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.1

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.2

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, the immediate gains that accrued within a national struggle against an external enemy were less significant than the great upsurge of national idealism and racial hope that each war released.

By crystallizing a distinctive national ideology, the American Revolution established the enduring dynamics of racial reform. Whether an American ideology was more a cause or a result of the Revolution, the conflict welded together an extraordinarily durable set of ideas that came to define a national purpose. One founding principle declared that the United States exists to secure the equal, unalienable rights that individuals derive from nature. Another enshrined a broadly Christian ethic of dedication to the common good. A third offered an embracing faith in human progress, with America in the lead.3 In the absence of a homogeneous ethnic identity, this compound of secular and religious ideas—this amalgam of liberty, nationality, and faith—was the strongest bond of unity in the new nation.

Although flatly incompatible in all respects with slavery, what Gunnar Myrdal has called the American Creed was often construed as a future promise rather than an immediate requirement. For most Americans it was more a conception of capacities than a claim of achievements. But advances could not be altogether postponed. The revolutionary impulse, with its appeal to human rights as well as American rights, inspired an antislavery movement abroad and at home. Never before had so many pulpits rung with condemnations of slaveholding. Nowhere earlier had blacks petitioned for their freedom on grounds of natural rights.4

Why did the Civil War and World War II tap and reinforce the same strain of nationalist idealism? Surely because both conflicts lent themselves to definition in the same terms. The Civil War was understood as a struggle to preserve a union based on freedom; World War II engaged Americans in resisting a new form of slavery. In all three wars did special interests manipulate patriotism for their own ends? Of course. Did intolerance of minorities produce racial barbarities and hysterical witch hunts? Unquestionably. But that does not negate the altruistic inducement each major war held out to Americans to locate themselves within and carry forward the Spirit of ’76.


In no case did war originate the impulse it popularized. Each postwar reconstruction was continuous with a gradual, pre-war buildup of moral disquiet over the state of race relations. Decades might pass before the fervent nationalism of a great war energized a longstanding moral concern, which had deeply troubled only a small minority of whites. In wartime the people as a whole were called to uphold the principles that had given the nation its identity. Through an outpouring of national idealism, a moral issue could then receive political expression.

For half a century before the American Revolution individual Christians who were sensitive to the humanitarian tendencies of the eighteenth century had disavowed the buying and selling of human beings. Not until 1758, however, did the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting denounce Quakers who bought or sold Negroes. Then another seventeen years passed before Philadelphians, on the eve of the American Revolution, formed the first antislavery society in the Western world. 5

Similarly, in the nineteenth century a fragmented movement for abolishing or narrowly circumscribing slavery made headway slowly, against fierce resistance, throughout the 1830s and 1840s. Not until 1848, with the formation of the Free Soil Party, did an antislavery coalition capture 10 percent of the popular vote. In the 1850s, however, an impending breakup of the Union connected the cause of liberty with the more immediately compelling issue of national survival.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was no less indebted to pre-war antecedents. The power and confidence it radiated after World War II would not have existed without a slow accumulation of guilt and protest from the late 1920s through the 1930s, followed by an all-out global war that idealized American democracy. From a revulsion against Southern lynchings in the late Twenties through the diffuse egalitarianism of the New Deal years, public opinion prepared the way for a communalizing experience of national dedication and sacrifice. If religion played a smaller part than in the earlier wars, a transfigured liberalism, celebrating the cohesion of a multi-ethnic people, amply took its place.6

Before examining these three encounters more closely, we cannot overlook a fourth great war, which fails completely to fit the general pattern. World War I—the Great Crusade, as ironic historians used to call it—made race relations worse rather than better. In this case, however, the exception helps to clarify the pattern of racial progress. American participation in World War I was relatively brief, just nineteen months in all, with only five months of intensive combat. Far more significant than the lighter burden that World War I imposed, however, was the absence of a significant pre-war growth of racial reform.

Instead of the troubled national conscience that Gunnar Myrdal observed in 1944, nearly all white Americans from the 1890s to the 1920s displayed a colossal insensitivity to the hostility and abuse that racial or pseudo-racial minorities suffered in the most advanced and highly industrialized nations of the world. Fears of impurity, pollution, corruption, and depravity coalesced. In this extravagantly racist milieu Americans could try to address economic injustice (not altogether successfully as it turned out), but they were blind to racial oppression. When World War I ended, an unprecedented explosion of racial and ethnic strife ensued. There was much talk of “reconstruction,” but only among black people did it mean a reform of race relations. Among whites “reconstruction” suggested problems of “economic serfdom” or of “discipline and orderly living” or of “spiritual regeneration.”7

By crushing the hopes it had raised for a new dawn of peace and freedom, World War I diverted historians from a longer linkage in American history between major wars and advances in democracy. A dichotomy between war and democracy has seemed additionally plausible because the nation’s small wars, such as the Mexican and Spanish-American wars, were sometimes racially regressive in their glorification of white supremacy. Moreover, little concrete improvement in race relations took place during the big wars. Each cycle of racial reform began in a long preparatory phase before the war started and climaxed in a mighty surge after it ended.

In each of the three cases reviewed here, war’s immediate exigencies obscured progress in race relations. The months and years of combat allowed little latitude for altering social, political, or military institutions. While raising aspirations and giving demands for change a national hearing, the wars deferred the tasks of racial reform to the postwar years. That is when the big breakthroughs in race relations have occurred.


The liberating aftermath of the American Revolution was relatively modest. It simply put limits on the spread of slavery, but the limits were not inconsequential. The federal government checked the advance of slavery into the West; the states rolled it back in the Northeast. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which developed from an earlier proposal by Thomas Jefferson, laid down conditions for forming states north of the Ohio River. A proviso prohibiting slavery throughout the entire territory was the first national legislation that set boundaries on the expansion of slavery. Meanwhile, beginning with Pennsylvania in 1780, every Northern state by 1804 had adopted plans for the gradual emancipation of its slaves. Two years later, federal legislation completed a similar process that banned the African slave trade from all American ports.

During the same years, antislavery sentiment persuaded state legislatures in the South to loosen existing restrictions on manumission. Especially in the Upper South numerous slave owners freed their slaves voluntarily. In doing so they quickened a yearning for freedom among those who were left behind. Accordingly, manumission inspired a larger flight from the slave states. Nationally, the free black population rose from a mere handful, probably fewer than 5,000 in 1780, to 186,00 in 1810, most of whom gathered in the larger towns and cities of the mid-Atlantic region. Their communities produced such institutions as fraternities, churches, and mutual aid societies, through which freed people could manage their own affairs. The creation of autonomous black congregations from the 1780s onward, sometimes within existing denominations and sometimes entirely independently, was an important step in the building of self-sustaining African-American communities.8

This early freedom movement was cautious and circumspect. It merely nibbled at the edges of slavery. Its Civil War counterpart was dramatic, impetuous, and visionary. Even more than during the Revolution, the main body of American Protestants in the North was convinced that their cause was holy. In “the glory of the coming of the Lord,” Julia Ward Howe wrote, she could see Him “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” He was leading the Union armies to a final conquest of sin and bondage.9 In large parts of the North the moral issue of slavery, intermixed with divine will and national destiny, was so intensely felt and so widely the subject of agitation during the war that racial reform for once leaped ahead before hostilities ended. Northern black spokesmen such as Frederick Douglass were able to press for immediate emancipation while pointing proudly to the very large proportion of black males who were serving in the Union armies. Then Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 made inevitable the complete termination of slavery by means of the Thirteenth Amendment (1865). In states and cities influenced by Southern mores Jim Crow laws were reduced or repealed.10

Breathtaking advances in race relations came almost immediately after the Civil War ended, in contrast to a slower climax of reform following the Revolution and World War II. Millions of African-Americans were now free to choose their own work and residence, subject only to the constraints of a general impoverishment. Their exuberant political meetings and those of their Northern allies resounded with invocations of the Declaration of Independence.

Within months, white Southerners set out to restore a racial oligarchy, bulwarked by the notorious “Black Codes” that were close to slavery. Crying treason, the radical leadership of the Republican Party reacted by pushing beyond mere abolition. Public outrage demanded strong federal protection of freedmen’s rights, and the Radicals were ready to supply it. Nothing less could ensure a “new birth of freedom” that would justify the enormous sacrifices of the war. This was the purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment.

But preserving civil rights would require a further extension of federal power, specifically to guarantee sympathetic local and state governments. In the face of insurrectionary resistance by whites in the South and widespread disapproval in the North, Congress imposed temporary military rule in the South, created genuinely interracial governments there, and secured ratification in 1870 of a fifteenth amendment granting full voting rights to black males in North and South alike. Nowhere else in the Western world was the transition from slavery to full citizenship so swift and unmediated.11

It was the task of the Third Reconstruction, during the post-World War II years, to reestablish the full panoply of political and civil rights gained in the Second Reconstruction but lost or weakened in a great reversal toward the end of the nineteenth century, when Southern legislatures and hysterical white mobs legalized and deepened the subordination of blacks. Beyond the restoration of first-class citizenship, the Third Reconstruction aimed at a wider goal. It sought an equality of social respect and economic opportunity for all Americans. It reached the first goal, but only part of the second.

Instead, the Third Reconstruction encountered the same cyclical changes that earlier surges of racial reform had undergone. After a slow pre-war rise, the latent energy of black discontent accumulated during the war years. Once victory was won, President Harry Truman made civil rights a major national issue. His stunning order in 1948, banning discrimination throughout the armed forces of the United States, effectively launched the postwar phase of the civil rights movement. From encampments and naval bases it spread to public schools, voting booths, playing fields, theaters, restaurants, public transportation, and eventually private business. It was a revolution that reached a climax from 1963 to 1968, then passed into a lingering demise. An understanding of that last phase should tell us a good deal about the vulnerabilities of progress in America.

In all three reconstructions the shift from commitment to retrogression was so variously diffused as to suggest a simple waning of idealistic nationalism and moral fervor. At the very beginning of the nineteenth century the antislavery societies that had sprung up after the Revolution showed signs of enfeeblement. As the Revolution receded into the past, its broad enthusiasm for human rights dwindled into a narrower preoccupation with the right to property. Simultaneously, the migration of freed people to a few urban centers created dense neighborhoods and congested alleys where blacks were no longer under the close observation of their employers. Fears of unrest palsied reformers—especially after the turn of the century, when atrocities and racial uprisings on French islands in the Caribbean aroused lurid suspicions of black conspiracies on the American mainland. After 1800 slave codes in the South were tightened, while traditional constraints on free blacks—on their right to vote, for example, and to live where they pleased—revived. A hedge of restrictive, discriminatory legislation rose around the black communities of the North and the vast slave population of the South. Manumission was severely restricted; migration was closely controlled. 12

The sharpening of fear and discrimination at the beginning of the nineteenth century suggests a loss of cohesiveness, a loosening of national idealism, that was more dramatically evident in the waning of the Second and Third Reconstructions. There too a fear of blacks, with accompanying deterioration of communication with them and concern for them, marked the end of racial reform.

From 1865 to 1867, and again exactly one hundred years later, a nationalizing euphoria and commitment seemed to sweep all obstacles aside. During those triumphant years bitterly racist resistance in the South only intensified the will and strength of reformers to carry through what they called “the equal rights revolution.” In 1868 white Southern resistance to the revolution continued unabated. In 1968 or thereabouts it was broken. Nevertheless, in the late Sixties of both centuries many were tiring of strife. Ulysses S. Grant won the presidency with the slogan “Let us have peace.” Taking office one hundred years later, a more combative Richard Nixon aimed in the same direction. By the Seventies public interest in great moral issues was declining.13 Liberal nationalism was running out of steam. In the midst of turmoil, locally rooted racism proved—in the short run at least—more tenacious than an inclusive, democratic spirit.

When national idealism was already on the defensive, a second factor dealt a further setback to all three reconstructions. In each case an already flagging movement for racial reform ended when the economic environment turned decisively unfavorable. This brings into sight once again the significance of the postwar moment. From the eighteenth century to the twentieth, the big advances in race relations have been borne on a flood of postwar prosperity. Twenty years after the adoption of the Constitution, twenty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and thirty years after World War II, a long postwar boom faltered and in some parts of the economy collapsed. Each of these eras of prosperity and progress had opened space in people’s lives for altruism; each had sustained a glowing vision of the nation’s future. When the boom subsided, self-interest crowded to the fore, perhaps as much among blacks as whites. Indifference at the top of the social scale and bare-knuckled antagonism down below again widened the racial chasm.

In the First Reconstruction Congress’s prohibition of the African slave trade in 1808 was the last antislavery legislation of any note. A year earlier the Jeffersonian embargo, prohibiting commerce with any foreign nation, interrupted the great economic boom that followed the Revolution. A period of instability turned in 1819 into a sharp, lingering depression. In eastern cities the resulting downward pressure on the already meager wages of African-Americans aroused intense hostility in the white working class. Also, during this era of economic uncertainties new ideas of irreducible inequality between races largely superseded the revolutionary generation’s confidence in universal natural rights.14

The Second Reconstruction terminated in a similar way. In the 1850s, and especially in the years immediately following the Civil War, the North and West enjoyed impressive economic growth with rising levels of real wages. The depression that began in 1873, however, created deep distress in the cities and reduced many farmers to tenancy. Contemporaries regarded it as the most severe depression in American history. Politicians turned their attention from moral issues to economic remedies and nostrums such as currency reforms, tariffs, and strike-breaking. The Democratic Party—the party of white supremacy—recovered from the obloquy it had suffered during the war and postwar years.15 A century later, in 1973, the parties had reversed their positions, but the sequence of events was familiar.

The parallels between the three periods of racial reform are plain to see. In all three cases dissatisfaction with the status quo had grown slowly among morally engaged minorities before intersecting with a major challenge to the nation. At that point a great surge of national idealism, abounding prosperity, a common enemy, and, it must now be added, a spirit of collaboration between whites and blacks brought the most dramatic advances of equality in American history.

So much for parallels. There is also a striking difference in the three episodes beyond their obvious contrasts of scale and aspiration. Although the First Reconstruction demonstrated a yearning for freedom among the slaves, a black elite that could play active roles in shaping events hardly existed. Moreover, virtually no whites could as yet imagine a harmonious interracial society. Black participation in making change was therefore neither expected nor sought. The First Reconstruction was in some measure for African-Americans but not by them.

The Second Reconstruction brought them more fully into the historical process. William Lloyd Garrison and other nineteenth-century abolitionists had welcomed blacks as coequal disturbers of the peace. Their eager involvement in the antislavery movement and in contests over the suffrage in Northern states dramatized the meaning of freedom. Their participation in Southern public life beginning in 1867 was essential, extensive, and moderately progressive. They were junior partners in Reconstruction governments, heavily obligated to white allies and not always ready for the responsibilities they held; but altogether they were men of varied abilities and backgrounds who gave ample proof that hundreds of former slaves could handle the business of government.16

The Third Reconstruction presents a major contrast in leadership. Now the initiative for and direction of change in the ascending phases were primarily in the hands of African-Americans. The First Reconstruction had been the work of a governing elite of whites. The Second reflected and contributed to the democratization of American society in the mid-nineteenth century. Although it too was led by a white elite, its execution depended on broad approval in public opinion (both white and black) and on active support from the newly enfranchised black masses. In the Third Reconstruction, blacks predominated. They made the important decisions. They also bore the heaviest burdens. Yet the participation, validation, and power of whites remained indispensable.

How critical, then, was close, active collaboration between the races in the making of the Third Reconstruction? Earlier American history yields no precise comparison. But the trend it presents is suggestive, and the evidence of interracial cooperation in racial reform from the 1930s to the 1960s leaves little room for doubt that the Third Reconstruction was heavily dependent on a partnership between blacks and an influential segment of the white population. I find inescapable, therefore, the conclusion that the division that opened in the civil rights movement in 1965 with the rise of black power—and the anti-white legacy it left—was a significantly contributing cause of the movement’s decline.

As we look forward to the preconditions for a fourth reconstruction in the twenty-first century, history seems to tell us that a restoration of cooperation and trust between leaders on the two sides will have to rank high. Each will need to risk unpopularity while holding firmly to a popular following. On both sides the leaders must have a flexible, loosely bounded identity, undefensive and therefore willing to incorporate something of the “other” who is different from oneself. The great example, surely, must be Martin Luther King, Jr., who was able to stand firm against the massed power of Southern white society without demonizing whites or losing his vision of an interracial future. But something also should be said of Harry Truman’s willingness to gamble his presidency in 1948 on the possibility that new black voters in a few Northern states could (as they did) save him from a racist backlash in the impending election.

These qualities will not be available unless the leaders of both white and nonwhite groups participate in some larger identity, some greater loyalty, that connects them without threatening their separate qualities and needs. Their wider solidarity will have to draw on the liberal nationalism that was created in a Christianized Enlightenment and in the twentieth century renamed the American Creed. That is what has driven each of the advances toward racial equality thus far.

To recapture that spirit, will the country have to wait for another major war? What might serve as a moral equivalent? Since history is unlikely to repeat itself in quite the same way, these troubling questions may not have to be faced. Some pundits tell us that racial differences are gradually losing depth and intensity as a miscegenated heterogeneity of style and appearance spreads through American life. 17 In the quarter century since the breakdown of the civil rights movement, the reaction against it has been much shallower than the reaction against its predecessors. On the whole, the black middle class retains the great gains it made, and in all kinds of settings acceptance is coming more easily. These tendencies owe much to the globalizing of communications, travel, and migration since World War II. More and more, Americans seem to realize that no boundaries are impermeable and no people can remain entirely outside their ken.

Still, a nation cannot rely on global forces to solve its problems. In the best as well as the worst possible futures America’s own history will come into play. I suggest that the prospect before us may look less bleak if our past appears less dismal. The fashionable cynicism of our time stigmatizes the entire record of American race relations. The civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century is generally regarded as a “tragic failure,” and so too its predecessors.18 In truth, none of them was a failure; they were simply incomplete. For many black people, each surge reached some objectives, and the advances were never entirely lost in the reversals that followed.

After the First Reconstruction some blacks in the North retained the right to vote, and some in the South preserved a substantial personal status. After the Second Reconstruction there were greater gains. Personal servitude was never reimposed, nor was the ability to move or migrate denied. Robert Wiebe has pointed out that African-American rights in Northern states expanded slowly in the late nineteenth century, and that the notorious segregationist doctrine of “separate but equal” represented a concession to black demands for decent treatment. Moreover, blacks helped themselves. In spite of the odds against them, by 1910 more than half of Southern blacks had learned to read and write.19

When the Third Reconstruction created a cornucopia of opportunities, along with bitter disappointments, it was repeating on an upward gradient the experience of its predecessors. Historians have been unable to see these events together, related within a long-term pattern, because their attention has been riveted on failure and defeat, with scant allowance for success and victory. Since the vaulting expectations of the 1960s collapsed, a “culture of defeat” has poisoned attitudes toward national projects among academics, much of the black middle class, and even the public at large.20 The American Creed lives on, but only one of its three pillars—the idea of human freedom—remains essentially unchallenged. Cynicism has ravaged belief in an inclusive national community and in its reach toward a better world. Until schools and churches and other opinion makers repair the damage to national identity and to faith in human possibility, how can race relations rise much above the level of rancorous bargaining among unequal interest groups? It is time for Americans to make richer use of their deeply divided but nonetheless inspiring heritage.

This Issue

November 6, 1997