazzling enactment of racial reforms and civil rights exactly one hundred years earlier during the reconstruction of the defeated Southern states. Woodward called the events occurring around him a “Second Reconstruction.” He feared it might collapse as the first one had. But he hoped that this time the far greater power of African-Americans would save the cause of racial justice from compromise, appeasement, and failure.
Now, more than three decades later, Woodward’s Second Reconstruction has completed the full cycle of the first. We have a longer time span before us, so we can extend Woodward’s comparative perspective both forward and backward. From the vantage point of today, the accomplishments of the reconstruction that followed the Civil War seem more than merely “rhetorical.” Our present knowledge of what African-Americans learned and did during this time, the so-called “Tragic Era,” redeems it from the dismissive judgment that historians used to pronounce.
Similarly, a great advance in historical knowledge of the era of the American Revolution has shown that the “first” reconstruction of American race relations took place then, not in the 1860s, if we define “reconstruction” as a broad postwar program for reforming the social order. Moreover, this early cycle of racial reform anticipated the pattern its successors have followed: slowly rising discontent; liberation and euphoria; breakdown and retreat. Might an examination of these resemblances yield some clue to possibilities for a fourth reconstruction? I believe they do.
Each of the three cycles that punctuate the history of black-white relations in America received a powerful impetus from a major, victorious war. In each case war expanded the choices that black people could make. Responding to offers of liberation and protection, slaves escaped to British armies during the Revolution. During the Civil War they found an undeclared freedom behind Union lines in such numbers that people called them “contrabands”—that is, confiscated rebel property. During World War II the descendants of the slaves escaped northward from the rural South in a huge migration that opened new opportunities in factories, labor unions, and politics. Simultaneously well over a million black men and women served throughout the strictly segregated armed forces, half of them overseas. Many, hoping for recognition of their loyalty, regarded the war as an opportunity to demonstrate it. In the long run, however …