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One of the most important aspects of Reconstruction was the active participation of African Americans (including thousands of formerly enslaved people) in the political, economic and social life of the South. The era was to a great extent defined by their quest for autonomy and equal rights under the law, both as individuals and for the Black community as a whole. During Reconstruction, some 2,000 African Americans held public office, from the local level all the way up to the U.S. Senate, though they never achieved representation in government proportionate to their numbers.
Rise of Black Activism
Before the Civil War began, African Americans had only been able to vote in a few northern states, and there were virtually no Black officeholders. The months after the Union victory in April 1865 saw extensive mobilization within the Black community, with meetings, parades and petitions calling for legal and political rights, including the all-important right to vote. During the first two years of Reconstruction, Black people organized Equal Rights Leagues throughout the South and held state and local conventions to protest discriminatory treatment and demand suffrage, as well as equality before the law.
These African American activists bitterly opposed the Reconstruction policies of President Andrew Johnson, which excluded Black people from southern politics and allowed state legislatures to pass restrictive “black codes” regulating the lives of the freed men and women. Fierce resistance to these discriminatory laws, as well as growing opposition to Johnson’s policies in the North, led to a Republican victory in the U.S. congressional elections of 1866 and to a new phase of Reconstruction that would give African Americans a more active role in the political, economic and social life of the South.
A Radical Change
During the decade known as Radical Reconstruction (1867-77), Congress granted African American men the status and rights of citizenship, including the right to vote, as guaranteed by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Beginning in 1867, branches of the Union League, which encouraged the political activism of African Americans, spread throughout the South. During the state constitutional conventions held in 1867-69, Black and white Americans stood side by side for the first time in political life.
Black citizens made up the overwhelming majority of southern Republican voters, forming a coalition with “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags” (derogatory terms referring to recent arrivals from the North and southern white Republicans, respectively). A total of 265 African-American delegates were elected, more than 100 of whom had been born into slavery. Almost half of the elected Black delegates served in South Carolina and Louisiana, where Black people had the longest history of political organization; in most other states, African Americans were underrepresented compared to their population. In all, 16 African Americans served in the U.S. Congress during Reconstruction; more than 600 more were elected to the state legislatures, and hundreds more held local offices across the South.
READ MORE: When Did African Americans Get the Right to Vote?
Background & Risk of Leadership
Many Black leaders during Reconstruction had gained their freedom before the Civil War (by self-purchase or through the will of a deceased owner), had worked as skilled artisans or had served in the Union Army. A large number of Black political leaders came from the church, having worked as ministers during slavery or in the early years of Reconstruction, when the church served as the center of the Black community. Hiram Revels, the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate (he took the Senate seat from Mississippi that had been vacated by Jefferson Davis in 1861) was born free in North Carolina and attended college in Illinois. He worked as a preacher in the Midwest in the 1850s and as a chaplain to a Black regiment in the Union Army before going to Mississippi in 1865 to work for the Freedmen’s Bureau. Blanche K. Bruce, elected to the Senate in 1875 from Mississippi, had been enslaved but received some education. The background of these men was typical of the leaders that emerged during Reconstruction, but differed greatly from that of the majority of the African American population.
As the most radical aspect of the so-called Radical Reconstruction period, the political activism of the African American community also inspired the most hostility from Reconstruction’s opponents. Southern whites frustrated with policies giving formerly enslaved the right to vote and hold office increasingly turned to intimidation and violence as a means of reaffirming white supremacy. The Ku Klux Klan targeted local Republican leaders and Black citizens who challenged their white employers, and at least 35 Black officials were murdered by the Klan and other white supremacist organizations during the Reconstruction era.
READ MORE: How the 1876 Election Effectively Ended Reconstruction
The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship Reconstruction and Its Aftermath
The Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 freed African Americans in rebel states, and after the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment emancipated all U.S. slaves wherever they were. As a result, the mass of Southern blacks now faced the difficulty Northern blacks had confronted&mdashthat of a free people surrounded by many hostile whites. One freedman, Houston Hartsfield Holloway, wrote, &ldquoFor we colored people did not know how to be free and the white people did not know how to have a free colored person about them.&rdquo
Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, two more years of war, service by African American troops, and the defeat of the Confederacy, the nation was still unprepared to deal with the question of full citizenship for its newly freed black population. The Reconstruction implemented by Congress, which lasted from 1866 to 1877, was aimed at reorganizing the Southern states after the Civil War, providing the means for readmitting them into the Union, and defining the means by which whites and blacks could live together in a nonslave society. The South, however, saw Reconstruction as a humiliating, even vengeful imposition and did not welcome it.
During the years after the war, black and white teachers from the North and South, missionary organizations, churches and schools worked tirelessly to give the emancipated population the opportunity to learn. Former slaves of every age took advantage of the opportunity to become literate. Grandfathers and their grandchildren sat together in classrooms seeking to obtain the tools of freedom.
After the Civil War, with the protection of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, African Americans enjoyed a period when they were allowed to vote, actively participate in the political process, acquire the land of former owners, seek their own employment, and use public accommodations. Opponents of this progress, however, soon rallied against the former slaves' freedom and began to find means for eroding the gains for which many had shed their blood.
Kamala Harris, 56, first Black, first South Asian American and first woman Vice President
On Jan. 20, Kamala Harris became the first Black, first South Asian American and first woman Vice President of the United States.
Harris, born in Oakland, California to an Indian mother and Jamaican father, spoke about her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, in her first speech as vice president-elect.
"When she came here from India at the age of 19, she maybe didn't quite imagine this moment," Harris said on Nov. 7. (Shyamala came to the U.S. in 1958 to study biochemistry.) "But she believed so deeply in an America where a moment like this is possible."
"So, I'm thinking about her and about the generations of women — Black women, Asian, White, Latina, and Native American women who throughout our nation's history have paved the way for this moment tonight," she said.
Harris is also the first vice president to have graduated from a historically Black college or university (HBCU), Howard University, and credits her "sense of being and meaning" to her time as a student there. Harris is also a member of the oldest historically Black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.
And she was the first Black American to serve as California's Attorney General from 2011 to 2016. In 2016, she was elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate for the state of California.
Harris also helped others make history in December when she hired the first all-woman senior staff for the U.S. vice president's office. —Cory Stieg
The Undefeated 44 most influential black Americans in history
T his is a list of The Undefeated 44, a collection of dreamers and doers, noisy geniuses and quiet innovators, record-breakers and symbols of pride and aspiration.
A dashing lawyer who redefined fearlessness and broke Jim Crow&rsquos back. The most gravity-defying, emulated athlete the world has ever produced. A brilliant folklorist of fierce independence who was a proudly &ldquooutrageous woman.&rdquo
&lsquoThe Undefeated 44&rsquo is now available as a children&rsquos book!
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has published a version of this list for middle school readers called The Fierce 44/Black Americans Who Shook Up The World. It is available in stores and can also be ordered at these sites: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound.
This is not a list of The Greatest African-Americans of All Time or The Most Influential Blacks in History. Or even The Dopest Brothers and Sisters Who Matter Most This Week. It is a list &mdash fervently debated among our staff, chiseled and refined &mdash of 44 blacks who shook up the world or at least their corner of it. We recognize that this is not a complete list of jaw-dropping black achievers we know that such a list would never run out of names. Why limit ours to 44? It&rsquos an homage to the first African-American president, whose own stunning accomplishment was something our mothers and grandfathers and great-grandmothers never thought they&rsquod see in their lifetimes.
You may have favorites we overlooked or thought about and decided against. We&rsquod love to hear from you. We&rsquoll publish some of your picks and critiques of our list. In the meantime, enjoy The Undefeated 44, which includes:
The rawest, most piercingly funny comedian ever. The Olympic sprinter who exploded the canard of white athletic superiority only to be rewarded with low-paying jobs like pumping gas. Oprah &mdash just because &ldquoshe is, after all, every single thing.&rdquo
Let the debate continue. We are The Undefeated. Not Conventional. Never Boring.
Robert Abbott Because he gave voice to the voiceless Founder of The Chicago Defender b. 1870 &ndash 1940
The story of the pioneer of the black press involves slaves, Nazis and 25 cents.
Born just five years after the end of the Civil War, Robert Sengstacke Abbott founded a weekly newspaper, The Chicago Defender, one of the most important black newspapers in history, in 1905. Without Abbott, there would be no Essence, no Jet (and its Beauty of the Week), no Black Enterprise, no The Source, no The Undefeated.
The success of The Chicago Defender made Abbott one of the nation&rsquos most prominent postslavery black millionaires, along with beauty product magnate Madam C.J. Walker and paved the way for prominent black publishers such as Earl G. Graves, John H. Johnson and Edward Lewis.
The son of slaves, Abbott grew up with a half-German stepfather whose relatives eventually joined the Third Reich during the 1930s. Ironically enough, young Robert was taught to hate racial injustice, despite encountering it at every turn in his life, from his early foray into the printing business to his time in law school in Chicago, all the way to religious institutions.
An alum of Hampton University (then named Hampton Institute), Abbott was a catalyst for the Great Migration at the turn of the 20th century, when 6 million African-Americans from the rural South moved to urban cities in the West, Northeast and Midwest, with 100,000 settling in Chicago. Like a politician promising tax breaks to out-of-state companies to inspire relocation, Abbott took it upon himself to lay out the welcome mat for the millions of blacks abandoning the Jim Crow South to head to the Windy City, where manufacturing jobs were awaiting as World War I approached.
What started off as 25 cents in capital and a four-page pamphlet distributed strictly in black neighborhoods quickly grew into a readership that eclipsed half a million a week at its peak, numbers that mirror the Miami Herald and Orlando Sentinel today. The paper&rsquos rise in stature and circulation was due in large part to Abbott being a natural hustler. The Defender was initially banned in the South due to its encouragement of African-Americans to abandon the area and head North, but the Georgia native used a network of black railroad porters (who would eventually become the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) to distribute the paper in Southern states.
After the influx of blacks in the Midwest following the Great Migration, Abbott and The Defender turned their attention to other issues afflicting blacks in the early 20th century, including Jim Crow segregation, the presidency of Woodrow Wilson and the deadly 1919 Chicago riots that mirrored recent-day demonstrations seen in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri.
Abbott&rsquos nephew, John H. Sengstacke, took The Defender over in the 1940s, eventually heading black newspapers in Detroit and Memphis, Tennessee, and the historic Pittsburgh Courier. &ndash Martenzie Johnson
Alvin Ailey Because he brought dance and the beauty of black bodies to the fight for justice Founder of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater b. 1931 &ndash 1989
Sometimes I play a little what-if game with deceased artists whom I admire. What if so-and-so were still alive? What kind of righteous, glorious, angry, transcendent art would he/she bring forth in our age of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, Aleppo, Syria, and Standing Rock Indian Reservation, Trayvon Martin and gay marriage, social media and gun violence?
Fortunately for us, Alvin Ailey, the legendary modern dance pioneer, choreographer and civil rights artist-as-activist, left us his answers. Although Ailey died nearly 30 years ago, many of his best-known pieces have become as emblematic of vibrant, relevant American art as tap dance, jazz, the literature of Toni Morrison and hip-hop. Ailey explored issues of social justice, racism and spirituality in the African-American experience. This was during the height of the civil rights movement, when the notion of black classically trained dancers moving to the music of Duke Ellington, gospel, blues, Latin and African pop was truly revolutionary, if not unfathomable.
Born into poverty in Texas in 1931, Ailey drew from his emotional well of close-knit black churches, rural juke joints, fiery protest songs and a lonely childhood as a closeted gay man to fuel his passion for dance. He befriended many of his fellow mid-century American masters (Maya Angelou, Carmen De Lavallade, Merce Cunningham and Katherine Dunham, to name a few) while living in New York. After Ailey&rsquos death from an AIDS-related illness in 1989, the company and school grew into the premier repository for emerging black choreographers, and is still the most popular dance touring company on the international circuit.
Ailey created &ldquoa human dance company and school that didn&rsquot fit any model,&rdquo said author and arts and dance patron, Susan Fales-Hill. &ldquoHis dancers were and are multicultural, and his company was an amalgam of the African and European diaspora. He always addressed the pain of the African-American journey, but he also celebrated the triumph and redemption of the human spirit&rdquo in pieces such as Revelations (1960), Ailey&rsquos most celebrated work. The up-from-slavery dance suite finds beauty in the midst of tragedy and pain, celebrates black folks&rsquo resilience and humanity, and allows hope to overcome tribulation. &ldquoAiley understood that the arts are a litmus test for who&rsquos civilized and who isn&rsquot civilized,&rdquo Fales-Hill said. &ldquoThe fact that he raised people of color to the level of great, universally recognized artists was an enormous triumph.&rdquo &ndash Jill Hudson
Muhammad Ali Because he was the greatest, just like he said he was Boxer, activist b. 1942 &ndash 2016
Muhammad Ali is the undisputed president of athletes, taking office on June 4, 1967.
Just over a month earlier, the heavyweight boxing champion refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War. As Ali awaited conviction for draft evasion and the revocation of his title, several African-American athletes, led by the NFL&rsquos Jim Brown, convened a meeting with him in Cleveland.
Brown, fiercely independent himself, told The Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2012, &ldquoI felt with Ali taking the position he was taking, and with him losing the crown, and with the government coming at him with everything they had, that we as a body of prominent athletes could get the truth and stand behind Ali and give him the necessary support.&rdquo
There is a now iconic photograph of Ali and his newly formed &ldquocabinet.&rdquo Flanked by eventual Hall of Famer Brown and eventual Hall of Famers Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) the champ also had eventual Hall of Famers Willie Davis and Bobby Mitchell as well as attorney Carl Stokes (who would become Cleveland&rsquos mayor and the first African-American mayor of a major city) behind him.
The united front in Cleveland also proved an inspiration for Martin Luther King Jr.
King praised Ali for his courage in one of his own most courageous statements about Vietnam: &ldquoEvery young man in this country who believes that this war is abominable and unjust should file as a conscientious objector.&rdquo
As a boxer, Ali is considered the greatest of all time. His style, power, ring savvy and winning of an Olympic gold medal and the world heavyweight title three times was unprecedented.
He lost the heavyweight crown in 1971. His religious conversion to Islam only made him more resolute.
Ali&rsquos professional record was 56&ndash5 &mdash but the fight that epitomizes his genius was the &ldquoRumble in the Jungle,&rdquo the bout against heavyweight champion George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire. Ali, at age 32, was the underdog. But Ali&rsquos &ldquorope-a-dope&rdquo technique baited Foreman into throwing wild punches and exhausting himself. In an eighth-round knockout, Ali reclaimed the heavyweight title that had been taken from him 10 years earlier.
At the memorial service held after his death on June 3, 2016, his widow, Lonnie Ali, said this: &ldquoMuhammad indicated that when the end came for him, he wanted us to use his life and his death as a teaching moment for young people, for his country and for the world.&rdquo
Born in 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, as Cassius Clay, he will be forever known simply as &ldquoThe Greatest.&rdquo &ndash Derrick Z. Jackson
Richard Allen Because God doesn&rsquot segregate, but humans do Preacher. Abolitionist. Former slave. Educator. b. 1760 &ndash 1831
A Feb. 20, 1898, sermon by the Rev. John Palmer on Richard Allen&rsquos place in African-American history reads:
&ldquoIf true greatness consists in that self-sacrificing heroism and devotion which makes a man insensible and indifferent to his own personal welfare, interest, comfort and advantages and to deny himself of all for the sake of others, and for the elevation and advancement of others, without a single promise of reward &mdash we say, if these constitute greatness, then Richard Allen, the first bishop of the AME church, was great.&rdquo
Allen is considered the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in America. That church, now with a membership of more than 2.5 million people and 6,000 churches, was the country&rsquos first independent black denomination.
Former slave. Born into servitude in 1760 in Philadelphia, &ldquoNegro Richard&rdquo earned $2,000 to buy his freedom and that of his brother in 1780. Richard Allen, the name he chose as a freedman, came of age during the American Revolution, just as the antislavery movement and denominational Christianity were gaining prominence.
Allen discovered religion after hearing a Methodist preacher at a secret gathering of slaves in Delaware. In his biography, The Life Experiences and Gospel Labors of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen, he wrote, &ldquoI was awakened and brought to see myself, poor, wretched and undone, and without the mercy of God must be lost.&rdquo
Preacher. Allen, his wife Sarah and others opened the doors of Bethel AME Church on July 29, 1794, on the site of a converted blacksmith shop on Sixth Street in Philadelphia. Allen was ordained the church&rsquos pastor. Driven to establish &ldquoMother Bethel&rdquo by white Methodists&rsquo segregation of blacks, Allen brought other black Methodist congregations in Philadelphia together in 1816. They elected Allen bishop, a position he held until his death in 1831.
Abolitionist. Allen focused his sermons on the freedom of slaves, cessation of colonization, education of youths and temperance. He created denominational groups to care for and educate the poor. His home and Bethel AME were stops on the Underground Railroad.
Educator. Recognizing that former slaves and freedmen needed education, he opened a day school for black children and a night school for adults. Allen published articles in Freedom&rsquos Journal attacking slavery, colonialism and organizations that advocated the migration of blacks back to Africa. He authored three pamphlets about escaping the bonds of slavery, including An Address to Those Who Keep Slaves and Approve the Practice.
Allen&rsquos legacy lives on today in the AME church&rsquos work, whose motto is &ldquoGod Our Father, Christ Our Redeemer, the Holy Spirit Our Comforter, Humankind Our Family.&rdquo &ndash John X. Miller
Maya Angelou Because she rose to greatness despite facing some of life&rsquos cruelest hardships Poet, activist b. 1928 &ndash 2014
Maya Angelou lived a life just as remarkable as the poetry and prose she crafted in her 86 years on this earth.
And it was the documentation of Angelou&rsquos life that resonated with her audience and earned her a myriad of accolades, including three Grammy awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a host of honorary degrees.
Despite horrific periods in her life, Angelou rose. At 8 years old, she was raped by her mother&rsquos boyfriend. After being convicted, Angelou&rsquos abuser was found beaten to death. The once garrulous girl from Stamps, Arkansas, silenced herself for nearly five years, believing that her voice had killed the man because she identified him to her family. Instead, she memorized poetry during her silence, rearranging cadences and reciting Shakespearean sonnets in her head.
With the help of a teacher, Angelou was able to speak again. She used literature to recover from trauma, but got pregnant at 16. She found work as San Francisco&rsquos first African-American female cable car conductor and later worked in the sex trade and as a calypso singer to support her family. Angelou spoke honestly of her experiences, unashamed to walk in the truths of her past.
Later, she joined the Harlem Writers Guild and with help from friend and fellow author James Baldwin, went on to write I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969 &mdash the first in what would become a seven-volume, best-selling autobiographical series. Nearly a decade later, Angelou struck poetic gold with And Still I Rise, a collection that remains one of her most important works.
Angelou was also a fearless and determined civil rights activist, serving as the northern coordinator for Martin Luther King Jr.&rsquos Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and working with Malcolm X to establish the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
Life tried hard to break Angelou, but in the face of it all, still she rose. &ndash Maya A. Jones
Ella Baker Because she didn&rsquot let her gender keep her from defending her race Civil rights activist b. 1903 &ndash 1986
Proof that visibility is not necessary to make an impact, Ella Baker is one of history&rsquos lesser-known civil rights heroes, yet one of the most important. If Martin Luther King Jr. was the head of the civil rights movement, Ella Baker was its backbone.
Born on Dec. 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia, and raised in North Carolina, Baker cultivated her passion and desire for social justice at a young age. Her grandmother, who was a slave, once told her a story of being whipped for refusing to marry a man of her slave owner&rsquos choosing &mdash fueling Baker&rsquos desire for systematic change and justice for her people.
In the 1940s, she developed a grassroots approach as an NAACP field secretary to gather and convince black people of the group&rsquos message &mdash a vision that holds true today &mdash that a society of individuals can and should exist &ldquowithout discrimination based on race.&rdquo In 1957, Baker moved to Atlanta to help King form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, through which she facilitated protests, built campaigns and ran a voter registration campaign called the Crusade for Citizenship.
Baker did grow frustrated at the lack of gender equality within the group, and came close to quitting in 1960. But then, on Feb. 1, four black college students sat at a lunch counter at Woolworth&rsquos in Greensboro, North Carolina. After being denied service, they were asked to leave. Instead, they refused to leave and a movement was born.
A graduate of Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, who during her time there often challenged university policies, Baker viewed young people as one of the strongest and most important aspects of the civil rights movement. Inspired by the courageous sit-ins, Baker laid the framework for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC became one of the most important organizations in American civil rights history because of its commitment to effecting change through Freedom Rides and its particular emphasis on the importance of voting rights for African-Americans.
Baker earned the nickname &ldquoFundi,&rdquo which is Swahili for a person who teaches a craft to the next generation. As a dedicated change agent, Baker taught young people that their spirit was essential to the movement. As long as they had the audacity to dream of a better, equal and brighter tomorrow &mdash through the means of relentless peaceful protest and endurance &mdash a fairer society awaited them. Baker died on Jan. 13, 1986, on her 83rd birthday. &ndash Trudy Joseph and Callan Mathis
James Baldwin Because he embraced the responsibility to be a voice of his nation Novelist, playwright b. 1924 &ndash 1987
James Baldwin knew it was his job to reveal the truth. The truth about his race. The truth about his country. The ugly truths of racism, poverty and inequality that plagued the United States during his lifetime &mdash and that continue even now, 29 years after his death. He confronted American racism with fearless honesty and courageously explored homosexuality through his literature and in his life.
And he did it with style. His brilliant prose combined his own experience with the best &mdash and worst &mdash of that of the black life around him: the joy, the blues, the sermons, the spirituals and the bitter sting of discrimination. As he said in his essay The Creative Process, &ldquoa society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.&rdquo
The work of Baldwin, a product of Harlem, New York, and a citizen of the world, consistently reflected the experience of a black man in white America. His travels to France and Switzerland only nuanced his understanding of the social conditions of his race and his country. Although written abroad, his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953, illuminated the struggle of poor, inner-city residents and drew on the passion of the pulpit. His collection of essays The Fire Next Time explosively represented black identity just as the country was coming to terms with just how much white supremacy was in its DNA. Giovanni&rsquos Room dove straight into the taboo that was homosexuality &mdash elevating the notion of identity through sexuality and socioeconomic status without ever mentioning race once.
As an impoverished black gay man, Baldwin was asked if he felt he&rsquod had a bad luck of the draw. In fact, he believed he&rsquod hit the jackpot. His identity informed his artistry. And his artistry strove to represent every individual whose access to American civil liberties was hampered by race, gender, sexuality and socioeconomic status.
Baldwin knew that as an artist he was among &ldquoa breed of men and women historically despised while living and acclaimed when safely dead.&rdquo So he unapologetically implored a nation to see its true self through the beauty of its most marginalized. The truth of his words is not a history lesson of American culture gone by, it is a reflection of the country alive and in the here and now. &ndash Danielle Cadet
Jean-Michel Basquiat Because without Basquiat, there&rsquod be no graffiti. Without Basquiat, there&rsquod be no Banksy. Get it? Artist b. 1960 &ndash 1988
Eight short years. That&rsquos how long it took Jean-Michel Basquiat to secure his legacy as an art world prodigy. He died at the age of 27 from a heroin overdose, leaving behind paintings, drawings and notebooks, many of which explored themes of counterculture American punk, the urban plight of the African diaspora, improvisational jazz music and the vagaries of fame during the Ronald Reagan-era 1980s.
Born to a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat dropped out of high school and cut his artistic chops as a graffiti artist in Soho and Manhattan, New York&rsquos Lower East Side. He had his first important gallery show in 1980 and soon befriended the pop in pop art stars Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. Basquiat was handsome, fashionable and famously eccentric. He produced vibrant and emotional canvases with a kind of refined cool reminiscent of improvisational jazz greats such as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.
The drawing in Basquiat&rsquos best-known pieces may be primitive-looking at first glance, but the images were sexy, complex and sophisticated. While his worldview was undeniably black, urban and hypermasculine, his bold paint-splash technique was influenced more by modern abstract masters Jackson Pollock and Cy Twombly. But there is a definite through line to early 20th-century African-American greats such as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence to contemporary artist Kara Walker. His most recognizable motifs &mdash a black male oracle who wears a bold king&rsquos crown, West African griots and ferocious figures sharing space with childlike scribbles &mdash appeared in many of his most famous pieces.
As influential as Basquiat is, most of his work is privately owned and very few public galleries or museums own or exhibit any of his best-known pieces. His paintings very rarely appear at auction and now attract stratospheric prices when they do. In May 2016, Basquiat&rsquos 1982 Untitled painting shattered his auction world record when it was sold for $57.3 million at Christie&rsquos, making him the most financially successful African-American painter in history. Celebrity collectors of his work include Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp, and an entire generation of hip-hop artists &mdash Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Killer Mike, Rick Ross and J. Cole &mdash routinely name-check the Brooklyn, New York-born cool kid. Basquiat fanboy (and collector) Jay Z even bragged in his 2013 song Picasso Baby &mdash It ain&rsquot hard to tell, I&rsquom the new Jean-Michel. In other words, legendary dopeness and enigmatic brilliance will never go out of style. &ndash Jill Hudson
Mary McLeod Bethune Because the &lsquoFirst Lady of the Struggle&rsquo left us an indelible legacy of love, hope and dignity Civil rights activist, educator b. 1875 &ndash 1955
Though she was able-bodied, Mary McLeod Bethune carried a cane because she said it gave her &ldquoswank.&rdquo
An educator, civil rights leader and adviser to five U.S. presidents, the &ldquoFirst Lady of the Struggle&rdquo has been synonymous with black uplift since the early 20th century. She turned her faith, her passion for racial progress, and her organizational and fundraising savvy into the enduring legacies of Bethune-Cookman University and the National Council of Negro Women. She understood the intersections of education, optics and politics and was fierce and canny in using them to advance the cause of her people.
Bethune, the 15th of 17 children, grew up in rural South Carolina and started working in the fields as a young girl. She hoped to become a missionary in Africa after attending Scotia Seminary in North Carolina and Chicago&rsquos Moody Bible Institute, but was told black missionaries were unwelcome. So, she turned to educating her people at home, founding the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in 1904 with $1.50 and six students, including her young son.
Twenty years later, the school was merged with Cookman Institute of Jacksonville, Florida. In 1924, Bethune, one of the few female college presidents in the nation, became president of the National Association of Colored Women. A decade later, in a move to centralize dozens of organizations working on behalf of black women, Bethune founded the influential National Council of Negro Women.
Bethune helped organize black advisers to serve on the Federal Council of Negro Affairs, the storied &ldquoBlack Cabinet,&rdquo under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt considered Bethune one of her closest friends. Photos featuring her with the president or first lady ran prominently in black publications, helping to normalize the notion of black faces in high places.
Bethune worked to end poll taxes and lynching. She organized protests against businesses that refused to hire African-Americans and demonstrated in support of the Scottsboro Boys. She lobbied for women to join the military. She organized, she wrote, she lectured, and she inspired.
Perhaps her most enduring written work was her last will and testament:
I LEAVE YOU LOVE &hellip I LEAVE YOU HOPE &hellip I LEAVE YOU THE CHALLENGE OF DEVELOPING CONFIDENCE IN ONE ANOTHER &hellip I LEAVE YOU A THIRST FOR EDUCATION &hellip I LEAVE YOU RESPECT FOR THE USES OF POWER &hellip I LEAVE YOU FAITH &hellip I LEAVE YOU RACIAL DIGNITY &hellip I LEAVE YOU A DESIRE TO LIVE HARMONIOUSLY WITH YOUR FELLOW MEN &hellip I LEAVE YOU FINALLY A RESPONSIBILITY TO OUR YOUNG PEOPLE. &ndash Lonnae O&rsquoNeal
Shirley Chisholm Because before &lsquoYes We Can&rsquo there was &lsquoUnbought and Unbossed&rsquo Politician b. 1924 &ndash 2005
When thinking about how contentious things are in Congress today, imagine being the sole black female congresswoman nearly 50 years ago, at the height of the civil rights movement. Shirley Chisholm was relentless in breaking political barriers with respect to both race and gender. She was a pioneer.
In 1968, Chisholm became the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress, representing New York&rsquos 12th District for seven terms from 1969 to 1983. As both a New York state legislator and a congresswoman, Chisholm championed the rights of the least of us, fighting for improved education health and social services, including unemployment benefits for domestic workers providing disadvantaged students the chance to enter college while receiving intensive remedial education the food stamp program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children program.
Chisholm noted that she faced more discrimination because of gender than race during her New York legislative career, while acknowledging the additional struggle that black women encounter specifically because of their race. All those Chisholm hired for her congressional office were women half of them were black. &ldquoTremendous amounts of talent are lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt,&rdquo she said.
Before President Barack Obama&rsquos &ldquoYes We Can&rdquo slogan and Hillary&rsquos &ldquoStronger Together,&rdquo there was Chisholm&rsquos &ldquoUnbought and Unbossed.&rdquo In 1972, Chisholm became the first black candidate for a major party&rsquos nomination for president of the United States, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party&rsquos presidential nomination.
Chisholm remarked in words that still resonate today that &ldquoin the end, anti-black, anti-female, and all forms of discrimination are equivalent to the same thing: anti-humanism.&rdquo The next time you queue up Solange Knowles&rsquo album, A Seat at the Table, be reminded of Chisholm&rsquos words: &ldquoIf they don&rsquot give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.&rdquo &ndash April Reign
Benjamin O . Davis Sr . Because he led the fight against enemies both foreign and domestic General officer b. 1880 &ndash 1970
Benjamin Oliver Davis Sr., the first African-American general for the U.S. Army, battled segregation by developing and implementing plans for the limited desegregation of U.S. combat forces in Europe during World War II.
Davis, who was born in Chicago in 1877 and Howard University-educated, began his military career in the trenches of the Spanish-American War as a volunteer grunt. He liked the military&rsquos discipline and order, so when he was discharged as a volunteer, he enlisted after deciding he wanted a military career.
In the throes of segregation for four decades, he commanded troops in Liberia and the Philippines, where his unit was the famed Buffalo Soldiers. He was three times assigned as a professor of military science and tactics at Wilberforce University in Ohio and Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
His duty assignments were designed to avoid him being put in command of white troops or officers. He rose slowly through the ranks, becoming the first black colonel in the army in 1930. All of his appointments were considered temporary, a move designed to limit his exposure to white troops.
During World War II, he headed a special unit charged with safeguarding the status and morale of black soldiers in the army, and he served in the European theater as a special adviser on race relations. In 1940, he was promoted to brigadier general by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a move some thought was only because Roosevelt needed black votes in the presidential election. Davis retired in 1948 after 50 years of service.
Following many years of service, he became an adviser for the military on racial discrimination, pushing for full integration of the armed forces. He earned a Bronze Star and Distinguished Service Medal.
Davis&rsquo determined and disciplined rise in the Army paved the way for black men and women &mdash including his son, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a West Point graduate who in 1954 became the second African-American general in the U.S. military and the first in the Air Force.
Davis Jr. led the Tuskegee Airmen and continued the fight against the establishment and tradition to advance the cause of blacks in the military.
In 1948, President Harry S. Truman ordered the end of discriminatory practices in the armed forces, relying on the foundation built by Davis. After his death in 1970, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
In January 1997, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Black Heritage Stamp to honor his service and contributions. &ndash John X. Miller
Frederick Douglass Because his voice rose from the horror of slavery to challenge the denial of black humanity Abolitionist, author b. 1818 &ndash 1895
A slave. A free person among slaves. A free person who must still fight for full emancipation. Every black person who has called America home has existed in one of these three states. Frederick Douglass endured them all and spoke to these unique human conditions while demanding complete black inclusion in the American experiment.
With his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845, Douglass provided arguably the most influential slave narrative. Born in Maryland in 1818, the son of a slave mother and a white father, possibly his owner, Douglass escaped bondage by fleeing North. Through his vivid portrayals of brutality, the severing of familial bonds and mental torture, he documented the iniquity of the peculiar institution and disproved the Southern propaganda of the happy slave.
Douglass rose to prominence in the abolitionist movement, partly due to his personal experience of having lived as chattel, but also he knew how to enrapture an audience. One observer described him as strikingly memorable. &ldquoHe was more than six feet in height, and his majestic form, as he rose to speak, straight as an arrow, muscular, yet lithe and graceful, his flashing eye, and more than all, his voice, that rivaled Webster&rsquos in its richness, and in the depth and sonorousness of its cadences, made up such an ideal of an orator as the listeners never forgot.&rdquo
Particularly relevant today, Douglass leaves behind a blueprint for challenging racism. In August 1862, President Abraham Lincoln invited black leaders to the White House to sell them on the idea of black immigration out of the country. Douglass called Lincoln&rsquos idea &ldquoridiculous&rdquo and believed the president showed a &ldquopride of race and blood&rdquo and &ldquocontempt for negroes.&rdquo Through a subsequent friendship with Douglass, Lincoln learned he had erred.
Douglass was not always successful in changing the mind of a president. At the White House in 1866, Douglass told President Andrew Johnson that &ldquowe do hope that you &hellip will favorably regard the placing in our hands the ballot with which to save ourselves.&rdquo Johnson continued to oppose black suffrage, yet Douglass taught everyone the small victories to be reaped by simply resisting the shackles of oppression.
He died in 1895, but his spirit in standing before white supremacy and calling it by its name remains. &ndash Brando Simeo Starkey
Dr. Charles Drew Because he was a true-blood pioneer who has saved, and is still saving, millions of lives Physician b. 1904 &ndash 1950
The blood bank is something we take for granted now, but it wasn&rsquot always so. As a researcher and surgeon, Dr. Charles Drew revolutionized the understanding of plasma, the liquid portion of blood without cells. Plasma lasts much longer than whole blood, making it possible to be &ldquobanked&rdquo for long periods of time.
As a young man, Drew was an exceptional athlete, starring in football, baseball, basketball and track and field at Washington, D.C.&rsquos, Dunbar High School. He was an All-American halfback at Amherst College in Massachusetts and captain of the track team. But he couldn&rsquot afford medical school in the United States and attended McGill University in Montreal. He later moved back to the United States and taught at Howard University&rsquos medical school.
After becoming the first African-American to get his doctorate from Columbia University in 1940, Drew was the world&rsquos leading authority on blood transfusions and storage, just as the United States and Great Britain were becoming deeply involved in World War II. His research established protocols on how blood should be collected and refrigerated, how donors should be recruited and screened, and training methods for people who would collect and test blood.
As medical director of the American Red Cross National Blood Donor Service, Drew led the collection of tens of thousands of pints of blood for U.S. troops. Some historians say his work might have saved the world from Nazism, since battlefield blood storage and transfusions didn&rsquot exist before he was asked to manage two of the largest blood banks during the war.
Even so, the U.S. military ruled that the blood of African-Americans would be segregated and not used on white troops, although blood has no racial characteristics. Outraged, Drew resigned from the Red Cross and returned to Howard as a professor and head of surgery at Freedman&rsquos Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he trained a generation of black physicians.
He died in 1950 at the age of 45 in a car accident in Burlington, North Carolina, while returning from a clinic at Tuskegee Institute in 1950. Today, according to the Red Cross, there are 15.7 million blood donations a year in the United States from 9.2 million donors. &ndash John X. Miller
W . E . B . Du Bois Because he observed the multifaceted nature of African-Americans Sociologist, writer, activist b. 1868 &ndash 1963
In the introduction to The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois wrote that &ldquothe problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of color line.&rdquo Though this prophetic remark is perhaps his most indelible, in a career spanning over a half-century until his death in 1963, Du Bois possessed the most perpetual voice on race in American history.
Attentive to both sides of the color line, Du Bois provided the most cogent explanation why whites to this day rebuff interracial political alliances even when sharing economic interests with people of color. In Black Reconstruction in America, published in 1935, Du Bois observed that working-class whites receive the psychological wage of whiteness. &ldquoIt must be remembered that the white group of laborers,&rdquo he penned, &ldquowhile they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage.&rdquo
Du Bois also wrote incisively on the black condition, including the observation that blacks have a double consciousness. &ldquoIt is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one&rsquos self through the eyes of others, of measuring one&rsquos soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, &mdash an American, a Negro two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.&rdquo
This is the legacy of Du Bois &mdash a veritable library of works that were essential reading the moment he finished them because they spoke to the issues of the day and yet speak just as loudly now. &ndash Brando Simeo Starkey
Duke Ellington Because &lsquoin death as in life, he is the embodiment of jazz&rsquo Composer, bandleader b. 1899 &ndash 1974
Just as soul music and Motown provided the aspirational soundtrack for the 1960s civil rights movement, swing music furnished the upwardly-mobile score for the mid-1900s Harlem Renaissance. And of all the formidable bandleaders of the era, Edward &ldquoDuke&rdquo Ellington towered over the competition like a musical Everest. Where Count Basie, Benny Goodman and competing bandleaders favored high-stepping songs with hard-swinging arrangements, Ellington tunes such as &ldquoI Got It Bad (And That Ain&rsquot Good),&rdquo &ldquoIn a Sentimental Mood,&rdquo and &ldquoBlack and Tan Fantasy&rdquo seem mysterious by comparison, romantic songs whose world-weary blues melodies helped Ellington earn 11 Grammy Awards, 13 Grammy Hall of Fame nods, and a Grammy Trustees Award.
An economical pianist and canny orchestra leader, music seemed to pour from the D.C.-born wunderkind. Composing original songs at a furious clip, Ellington wrote more than 1,000 tunes, many of which are considered part of the Great American Songbook, including &ldquoDon&rsquot Get Around Much Anymore,&rdquo &ldquoSatin Doll,&rdquo &ldquoI&rsquom Beginning to See the Light,&rdquo and more.
He was a pivotal player in jazz music&rsquos metamorphosis into swing, the evolutionary 1930s style that placed more emphasis on syncopated rhythms and hard-driving bass. Ellington and songwriting collaborators, including Billy Strayhorn, excelled at creating arrangements that showcased the orchestra&rsquos most dynamic soloists, including alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, multi-instrumentalist Ray Nance, and trombonist Joe Nanton, the latter of whom employed a mute to create woebegone &ldquowah-wah&rdquo effects. That Ellington was able to manage such a crackerjack touring orchestra while composing hundreds of topflight tunes is testament to his genius and industry.
His original songs rank among the first examples of &ldquocrossover&rdquo pop. It&rsquos indisputable that Ellington performances such as &ldquoTake the &lsquoA&rsquo Train&rdquo &ldquoIn A Sentimental Mood&rdquo and &ldquoIt Don&rsquot Mean a Thing (If It Ain&rsquot Got That Swing)&rdquo perfectly captured the essence of the black experience, but his facile reconciliation of street-smart rhythm, tuxedo-clad melody and impressionistic lyricism was also irresistible to white audiences.
One can easily quantify Ellington&rsquos greatness by citing his many honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Pulitzer Prize special citation, the Songwriters Hall of Fame Award, and honorary doctorates from Howard University, Yale and Columbia, to list but a few. But Sir Duke&rsquos legacy transcends mere peer accolades. Play word association with phrases such as &ldquoswing&rdquo and &ldquobig band music,&rdquo and Ellington&rsquos name will likely leap first to many people&rsquos minds. In death as in life, he is the embodiment of jazz. &mdash Bruce Britt
Aretha Franklin Because hers is a title well-earned: The Queen of Soul Singer-songwriter b. 1942 &ndash 2018
Curtsies are absolutely appropriate. Aretha Franklin is undisputed when it comes to pouring gospel-inflected, bluesy wails of love-gone-wrong lyrics over country-fried&ndashyet-pop tracks. She plucked her Pentecostal pipes from the pulpit and applied them to a secular sound, giving us Sunday morning righteousness on any given Saturday night.
Fifty years ago, the daughter of popular Detroit Baptist minister C.L. Franklin scored a No. 1 hit with her remake of Otis Redding&rsquos Respect, a song with a bit of a double entendre that helped soundtrack the civil rights movement. In 1967, when there was racial unrest in her native Detroit, people ran through the streets, daring cops to come near them while they shouted &ldquosock it to me,&rdquo her ad-lib from the song, as they protested. Her signature song &mdash and her most noted, as it&rsquos been used many times over in TV and films and is a hot karaoke tune &mdash also served as a sororal call for women, who also were looking for respect and to be taken seriously alongside their male counterparts. All these years later, the single still resonates.
But Franklin is bigger than one track. Her career has spanned five decades, and she also was the first female performer inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 &mdash as she should have been. She&rsquos had more than 100 singles that have reached the Billboard charts, and 17 of them have been top 10 singles. She&rsquos won an impressive 18 Grammys, has sold more than 75 million albums, and she&rsquos one of the most influential voices ever, inspiring and paving the way for acts such as Beyoncé, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Franklin is a musician&rsquos musician &mdash she can bang it on the piano as well as she can on a microphone &mdash and she can sing opera music as effortlessly as she can sing gospel. Few can hold a candle to her four-octave range &mdash many have tried, some have come close, but no one has managed to sustain and strike quite the way Franklin has. All hail the Queen. &ndash Kelley L. Carter
Jimi Hendrix Because no one can match his genius Musician, singer-songwriter b. 1942 &ndash 1970
For decades, a belief has taken hold among guitarists &mdash to prove your ability, you must pay homage to Jimi Hendrix.
He was hailed by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as &ldquothe most gifted instrumentalist of all time.&rdquo Hendrix&rsquos virtuosity looms so large that many guitarists still vainly attempt to emulate him. Just as whiz-kid classical pianists flaunt their chops by interpreting Mozart, so have guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Prince and John Mayer felt the need to perform Hendrix classics such as &ldquoHey Joe,&rdquo &ldquoLittle Wing&rdquo and &ldquoFoxey Lady.&rdquo That&rsquos why rock&rsquos magazine of record, Rolling Stone, named Hendrix the greatest guitar player ever.
While Hendrix&rsquos guitar artistry is indisputable, it&lsquos ultimately a puzzle piece of his panoramic talent. He was also a composer of accessibly complex songs, and a poet-caliber lyricist (&ldquoa broom is drearily sweeping / up the broken pieces of yesterday&rsquos life &hellip&rdquo). The rock legend has posthumously earned multiple Hall of Fame Grammy Awards, including the Recording Academy&rsquos prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award.
But just what makes Hendrix rock&rsquos greatest expressionist? His live performances were at times distractingly sloppy, his guitar tone ear-piercing. Curiously, it&rsquos these stylistic eccentricities that make him singular. For Hendrix, music wasn&rsquot about note-perfect performance, but rather a constant search for truth. If that meant playing long, solo-intensive songs illustrating the savageness of war, then so be it.
By the time of his death in 1970, Hendrix had so thoroughly changed musical perceptions that even jazz legends such as Miles Davis and Gil Evans were taking cues from him. It&rsquos almost impossible to imagine influential jazz-fusion albums like Davis&rsquo Bitches Brew &mdash or acid-funk masterpieces like Funkadelic&rsquos Maggot Brain &mdash without Hendrix having laid the groundwork.
He leaped effortlessly from metallic fury to gossamer balladry and jazzy excursions. Arguably, Hendrix&rsquos freakish talent is best demonstrated on his Woodstock performance of the &ldquoThe Star-Spangled Banner,&rdquo where he performs guitar emulations of artillery and air-raid sirens in an audacious condemnation of American militarism.
Since his demise, a horde of guitarists has challenged Hendrix&rsquos primacy, yet none have matched his genius. Sure, Eddie Van Halen is brilliant, but his solos tell us little about him, or his time.
By contrast, a Hendrix masterwork like &ldquoIf 6 was 9&rdquo allows us a glimpse into the mind of a nonconformist and his anti-establishment generation. That&rsquos why in the world of electric guitar, there are two ages &mdash the monochrome era Before Hendrix, and the limitless, kaleidoscopic period After Hendrix. &ndash Bruce Britt
Zora Neale Hurston Because she inspired generations of proud black Southern artistry Novelist, writer b. 1891 &ndash 1960
Recently, Salvage the Bones author and Fire This Time editor Jesmyn Ward published an essay rejoicing in the visibility and celebration of Southern blackness and the fact that it had made its way to television in the form of Atlanta and Queen Sugar. Ward is a Mississippian who drank in the words of Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker because they spoke to her existence, and she, like so many other black Southern artists and writers, owes a debt of gratitude to Hurston.
Long before Andre 3000 took to the stage at the 1995 Source Awards to famously proclaim &ldquothe South got somethin&rsquo to say,&rdquo Hurston was laying the intellectual groundwork for such a case. The author of four novels, including the now beloved and celebrated Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and the autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), was dismissed as a southern bumpkin by her male contemporaries, including Richard Wright, Sterling A. Brown, Ralph Ellison and Alain Locke. Even Langston Hughes, who co-founded Fire magazine with her and Wallace Thurman in 1926, called her an &ldquooutrageous woman.&rdquo
Wright in particular derided her style and voice as &ldquominstrel technique.&rdquo Hurston had the pesky habit of writing the way black people in the South &mdash and in particular the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, where she was raised &mdash actually spoke. Furthermore, she had the nerve not to think anything was wrong with it, not even after spending six years studying at Howard University, from 1918 to 1924, which Hurston regarded as a clearinghouse of &ldquoNegro money, beauty and prestige.&rdquo While she was a student there, Hurston founded The Hilltop, Howard&rsquos student-run newspaper.
As a folklorist, Hurston is part of a literary tradition that shares its ethos with the blues and with contemporary musical acts such as Alabama Shakes, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and OutKast. You can draw lines from Hurston&rsquos earnest interest in hoodoo to Beyoncé&rsquos embrace of all things Southern gothic in Lemonade. The longstanding divide between Northern and Southern black people, metropolitan vs. agrarian, is one that repeatedly informs our history and culture, even the civil rights movement. It was Walker, who in 1975, brought Hurston out of the American literary hinterlands with Looking for Zora, her essay published in Ms. Magazine.
But Hurston retained a self-assured elegance and wit that didn&rsquot bother worrying itself with outside acceptance. And it&rsquos that sort of thinking that allowed her to gift us with this gem of quotation, and a philosophy we could all stand to internalize, Southern or not: &ldquoSometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me,&rdquo Hurston once said. &ldquoHow can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It&rsquos beyond me.&rdquo &ndash Soraya Nadia McDonald
Jesse Jackson Because he kept hope alive and made the White House real Civil rights activist, politician b. 1941
Jesse Jackson laid the foundation for electing a black president, one of the signature achievements of the 21st century. Jackson&rsquos are the biggest shoulders that Barack Obama stands on. This is not conventional wisdom, but it is true.
It begins with Jackson&rsquos decision to run for president himself in 1984, widely seen then as an act of symbolism and hubris. Black leaders had been discussing for years what it would take to seriously compete for the highest office in the land, to build on what Shirley Chisholm did in 1972. After Harold Washington was elected Chicago&rsquos first black mayor in 1983 and with concern mounting about the impact of Ronald Reagan&rsquos presidency on black Americans, some thought the time was ripe. But none of the most prominent black elected leaders would step up &mdash either they lacked courage or a big enough ego. Jackson lacked neither.
That he ran and won five Democratic primaries and caucuses on a minuscule budget shocked the party establishment and elevated Jackson&rsquos stature. With his second presidential campaign in 1988, he established himself as the leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. He won 11 primaries and caucuses and finished as runner-up to Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis.
Before Jackson&rsquos campaigns, blacks had been largely relegated to roles as campaign surrogates on &ldquourban issues&rdquo and get-out-the-vote specialists in black communities. Jackson pried open the Democratic Party structure and helped increase black participation in politics. The result was more field operatives, strategists, fundraisers &mdash and candidates for a wider range of offices &mdash than ever before. He pushed for changes in the party&rsquos nominating process that ultimately benefited Obama in his race against Hillary Clinton in 2008.
As Jackson has faded from national prominence, with his image taking a pelting in recent years, it is easy to forget how electric he once was. It is not an overstatement to call him one of the greatest political orators in American history. His ability to inspire farmers and factory workers, maids who &ldquocatch the early bus&rdquo and teenagers growing up in housing projects was unmatched.
He certainly deserves credit for his civil rights activism &mdash in the Deep South as a protégé of Martin Luther King Jr. and later on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley. But Jackson&rsquos most notable achievement was shaking up the American political system by helping reform a major party and demonstrating that occupying the Oval Office really was an attainable dream. &ndash Kevin Merida
Michael Jackson Because he is the King of Pop Singer-songwriter b. 1958 &ndash 2009
It seems fate itself set the stage for Michael Jackson. When the musical wunderkind was born in 1958, television was in its experimental age, Billboard Magazine had just premiered its Hot 100 singles chart and the recording industry was planning the 1959 premiere of an awards show called The Grammys.
Over a career spanning five decades, Jackson would bend all these emerging cultural forces to his will. He arrived on the world stage at age 11, having already sacrificed his youth performing at venues around his Indiana hometown of Gary. Combining the soft-shoed grace of Sammy Davis Jr. with the slip-sliding exuberance of James Brown, Michael and the Jackson 5 topped the Hot 100 with their first Motown Records singles &ldquoI Want You Back&rdquo and &ldquoABC&rdquo.
His 1979 coming-of-age solo album, Off The Wall &mdash featuring the self-penned hit &ldquoDon&rsquot Stop &rsquoTil You Get Enough&rdquo &mdash raised the bar for dance music production. The singer&rsquos 1982 follow-up LP, Thriller, was so successful in assimilating world music styles that it rocketed to No. 1 in most countries, including apartheid-era South Africa. It was the first LP to place seven top 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, while nabbing a record-breaking eight Grammys. Thriller remains the best-selling album ever, having moved an undisputed 100 million copies worldwide.
Through his visionary music videos, Jackson established not only his musical mastery, but a quirky fashion sense that incorporated multizippered jackets and a single sequined glove. His videos were so powerful that Epic Records threatened to censure MTV if the fledgling network did not break with its tacit segregationist content policy and broadcast them. Ironically, the videos for &ldquoBillie Jean,&rdquo &ldquoBeat It&rdquo and Thriller not only created unprecedented consumer demand for MTV, they also demonstrated the universal appeal of black music, opening a mainstream entry point for rap.
Jackson shattered so many industry norms and sales records that he justifiably proclaimed himself the &ldquoKing of Pop.&rdquo But greatness came at a price. Through cosmetic enhancements, Jackson morphed into an androgynous, powder-complected waif. He married and divorced Elvis Presley&rsquos daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, followed by marriage to a nurse who bore him two children. He successfully fended off multiple allegations of child molestation, but at the sacrifice of his once squeaky-clean image.
Today, Jackson haunts the charts in the form of The Weeknd, Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake and countless other acts he influenced. Forbes named him the highest-earning celebrity of 2016. He remains the multiplatinum standard, a symbol of near-unattainable excellence in entertaining. &ndash Bruce Britt
Jay Z Because he&rsquos saving hip-hop while handling his business Artist, entrepreneur b. 1969
If hip-hop had a Mount Rushmore, there are three men whose faces would be chiseled in granite: The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur and Jay Z. Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac were both killed in their mid-20s. Jay Z is now 47. Maybe he wasn&rsquot supposed to be the best, but that&rsquos what he became. Hov got flow though he&rsquos no Big and Pac, but he&rsquos close / How I&rsquom &lsquoposed to win, they got me fightin&rsquo ghosts, he rapped on New York City&rsquos Hot 97 radio station in 2006, the same year MTV named him the greatest MC of all time.
Shawn Corey Carter grew up in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, New York, where his mother, Gloria Carter, remembers he&rsquod be in the kitchen of their apartment &ldquobeating on the table and rapping into the wee hours of the morning&rdquo until she bought him his first boom box. But he&rsquos never been an artist, he says &mdash always just a hustler. He never graduated from high school and sold crack cocaine until he arrived as Jay Z with his 1996 debut album, Reasonable Doubt.
If Jay Z is the greatest, it&rsquos not just because the only others in his league are ghosts. It&rsquos because when it looked like hip-hop itself was dead, Jay Z brought it back to life. His 13 Billboard No. 1 albums are the most by any solo artist in history. And they&rsquore sprinkled with timeless tracks, from 2004&rsquos &ldquo99 Problems,&rdquo a look at what it&rsquos like to drive while black in America, to 2009&rsquos &ldquoD.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune),&rdquo which single-handedly demolished a wave of music, to &ldquoN&mdash-s in Paris,&rdquo one of the hottest party records in the last decade.
And as he climbed the charts, Jay Z also became an influential businessman with an estimated net worth of $610 million. He is an owner of Tidal, a streaming music service. He co-founded Roc-A-Fella Records, served as president of Def Jam Records, founded entertainment company Roc Nation, and became part-owner of the Brooklyn Nets before giving up his stake in the NBA franchise to found his own sports agency, Roc Nation Sports.
Oh, and his wife is Beyoncé. He has lived the American dream of reinvention and second chances. I&rsquom not a businessman. I&rsquom a business, man. Now let me handle my business, damn! That&rsquos hip-hop. &ndash Aaron Dodson
Katherine Johnson Because she used numbers to find her voice at NASA Mathematician, physicist b. 1918&mdash2020
Every American kid &mdash by the time he or she reaches fourth grade &mdash has studied the important history of this country&rsquos space missions. The significance of NASA being able to send John Glenn around the earth three successful times is well-documented, well-reported on and appropriately looked at as one of the more important gains in air and space. The critical nugget that always was missing was the unseen black female force that helped him get there.
Thankfully, we now know better. Katherine Johnson, 98, was a physicist and mathematician who helped launch the first use of digital electronic computers at NASA, the independent federal government agency that handles aerospace research, aeronautics and the civilian space program. Her wisdom with numbers and accuracy was so highly regarded that her sign-off was paramount for NASA to modernize itself with digital computers.
Be clear, Johnson wasn&rsquot alone &mdash many black women were hired by NASA in the early 1950s to work in the Guidance and Navigation Department. Johnson came on board in 1953 &mdash a year before the civil rights movement kicked into high gear &mdash and she initially worked in a pool of black women who all were performing math calculations. But it was Johnson who was plucked out of the pool to work with an all-male flight research team. It was Johnson who helped calculate the orbit for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon. And it was Johnson who co-authored 26 scientific papers, which NASA still links to via its archives.
Her story &mdash our story &mdash was told in grand Hollywood fashion. Oscar-nominated actor and Golden Globe winner Taraji P. Henson brought her life to the big screen in the critically acclaimed Hidden Figures, and Henson boldly helped to tell a story that so many of us never knew existed. Finally.
Johnson is a genius. She was a math prodigy who was 14 years old when she graduated from high school, 18 years old when she earned a double degree in math and French from West Virginia State College. And she helped to integrate the graduate school at West Virginia University &mdash where she was one of three black students and, ahem, the lone woman &mdash after a Supreme Court ruling. Yes, she has a story worth telling. In 2015, then-President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her pioneering work that led black women to work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. &ndash Kelley L. Carter
Quincy Jones Because he is producing the soundtrack of our lives Music producer, songwriter, activist b. 1933
So many words can be used to describe the influence of Quincy Jones, but let&rsquos start with innovator. Others that work: producer, writer, arranger, composer and humanitarian. The Chicago native (who came of age in Washington state) has been making an impact on music and popular culture for six decades &mdash he&rsquos scored and soundtracked the majority of our lives, contributing to and producing some of the best-selling albums of all time.
Jones is responsible for a number of &ldquofirsts,&rdquo and also paved the way for other African-Americans in the entertainment industry. Along with his music partner, he was the first black composer nominated for an Academy Award in 1968. In 1971, he was the first black musical director and conductor for the show. And in 1995, Jones was the first black person to be honored with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Musically, Jones is a wonder. He&rsquos earned 79 Grammy nominations, collected 27 Grammys and was honored with a Grammy Legend Award in 1991.
He produced all three of Michael Jackson&rsquos iconic albums &mdash Off The Wall, Bad and Thriller &mdash the last of which sold more than 32 million copies in the United States alone. Those albums have inspired a generation of pop stars, including Chris Brown, Usher and Justin Timberlake. A song he produced in 1985 sealed his reputation as a humanitarian. He gathered 37 of the biggest names in music at that time together in one studio to record the Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie-penned track We Are The World and support famine relief in Africa. The album sold more than 20 million copies and the song is one of the highest-selling singles of all time.
Jones&rsquo influence extends across many media: He founded Vibe magazine in 1993, an entertainment publication that gave urban Generation Xers a periodical that reflected themselves. And Jones &mdash who turns 84 in March &mdash isn&rsquot done. A monthly vinyl subscription service announced Jones as an upcoming curator for its record of the month, and a new headphone collaboration looks to give Dr. Dre a run for his money. &ndash Kelley L. Carter
Michael Jordan Because it&rsquos gotta be the shoes Basketball player, principal owner of the Charlotte Hornets b. 1963
Michael Jordan operates on his own terms. The ruthless competitor in him has made sure of that. Over the years, he molded himself into this lauded beast in reaction to what perhaps only he considers failure. It all began in 1978, during his sophomore year at Laney High School in Wilmington, North Carolina, when Jordan was not selected for the varsity basketball team. A relentless nature and a growth spurt ultimately got him to a level of athleticism and bravado he&rsquos yet to descend from. He dominated on varsity and received a basketball scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At UNC, he hit a game-winner to clinch a national championship and was named the national college player of the year. In the 1984 NBA draft, the Chicago Bulls selected him third overall. Many have wondered why he didn&rsquot go No. 1 or No. 2.
Debates could &mdash but shouldn&rsquot &mdash be entertained regarding his place in the history of the game. Jordan is the greatest player to ever touch a basketball and it&rsquos not even close. His six NBA titles in six NBA Finals appearances with six NBA Finals MVPs are among the greatest feats sports has ever seen. Five league MVPs, 10 league scoring titles, an NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award, two NBA Slam Dunk contest trophies &mdash remember the free throw line dunk? &mdash and the list goes on. The NBA told him not to wear the sneakers Nike made for him, but he still did, eventually turning Air Jordan into an entire commercial collection and billion-dollar brand. His Jumpman logo is likely more recognizable than the NBA logo&rsquos silhouette of Jerry West. At the peak of his playing career, Jordan entered an early retirement to play Major League Baseball. When he failed this time, he did so on his own terms, announcing his return to the NBA with a two-word fax that read, &ldquoI&rsquom back,&rdquo before winning three more championship rings. Another retirement led to another comeback, and a 51-point game at the age of 38.
When his playing days ended, Jordan turned a minority stake in an NBA franchise to principal ownership of the Charlotte Hornets. And in 2016, in a rare public statement on social justice, the only African-American majority owner in major professional sports said he could &ldquono longer stay silent&rdquo about the killings of African-Americans and targeting of police officers.
Ruthless, relentless and peerless. That&rsquos the Jordan way. &ndash Aaron Dodson
Martin Luther King Jr . Because he was the warrior of nonviolence Civil rights activist, Baptist minister b. 1929 &ndash 1968
&ldquoSo the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.&rdquo
Pick up a pencil. And write me a letter. Show the racial and economic apartheid facing the Negro in the United States. Rouse the fearful souls who feel certain it cannot be overcome. Dismiss the ones who say it shouldn&rsquot be done. Calm the ones who seek to kill to see it done. Set aside the certainty that your life is in mortal peril &mdash when has it not been?
Of course we are speaking of Martin Luther King Jr., and the challenge is Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Why is it so hard now to see the blood and sweat behind the monument King has become? Perhaps peaceful resistance feels so passive in these pugnacious times? But when was it ever not so? Perhaps his eloquence lulls the senses with its beauty. Perhaps martyrdom puts his exhortations out of reach of the normal person.
Certainly, he was a man of incredible achievement: seminal leader of the civil rights movement, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a key figure in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. And after his assassination, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a federal holiday, a monument in Washington, D.C., a coloring book page on every refrigerator in every house with a child under 6 during Black History Month.
The key to that achievement? Here&rsquos a hint from the man himself:
&ldquoWe decided to set our direct-action program around the Easter season, realizing that, with exception of Christmas, this was the largest shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic withdrawal program would be the by-product of direct action, we felt that this was the best time to bring pressure on the merchants for the needed changes.&rdquo
Note the precision of the planning, the cunning in the details: King was waging a war. This was not about turning the other cheek. He would not answer violence with violence but would fight until he died. It is hard now to see the movement behind the movement. What we glaze over as a glorious fight for our inalienable rights was for him to put &ldquopressure on the merchants for the needed changes.&rdquo
He is still etched in marble. But remember this: The tools he used are within your possession. He asked for more than nonviolence. He asked that you use them. &ndash Raina Kelley
Henrietta Lacks Because she was the subject of a medical experiment that is still saving lives today HeLa cell line b. 1920 &ndash 1951
Doctors stole her cells. Henrietta Lacks was an accidental pioneer of modern-day medicine her cells are saving lives today even though she died in 1951.
Lacks was a 31-year-old mother of five when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Just months before her death, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore sliced pieces of tissue from her cancerous tumor without her consent &mdash in effect, stealing them. It was another instance of decades of medical apartheid and clinical practices that discriminated against blacks. Lacks was not a slave, but parts of her cancerous tumor represent the first human cells ever bought and sold.
Her cells, known among scientists as HeLa, were unusual in that they could rapidly reproduce and stay alive long enough to undergo multiple tests. Lacks&rsquo cells &mdash now worth billions of dollars &mdash live in laboratories across the world. They played an important part in developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization. The HeLa cell line has been used to develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza and Parkinson&rsquos disease. They&rsquove been influential in the study of cancer, lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases and appendicitis.
Lacks&rsquo story is an example of the often-problematic intersection of ethics, race, and medicine, a link to the dark history of exploitation of, and experimentation on, African-Americans that ranges from the Tuskegee syphilis study to a 19th-century doctor experimenting with gynecological treatments on slave women without anesthetics. &ndash Kelley D. Evans
Malcolm X Because he was the spark who sought to ignite equality by any means necessary Civil rights activist, minister b. 1925 &ndash 1965
Malcolm X was royalty. He was the American Dream whether America wanted him to be or not. Born Malcolm Little, Malcolm X overcame drug addiction and a life of crime to become one of the country&rsquos foremost civil rights leaders and champions of black pride in the 20th century. Malcolm X converted to Islam while serving a six-year prison sentence for burglary in Massachusetts. In just two years after his 1952 release from prison, he became a minister at Nation of Islam temples in Boston, Philadelphia and New York.
In 1957, Malcolm X founded the Nation of Islam newspaper Muhammad Speaks. The paper remains one of his lasting legacies as it was the medium for him to spread his revolutionary message. His philosophies on black pride, black beauty and black power spread widely across the country &mdash for a time in the 1960s it was the most widely read black newspaper in the United States, boasting a circulation in the 100,000s. Malcolm X&rsquos theories became the blueprint for the black power movements of the &rsquo60s and &rsquo70s. Malcolm X also receives credit for cultivating the notion that &ldquoblack is beautiful.&rdquo From 1952 to Malcolm X&rsquos murder in 1965, the Nation of Islam&rsquos membership grew from around 1,000 to 20,000 (though estimates vary).
By 1963, Malcolm X had become the second-most sought after speaker in the United States and was interviewed by Mike Wallace of CBS News. His Unity Rally in that same year was one of the biggest civil rights gatherings at the time. His friendship with Muhammad Ali is one of the more storied relationships of the &rsquo60s, and they set the world on fire with their beliefs and willingness to speak out.
Malcolm X took a more diplomatic stance with regard to race relations after leaving the Nation of Islam in 1964. Previously he&rsquod been known for segregationist views and acceptance of violence in the quest for equality. He began though to preach peaceful resistance, and the benefits of integration and unity. However, his break from the Nation of Islam would be short-lived, as he was assassinated in New York City in 1965. He was 39.
Malcolm X&rsquos legacy was cemented posthumously, as The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written with Alex Haley, only expanded his influence. The paperback version of the book sold 400,000 copies in its first year and is essential reading for any American. He also became part of a Black Power movement in the early &rsquo90s as director Spike Lee&rsquos adaptation of the autobiography reignited interest in the leader and his ideals of Pan-Africanism. His most famous quote, &ldquoIf you don&rsquot stand for something, you will fall for anything&rdquo is as important in 2017 as it was in the 1960s. &ndash David Dennis Jr.
Thurgood Marshall Because he was the most feared black man in the South Supreme Court justice b. 1908 &ndash 1993
By the time Thurgood Marshall was nominated to be a Supreme Court justice in 1967, few lawyers in history had argued &mdash and won &mdash more cases before the nation&rsquos highest court. He racked up 29 wins (against just three losses), including his most famous victory, Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 landmark decision that forced public schools to desegregate.
Marshall is arguably the most pivotal figure in the destruction of Jim Crow, and the most consequential lawyer of the 20th century. While other civil rights leaders organized strategically vital sit-ins, marches and boycotts, Marshall attacked inequality and racism where America had legally sanctioned it. As the NAACP&rsquos lead attorney and first director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, he traveled the South filing briefs in local courthouses, representing poor black defendants in criminal cases, doing battle against racist white juries and judges, and establishing grounds for appeals to higher courts.
Marshall traveled 50,000 miles a year, often alone in some of the nation&rsquos most dangerous cities and towns. He stayed in the homes of appreciative black folks who took elaborate steps to keep him safe and a step ahead of marauding Klansmen. His courage was remarkable. He managed to maintain his gravitas and fortitude amid daily death threats, sipping bourbon and telling stories.
He feared no one &mdash not his colleagues on the Supreme Court, whom he occasionally pricked during his 24 years there, not even the national reverence for the Constitution, which he labeled &ldquodefective from the start&rdquo on the occasion of its bicentennial. He took shots at Malcolm X and Clarence Thomas alike.
It was fitting that he was called Mr. Civil Rights. Gilbert King, in his book, Devil in the Grove, notes the reverence for Marshall among blacks who saw him get case after case overturned by the Supreme Court.
No wonder that across the South, in their darkest, most demoralizing hours, when falsely accused men sat in jails, when women and children stood before the ashy ruins of mob-torched homes, the spirits of black citizens would be lifted with two words whispered in defiance and hope:
Toni Morrison Because she believed everyone has a story to tell Novelist, playwright b. 1931 &ndash 2019
&ldquoYou your best thing, Sethe. You are.&rdquo That penultimate line from Toni Morrison&rsquos Beloved &mdash her fifth novel and winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction succinctly explains the significance of what Morrison, born Chloe Ardelia Wofford, has contributed not only to literature but to the understanding of the history of black people in the United States.
Many writers used fiction to tell the story of our people, to reveal the physical and mental burden of half a millennium of systemic dehumanization. But it was Morrison who told you straight up &ndash from behind a lectern at Princeton University or in her writings: Her &ldquoword-work&rdquo was not meant to &ldquobattle heroines and heroes like you have already fought and lost,&rdquo she said in her acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993. She wrote for a reader who whispered to her, &ldquoStop thinking about saving your face. Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story. Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.&rdquo
It was not her prose&rsquos job to teach you the horrors of slavery. If you didn&rsquot know, she&rsquod already told you in The Black Book, the seminal 1974 collection of primary evidence documenting the joy and pain of the Africans brought to America and the generations they begat. Morrison did not plumb the depths of our history to prove to anybody, not even ourselves, that we were human. The power of her novels lives in the voices of characters who are given their own stories &mdash to hell with you if you&rsquore too scared to look.
There are no lectures in her novels. Not even in her magnum opus, Beloved, about Sethe, a woman haunted by the child she killed instead of returning her to slavery. Sethe&rsquos story of survival in the face of breathtaking brutality is her own. Her thirst for freedom for her children and for a future was not written to make you feel grateful for yours. Her rage and sorrow may mirror our own, but it is not ours. To read Morrison is to be reminded that each of us has our own journey. We need only crack open one of her books at any page to find the strength of fellow travelers. To be one with the last utterance in Beloved. &ldquoMe? Me?&rdquo &ndash Raina Kelley
Barack Obama Because he was the president of the United States of America 44th president of the United States b. 1961
Barack Hussein Obama&rsquos stride into history has been as confident as it has been unlikely.
He announced his candidacy for president on Feb. 10, 2007, a black first-term U.S. senator who previously had served just seven years in the Illinois Senate. He had little support from established politicians, and many black voters did not even know who he was. But his campaign became a movement. His soaring speeches promising hope and change inspired millions. Less than two years later, a record crowd gathered on the National Mall to witness what was once unthinkable: the inauguration of the first black president of the United States.
It was a singular achievement by a man with a singular history. He was born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and white mother. As a child, he lived in Indonesia before returning to Hawaii to be raised by his white grandparents.
As a teenager, he began to discover his black identity largely through basketball. He admired and emulated the loose-limbed swagger of the guys who played the game. He saw black as cool, and embraced the virtues of blackness while managing to sidestep much of its complicated baggage.
All along, he behaved like a man unconstrained by stereotype. He married a black woman from Chicago&rsquos South Side, gushing in one of his books not only about her beauty and intelligence but also the warmth and strength of her family. Asked to name television shows he liked, he mentioned the gritty urban drama The Wire, adding that his favorite character was Omar, a gay stickup man.
Through two terms as president, he tamed the Great Recession, rescued the struggling auto industry and enacted a health care reform law that had eluded Democrats for decades. He was disciplined and deliberative, even-tempered and level-headed. He was often described as the smartest person in the room, which everyone knew he knew.
Overall, Obama governed as a moderate. Republicans were annoyed when he punctuated his positions by saying &ldquoelections have consequences.&rdquo Black progressives grumbled when he answered their pleas for programs targeting black problems by saying, &ldquoI&rsquom not the president of black America. I&rsquom the president of the United States of America.&rdquo
Obama remained confident even after voters chose as his successor, Donald Trump, a man who in both style and substance is his polar opposite. Speaking to the nation in his farewell address, Obama reprised the slogan that accompanied his history-making rise to the White House:
&ldquoYes we can,&rdquo he said. &ldquoYes we did. Yes we can.&rdquo &ndash Michael A. Fletcher
Jesse Owens Because he was the sprinter who humiliated Hitler Track and field athlete b. 1913 &ndash 1980
One of racism&rsquos tragic ironies is that black athletes once needed to prove themselves athletically equal to whites. Heading into the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, before the world fully recognized Adolf Hitler&rsquos genocidal ambitions, the German dictator&rsquos popular theories claimed that no dark-skinned person could compete with the blond-haired, blue-eyed &ldquoAryan master race.&rdquo Hitler&rsquos lunacy was aided, a few months before the Olympics, when Germany&rsquos Max Schmeling knocked out the undefeated black heavyweight champion Joe Lewis.
Enter James Cleveland &ldquoJesse&rdquo Owens. He almost didn&rsquot make it to Berlin &mdash the United States considered boycotting the Olympics over Hitler&rsquos treatment of Jews, which had not yet reached its incomprehensibly horrific nadir. But many African-Americans opposed a boycott, yearning for validation on a truly level playing field. Owens already owned several world records and was recognized as the fastest man alive. He emerged in Berlin as the unquestioned star of the Olympics, setting or equaling records in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter sprint, the 400-meter relay and long jump.
German crowds enthusiastically applauded his performances, deepening Hitler&rsquos humiliation. It&rsquos unclear whether Hitler directly snubbed Owens by refusing to shake his hand, which has become part of the Owens legend. Olympic organizers told Hitler to either shake all the winners&rsquo hands or none &mdash he chose none.
Racism&rsquos ironies have no end. Owens returned home to the oppression of Jim Crow. &ldquoI wasn&rsquot invited up to shake hands with Hitler,&rdquo he said, &ldquobut I wasn&rsquot invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either.&rdquo Lacking a college degree, forced through back doors and to the back of buses, he subsisted on low-paying jobs such as pumping gas and demeaning public appearances such as racing horses. Later, he established himself as a public speaker. As a believer in pursuing equality through economic rather than political means, he initially criticized the civil rights movement and the raised-fist 1968 Olympic protest by John Carlos and Tommie Smith. &ldquoThe only time the black fist has significance is when there&rsquos money inside,&rdquo Owens said. A smoker, he died of lung cancer in 1980.
Owens&rsquo victories not only shattered the myth of white athletic superiority, but established a black man as a heroic standard-bearer for America amid boiling geopolitical conflict. In many ways, he was the first black sports hero for all Americans. It took decades for another to rise. &ndash Jesse Washington
Gordon Parks Because he brought us pictures of black America Photographer, musician, director b. 1912 &ndash 2006
From some of his earliest professional photographs of Ella Watson holding a mop and broom with an American flag draped behind her, to fashion spreads for Vogue magazine, Gordon Parks used the camera and the world around him to show not only the state of African-American life, but also to bring attention to the creativity of his people.
Born Nov. 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks first made a name for himself while working at the Farm Security Administration. He went on to become the first African-American photographer on the staff of Life magazine and produced some of the best photo essays the world has ever seen, from showing the world what it meant to be black in America to the story of 12-year-old Flavio in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. These images resonated with readers and helped propel Life to a level of photojournalism that many say has not been seen since.
Outside of Parks&rsquo documentary work, there was a lighter side that didn&rsquot get as much recognition until later in his life. Parks&rsquo work for Vogue in the 1950s changed the expectations of what an African-American photographer should be doing. This path took Parks to Paris, Cuba and the streets of New York City, creating pictures that showed the beauty of design, colors and creativity of places that few people of color were able to reach.
Parks was the first African-American director of major motion pictures, starting with The Learning Tree in 1969 and Shaft in 1971. The latter movie helped define the blaxploitation era, while simultaneously expanding the identity of African-Americans in films, from actors in front of the camera to producers and directors behind it. Parks, who died in 2006, was a Renaissance man, with nearly two dozen books ranging from autobiography, poetry and photography, as well as 12 films he wrote or directed.
His work transformed how generations of black artists, photographers and musicians saw themselves and the world, opening their imaginations to the possibility of storytelling through images of the black experience. &ndash Brent Lewis
Sidney Poitier Because he was the paradigm shift who ushered in the modern black leading man Actor, filmmaker, director b. 1927
We all really should put the courtesy title &ldquoSir&rdquo in front of acting legend Sidney Poitier&rsquos name.
In 1964, the legend became the first African-American to win an Academy Award for Lilies of the Field, an important piece of cinema about a black handyman who encounters a group of German, Austrian and Hungarian nuns who believe that he&rsquos been heaven-sent. Some may say the same about Poitier&rsquos career.
At a time when black folks were about to see the fruits of the civil rights struggle, the Oscar-winner challenged the American box office &mdash and thus, the average American &mdash about what a movie star looked like. He was undeniably black, and in 1967, the year that Thurgood Marshall was confirmed as the first African-American Supreme Court justice, Poitier was one of the year&rsquos most successful movie stars. Change was a-coming.
The films that he created in 1967 were seminal &mdash they all centered around race and race relations and tapped into conversations everyday black folks were having around their dinner tables. To Sir with Love dealt with racial and social issues inside of a school in London&rsquos East End. In the Heat of the Night introduced us to a black detective who is investigating a murder in a small Southern town and the much-referenced Guess Who&rsquos Coming to Dinner addressed interracial relationships the same year that a landmark Supreme Court civil rights decision invalidated laws prohibiting interracial unions.
Poitier grew up in his parents&rsquo native Bahamas, though he was born in Miami, and he came back to the States when he was 15. After a brief stint with the Army during World War II, he found his calling. He earned a spot as a member of the American Negro Theater after a successful audition, and by the end of the 1940s he was dipping his toe in film. And we&rsquore all the better for it. Perhaps the most important thing Poitier pulled off was to understand the importance of having someone who looked like him step behind the camera and direct. Visual presence is paramount, and power comes at the hands of those who can shape it. He helmed a number of important cinematic moments for black folks, including Uptown Saturday Night, Let&rsquos Do It Again, both of which he also starred in, and the iconic comedic ebony-and-ivory pairing of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in Stir Crazy.
Poitier has established a lane that an actor like Denzel Washington &mdash who is currently being celebrated for acting in and directing the poignant adaptation of August Wilson&rsquos Fences &mdash can comfortably walk in. Poitier&rsquos pioneering presence helped make that happen. And now the cycle continues. &ndash Kelley L. Carter
Richard Pryor Because he was the comedian who reflected America&rsquos racial pain and confusion Comedian b. 1940 &ndash 2005
Pain was always Richard Pryor&rsquos comedic easel of choice. Look no further than his chillingly still relevant 1974 bit, &ldquoNiggers vs. Police,&rdquo from the Grammy-award winning album That Nigger&rsquos Crazy. Pryor&rsquos jokes were a therapeutic soundtrack for black America and a no-holds-barred crash course for those who failed to understand what it meant to be an outsider in one&rsquos own country a century after the abolition of slavery. That same year, Rolling Stone caught up with Pryor as he purchased a Walther .380 and Colt .357. At checkout, Pryor had but one question for the gun shop owner: &ldquoLike, how come all the targets you ever see are black?&rdquo
Born Dec. 1, 1940, in Peoria, Illinois, Richard Franklin Lennox Pryor III&rsquos art reflected his life &mdash hard, vulgar, sensitive and, of course, hilarious. He was molested at 6, abandoned by his mother, a sex worker, at 10, and was raised in his grandmother&rsquos brothel.
No comedian has used the black experience more effectively to express its complexities to diverse audiences. His was a comedy that black folks usually heard in private, that sometimes made white folks squeamish &mdash yet appreciative of the reality check. The recipient of one Emmy and five Grammys from 1974 to 1982 &mdash the last of which was for Live At The Sunset Strip, arguably comedy&rsquos greatest standup routine ever &mdash Pryor also had a number of exceptional movie roles, including credits in Lady Sings The Blues, The Mack, Uptown Saturday Night, The Wiz, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, and Harlem Nights.
His life and career are a vision board of incredible highs, debilitating lows, tumultuous relationships and the ever-present demon of drug addiction. Later, there was multiple sclerosis. Comedy legends such as Eddie Murphy, Robin Harris, Martin Lawrence, Bernie Mac, Cedric the Entertainer, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock and Kevin Hart are direct beneficiaries of Pryor&rsquos flawed genius. &ndash Justin Tinsley
Jackie Robinson Because he was the man who knocked Jim Crow clean out of the park Baseball player, civil rights activist b. 1919 &ndash 1972
When considering Jackie Robinson, think about the basics, about the justification for Jim Crow, which existed not because whites did not want to live among blacks, just as the reason for segregation in baseball wasn&rsquot because white players and fans did not want to compete against blacks or watch them play.
The justification lies in the basics, in the bones, that fundamental belief that African-Americans were sociologically and scientifically incapable of joining white society. The best way to consider Robinson is to consider the victory of his opposition had he failed.
Joe Louis and Jesse Owens came before Robinson, but each participated in an individual sport, where whites could appreciate black talent, but not have to dine with them, share a cab with them, and yes, take a shower next to them. Blacks were enjoyed without having to remove the invisible wall of segregation as a national belief system or even consider the logic of its construction.
The African-American athlete is the most influential and important black employee in American history. Robinson leads the list and always will because of the colossal stakes of his failure. His opponents would have used him as proof African-Americans could not walk and live among whites, not just because they were black, but because they were convinced that blackness disqualified African-Americans from cultivation, dignity, refinement, responsibility, leadership, discipline and manners &mdash the very foundations of Jim Crow and total black subjugation. A Robinson misstep in performance was one thing, but in temperament would have been catastrophic.
Certainly another black player would have been given a chance to integrate, but when? The dominoes of his failure alter the entire remainder of the 20th century. On the small scale, Robinson&rsquos failure would have certainly eliminated or curtailed the legendary careers of Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Bob Gibson, Roberto Clemente in baseball, and probably Jim Brown in football, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain in basketball, as both the NBA and NFL integrated after Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers.
On the larger scale, a Robinson social failure likely keeps the military from integrating its units, which it did in 1948, three years after Robinson was signed, or allowing blacks to stay in major hotels in several cities, as Robinson forced in St. Louis in the 1950s. Instead of being immortalized on a stamp, Robinson would have been the symbol for his enemies and his likely cowed white allies, the face not of why segregation couldn&rsquot work, but why it needed to remain. &ndash Howard Bryant
Sojourner Truth Because of a famous speech amid a lifetime of activism Abolitionist, activist b. 1797 &ndash 1883
Sojourner Truth, an escaped slave who lost her family, her first love and children to the peculiar institution, turned her pain and Christian faith into triumph by helping others &mdash especially women &mdash recognize their worth.
&ldquoThat man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain&rsquot I a woman? Look at me!&rdquo
That was the message that caught the attention of attendees during her spontaneous speech at the Ohio Women&rsquos Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, in May 1851. Although she is famed for that speech, it&rsquos unlikely the words are exact: They come from a version published years later using a stereotypical Southern dialect, while Truth grew up in New York and Dutch was her first language.
Regardless, she was a prominent and frequent speaker on women&rsquos rights and abolition. Born Isabella Baumfree in New York around 1797, she was the ninth child born into an enslaved family. She gave herself the name &ldquoSojourner Truth&rdquo in 1843 after becoming a Methodist and soon began a life of preaching and lecturing.
Truth pursued political equality for all women and spoke against other abolitionists for not pursuing civil rights for all black men and women. As the movement advanced, so did Truth&rsquos reputation. Her memoirs &mdash The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave &mdash were published in 1850 and she toured and spoke before ever-larger crowds. During the Civil War, she helped recruit black troops for the Union Army, which granted her the opportunity to speak with President Abraham Lincoln.
Truth died in 1883 at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan. Four decades later, the constitutional amendment extending the vote to women was ratified. &ndash Kelley D. Evans
Harriet Tubman Because she was a conductor of the Underground Railroad Abolitionist b. 1820 &ndash 1913
Harriet Tubman, the influential &ldquoconductor&rdquo of the Underground Railroad, will be the first African-American woman to appear on U.S. currency when her likeness appears on the $20 bill beginning in 2020. She led hundreds of slaves out of the South to freedom and each journey and every person mattered. &ldquoI was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can&rsquot,&rdquo she said. &ldquoI never ran a train off the track and I never lost a passenger.&rdquo
Born into slavery, she endured physical violence nearly every day in her early years. In one such incident, Tubman encountered a slave who left the fields without permission. When she refused to restrain the runaway, the overseer hurled a two-pound weight at her, striking her in the head. The episode left lifelong episodes of headaches and seizures.
Tubman escaped from slavery in 1849, using the Underground Railroad to make the 90-mile trip from Maryland to Philadelphia. But her individual safety wasn&rsquot enough. Hearing that her niece and her children were going to be sold, she went back to the South and led them on the path to Philadelphia. Soon she came for her siblings. Then for her parents. After passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which dictated that slaves who escaped to the North could be recaptured and returned to slavery, Tubman changed her route to end in Canada, a country where slavery was outlawed. Even though there was a bounty for her capture, she made at least 19 trips.
During the Civil War, she became a nurse and spy for the Union government. She tended to the sick and wounded, caring for soldiers both black and white. After the war, she cared for her parents and the needy, and turned her house into the Harriet Tubman Home for Indigent and Aged Negroes. Tubman died of pneumonia in 1913 and was buried with military honors. &ndash Callan Mathis
Madam C . J . Walker Because she found out you can never go broke working black women&rsquos hair Entrepreneur, activist b. 1867 &ndash 1919
At first, it was all about hair and an ointment guaranteed to heal scalp infections. Sarah Breedlove &ndash the poor washerwoman who would become millionaire entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker &ndash was trying to cure dandruff and banish her bald spots when she mixed her first batch of petrolatum and medicinal sulfur.
But what began as a solution to a pesky personal problem quickly became a means to a greater end. With the sale of each 2-ounce tin of Walker&rsquos Wonderful Hair Grower, she discovered that her most powerful gift was motivating other women. As she traveled throughout the United States, the Caribbean and Central America, teaching her Walker System and training sales agents, she shared her personal story: her birth on the same plantation where her parents had been enslaved, her struggles as a young widow, her desperate poverty. If she could transform herself, so could they. In place of washtubs and cotton fields, Walker offered them beauty culture, education, financial freedom and confidence. &ldquoYou have made it possible for a colored woman to make more money in a day selling your products than she could in a week working in white folks&rsquo kitchens,&rdquo one agent wrote to her.
The more money Walker made, the more generous she became &mdash $1,000 to her local black YMCA in Indianapolis, $5,000 to the NAACP&rsquos anti-lynching fund. Scholarships for students at Tuskegee and Daytona Normal and Industrial institutes. Music lessons for young black musicians.
In 1917 at her first national convention, Walker awarded prizes to the women who sold the most products and recruited the most new agents. More importantly, she honored the delegates whose local clubs had contributed the most to charity. She encouraged their political activism in a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson, urging him to support legislation that would make lynching a federal crime.
Walker was labeled a &ldquoNegro subversive&rdquo by Wilson&rsquos War Department because of her advocacy for black soldiers during World War I and her support of public protests against the East St. Louis, Illinois, riot.
By the time she died in 1919 in her Westchester County, New York, mansion, she had defied stereotypes, provided employment for thousands of women and donated more than $100,000 to civic, educational and political causes.
As a philanthropist and a pioneer of today&rsquos multibillion-dollar hair care industry, she used her wealth and influence to empower others. One could say she was woke a hundred years ago. &ndash A&rsquoLelia Bundles
Booker T . Washington Because he negotiated a path around white supremacy Educator, civil rights activist b. 1856 &ndash 1915
The task was like building a snowball factory in hell: launching a black college deep in Alabama amid the burning embers of the Confederacy. The state asked for a white man to lead Tuskegee Institute. Instead, Booker Taliaferro Washington got the job.
Washington, born into slavery on a plantation just before the Civil War and educated at Hampton Institute, started Tuskegee in 1881 with 30 students, $2,000 and a one-room shack. An educated Negro was a dangerous Negro, so Washington told whites his students did not want equal rights, but to learn trades and contribute to Southern prosperity. Tuskegee was allowed to grow. Donations from Northern whites poured in.
In 1895, Washington was the only black speaker to address a mostly white audience at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. His speech, critically dubbed the &ldquoAtlanta Compromise,&rdquo made Washington the most influential black person in America. He advised his brethren to work with their hands, &ldquocast down your bucket&rdquo in the South, accept white supremacy and wait patiently for real freedom.
Washington hosted President William McKinley at Tuskegee, visited President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House and became an adviser to both on racial matters. He lectured around the country, helped start the National Negro Business League, and in 1901 published a best-selling autobiography, Up from Slavery. Black intellectuals chafed at his practice of maintaining influence by flattering and cajoling whites. Washington used that power to place African-Americans in patronage positions across the country and secretly fund challenges to Jim Crow laws.
His sway waned in the face of criticism over his seeming compliance with racism, leveled by Harvard graduate W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk and fortified by the 1909 establishment of the NAACP. In 1915, Washington died at Tuskegee and was buried on the campus, which had grown to 1,500 students, 100 buildings and a $2 million endowment.
Washington is remembered as much for accommodating white supremacy as uplifting his race. Was there another way forward when lynching was the law of the land? Another path from Alabama shack to national university? Today, Washington&rsquos strategy can feel shameful. But it echoes in today&rsquos race-neutral approach by some black politicians as well as debates over respectability politics. As much as Tuskegee itself, Washington&rsquos legacy is the choices he introduced &mdash pragmatism or pride, self-improvement or social change &mdash to the black freedom struggle. &ndash Jesse Washington
Ida B . Wells Because she was part of the fourth estate pushing from within to make it see black America Journalist, civil rights activist b. 1862 &ndash 1931
It&rsquos too bad there isn&rsquot more crossover between journalism and the practice of writing comics, because if there was, surely Ida B. Wells would be rendered with a superhero&rsquos cape by now.
Known as a &ldquoSword Among Lions,&rdquo Wells faced down threats of death and torture for bringing international attention &mdash not to mention shame &mdash to the lynch mob terror that afflicted post-Reconstruction black communities in the United States.
Our reluctance to believe the worst about fellow human beings, especially those we deem most familiar, is one of our most persistent shortcomings. Less than 100 years ago, many could not bring themselves to believe the atrocities committed in World War II concentration camps without journalistic evidence. Just a few decades before, Wells was sounding the alarm about the barbaric acts of her countrymen in the pages of the Memphis Free Speech, the newspaper she co-owned. She pushed for action in the face of widespread denialism.
Documenting the epidemic of lynching was miserable, disheartening work, but Wells also found time to advocate for the suffrage and civil rights of black women like herself. She wasn&rsquot much concerned with being polite about it, either. For her troubles, black men criticized her for being unladylike and The New York Times labeled her a &ldquoslanderous and dirty-minded mulatress.&rdquo
Still, Wells rose to represent the best of the American journalistic tradition, and in doing so wasn&rsquot just an advocate for those most afflicted and least comfortable, but a defender and protector of democracy, justice, and freedom for all. She dared America to confront its hypocrisies head-on and live up to the ideals upon which it was founded.
Wells&rsquo crusade lives on, perhaps most directly, in the work of journalists who document the killing of unarmed black people by the nation&rsquos police forces and the comparatively infinitesimal consequences for the officers behind those killings. It&rsquos not just journalists, though &mdash Wells&rsquo work continues in the form of ordinary citizens who risk their own well-being to document fatal police violence with cellphone video, in much the same way Wells was spurred to raise the alarm about lynching after three of her friends were murdered by a Memphis, Tennessee, mob in 1892. She lives on in black women who not only exercise their right to vote but take it upon themselves to run for office (Wells ran for a seat in the Illinois state Senate). She lives in the words and deeds of the NAACP, which she co-founded, and in the practice of intersectional feminism itself. &ndash Soraya McDonald
Serena Williams Because she&rsquos simply the best Tennis player b. 1981
Let&rsquos have a conversation about the best &mdash strike that &mdash the greatest. This isn&rsquot an Aaron Rodgers vs. Tom Brady conversation, or Michael Jordan vs. Magic. One name rises to the top &mdash a name whose resume dominates in ways that no other athletes can measure up to. Serena Williams.
Her resume boasts 23 Grand Slam titles (the record), six U.S. Opens, seven Wimbledon titles, seven Australian Opens, three French Opens, four Olympic gold medals, 23 doubles titles, and a career Golden Slam. Williams has won enough awards for several lifetimes.
Born Sept. 26, 1981, in Saginaw, Michigan, and raised in Compton, California, Williams is the youngest of five daughters. Her father, a former sharecropper from Louisiana, learned from tennis books and videos how to coach his daughters Serena and older sister Venus. In daily two-hour practices, the Williams sisters worked themselves to the bone on a concrete court, avoiding potholes and often practicing without nets. Growing up in Compton meant developing a sense of fight &mdash the same fight that would characterize their game on and off the court.
Williams transcended tennis, a historically white and demure sport, by being herself &mdash with solid curves, a signature Afro-style ponytail, and an energetic style of play. What makes Williams&rsquo career, spanning more than two decades, so remarkable is not a spotless record, but the spirit to rise above the criticism of her age, game, and body and set the standard for accomplishment in sports.
Whether she&rsquos serving tennis balls at 128 mph, designing affordable fashion, or teaming up with Beyoncé in music videos, Williams&rsquo lengthy resume solidifies her place among sport&rsquos all-time greats. &ndash Trudy Joseph
August Wilson Because he is America&rsquos Shakespeare Playwright b. 1945 &ndash 2005
&ldquoYou don&rsquot sing to feel better,&rdquo says the title character in August Wilson&rsquos play Ma Rainey&rsquos Black Bottom. &ldquoYou sing &rsquocause that&rsquos a way of understanding life. You get that understanding and you done got a grip of life to where you can hold your head up and go on and see what else life got to offer. The blues help you to get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain&rsquot alone. There&rsquos something else out there in the world. Something&rsquos been added by that song.&rdquo
Of all the lyrical, poignant and heart-stopping passages that Wilson wrote in his career as a playwright, that one may serve best as his mission statement. Wilson made his life&rsquos work and his world-class art out of the drive to document, explain and ratify the everyday lives of African-Americans and to treat those experiences with epic ambition.
Between 1984, when Ma Rainey premiered to rapturous reviews at the Yale Repertory Theatre, and 2005, when he died tragically young at age 60 in 2005, Wilson produced what he called the American Century Cycle. It consisted of one play for every decade of the 20th century, a trajectory that went from the aftermath of slavery through the Great Migration and the civil rights movement to the dawn of gentrification.
Wilson&rsquos body of work stands as one of the greatest, aside from Shakespeare, in the history of dramatic literature. For artistic fertility and consistent excellence, he is the only American playwright worthy of comparison to Eugene O&rsquoNeill and the only African-American writer in any genre who belongs in the company of Toni Morrison. His two Pulitzer Prizes and multiple Tony and New York Drama Critics&rsquo Circle awards merely formalize the recognition of his talent.
Born in 1945 and raised in Pittsburgh, self-educated since his teens and inspired by the black arts movement, Wilson set nearly all of his work in his home neighborhood of the Hill District. Yet it was only when he moved to largely white St. Paul, Minnesota, in his 30s that he began to fully hear and channel the spoken-word poetry of the musicians, preachers, gamblers, jitney drivers and sanitation workers among whom he had lived.
With the American Century Cycle, Wilson transmuted their voices into art for the ages. And in 2016, Denzel Washington directed and starred in the film adaptation of Wilson&rsquos first Pulitzer-winning play, Fences, bringing that masterpiece to its largest audience ever and starting the process of putting the entire cycle onto the screen. Something indeed has been added by Wilson&rsquos song. &ndash Samuel G. Freedman
Oprah Winfrey Because it&rsquos Oprah. You know Oprah. Media mogul, philanthropist b. 1954
A few days after Donald Trump&rsquos presidential victory, Oscar-winning director Michael Moore urged the Democratic Party to finally get real and nominate Tom Hanks or Oprah Winfrey for president in 2020. &ldquoWhy don&rsquot we run somebody that the American people love and are really drawn to, and that are smart and have good politics and all that?&rdquo Moore asked.
If only it were that logical. Oprah is, after all, every single thing. First African-American female billionaire. Academy Award-winner for her international humanitarian efforts. Host of one of the most celebrated and longest-running daytime talk shows in television history. Owner of a self-named 24-hour cable network. Broadway musical producer and screen actress. Book publishing and literary guru with a best-selling Midas touch. Star maker of countless television hosts and self-help gurus (Dr. Phil, Iyanla Vanzant, Dr. Oz, Suze Orman, Nate Berkus, Rachael Ray, Bob Greene and Gayle King). Cover girl on every single issue of O, The Oprah Magazine since its debut in April 2000 (making her one of the most influential cover models in publishing history).
Had Oprah gotten into the TV business 10 years earlier, the Mississippi-born philanthropist wouldn&rsquot have been let anywhere near the throne: She wasn&rsquot white, blonde, thin or male. When The Oprah Winfrey Show went into national syndication in 1986, she yanked Phil Donahue&rsquos self-help ball and turned TV into something new.
Broadcasting chops aside, Oprah&rsquos secret superhero talent turned out to be getting people to really, really like her. Women are used to keeping secrets, and Oprah had a laundry list of her own. She was so potently self-confessional that owning your shame suddenly felt modern and chic. Savvy marketers and A-list sponsors were quick to buy in early on the Winfrey-approved gravy train. Who can forget the scenes of screaming studio audience members who got new Pontiac G6s, free trips to Australia or boatloads of holiday gifts? She was the first mass media TV star to commercialize postracial wellness, spirituality and best-life striving. But Oprah didn&rsquot just lead black people she became Pied Piper of &ldquoBest You&rdquo agitprop.
With success comes an inevitable cascade of hateration, most of which Oprah manages to side-eye. Her generosity, especially for educational endeavors, is legendary. Mama Oprah, who is famously never-married and childless, funded a girls-only private school in South Africa and tuition gifts to more than 415 Morehouse College students. She even used her televised bully pulpit to endorse then-Sen. Barack Obama&rsquos presidential campaign in 2008, and was rewarded with great ratings and close relationship with the president and first lady Michelle Obama that paid off handsomely over the eight years of their White House stay. &ndash Jill Hudson
Stevie Wonder Because nobody has uplifted more spirits than him Singer-songwriter, producer b. 1950
Since 1961, when the blind 11-year-old musical prodigy auditioned for Motown Records, Stevie Wonder has composed a catalog of unmatched love, compassion, justice and unity &mdash and his instrumental virtuosity fills dance floors to this day.
Born Stevland Judkins in Saginaw, Michigan, and dubbed &ldquoStevie Wonder&rdquo by Motown founder Berry Gordy, his first No. 1 hit came in 1963 with Fingertips, Part 2, which referred to Wonder&rsquos infectious bongo rhythms. In 2016, he released &ldquoFaith&rdquo with Ariana Grande. In between came dozens and dozens of timeless songs, melodies and moments.
Where to start? Maybe with Wonder&rsquos head swaying in rapture, sunglassed eyes fixed on a world of music only he could see but we all could feel. Or with his 1966 cover of Bob Dylan&rsquos &ldquoBlowin&rsquo In The Wind,&rdquo which became an anthem of the civil rights movement. There&rsquos the song that helped make a recalcitrant America accept a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and the stern rebukes aimed at President Richard Nixon. Wonder wrote, produced and played multiple instruments on The Spinners&rsquo 1970 hit &ldquoIt&rsquos A Shame,&rdquo and created his own hits such as &ldquoSigned, Sealed, Delivered I&rsquom Yours,&rdquo &ldquoSuperstition,&rdquo &ldquoLiving For The City&rdquo and &ldquoSir Duke.&rdquo
No other musician has pulled so many heartstrings with a harmonica while simultaneously jamming so ferociously on the piano. No other artist has inspired a legendary annual series of dance parties where only Stevie Wonder music is played. All along, he has maintained an unrelenting social consciousness. As some stars flitted in and out of the struggle, Wonder remained, writing about the unrelenting problems facing those on the bottom. But we are sick and tired of hearing your song / Telling how you are gonna change right from wrong, he sang in 1974. Cause if you really want to hear our views / You haven&rsquot done nothing!
Always, there was love. With Wonder, black love was nurturing and empowering, a continuous source of validation and strength. For once in my life I have someone who needs me / Someone I&rsquove needed so long / For once, unafraid, I can go where life leads me / And somehow I know I&rsquoll be strong, he sang in 1968. Half a century later, in an era when most black music superstars dwell on earthly obsessions, Wonder&rsquos inner visions continue to elevate us to higher ground. &ndash Jesse Washington
Reconstruction and the End of History
T he years between 1865 and 1877 form the period in American history known as Reconstruction—reconstruction, in this case, meaning the rebuilding of the federal Union which had been disrupted by the attempt of eleven Southern states to secede from that Union in order to protect legalized slavery. It might have been a new era of “malice toward none, charity for all” in the wake of the Civil War’s destructiveness. Instead, Reconstruction is, in practical fact, the bad boy of American history—unwept, unhonored, mostly untaught, and only visible in public awareness as something vaguely awful. It suffers from an absence of the kind of battles-and-leaders material that makes the Civil War so colorful and it dissipates into a confusing tale of lost opportunities, squalid victories, and embarrassing defeats.
We’re not even sure why we call it Reconstruction. After all, to re‑construct the Union carries the faint hint that at some point the original Union needed to be de-constructed and would be reassembled according to a newer plan than the one laid out in the Constitution—which is exactly what Abraham Lincoln thought he was opposing. Lincoln had always insisted that the Southern states never had the constitutional authority to withdraw from the Union in the first place, and therefore had never legally left the Union. No wonder Lincoln disliked the term Reconstruction and used it grudgingly, referring to it as “what is called reconstruction” or “a plan of reconstruction (as the phrase goes).” He preferred to speak of the “re-inauguration of the national authority” or the need to “re-inaugurate loyal state governments.” 1
Popular culture has only made matters more confusing. Epic movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind frankly endorsed the bleakest view of Reconstruction, which also happened to be the view of embittered Lost Cause Southerners who believed that they had fought honorably and lost honorably, only to be treated to a dishonorable, oppressive, and incompetent peace. Reconstruction, said Confederate army veteran Leigh Robinson, was “not peace established in power, but captured in shame not throned on high by willing witnesses, but pinned to the earth by imperial steel—the peace of the bayonet.” 2
Of course, what Scarlett O’Hara and Leigh Robinson preferred was a reconstruction that repudiated slavery in name only and that allowed the former Confederacy to keep its 3.9 million African American ex-slaves as little better than economic peons, barred from any form of civil equality or participation. Still, as the war’s losers and sufferers, white Southerners could play the victim card. And play it they did to the point where Reconstruction, for decades, became little more than a story of how Jacobin-like Northern occupiers tried to fleece innocent Southerners of what little the war had left them. For three generations, from Appomattox to the Southern Agrarians of the 1930s, Lost Cause Southerners deplored what Comte called “the revolt of the individual against the species,” and apologized for terror as a necessary method for cleansing the South of a cold-hearted, cold-fisted capitalism. In its place, they would offer the solicitude of the Big House, the cotton patch, and the sharehold. The model of the Lost Causers was a servile state, springing obediently to command, and they strove to banish from it any real public spaces and, with it, any real civic courage. The world of the Old South was a world of oligarchy, and it had the deadly effect of making that kind of world seem perfectly workable, even attractive, in an American environment.
Obstacles to Reconstruction
And yet, as much as I deplore the misconstructions and neglect that are hung around Reconstruction’s neck, I also have to admit that I’m not all that surprised at them or their tenacity. The task of Reconstruction may have been, in terms of scale, the largest national overhaul between the ratification of the Constitution and the New Deal, and it faced some formidable obstacles on the path to success. In the formation of the Constitution and the construction of the New Deal, the architects of both had some general notion of what could be expected, or at least hoped for. In 1787, there had already been state legislatures and a national Congress under the Articles of Confederation, and there was definitely a practical sense of what hadn’t worked in the years since independence. The New Deal, meanwhile, had enjoyed the theoretical benefit of a generation of progressive thinkers and the example of the Wilson administration as a basis on which to erect its programs—not to mention the misery of an economic depression to form the riposte, if not the New Deal, then what? The same was not the case in Reconstruction, since the single biggest obstacle in its path was, in truth, that no one really knew what success in Reconstruction should look like. There were few precedents for reconstructing a republic which had been ravaged by civil war. Granted, the American Civil War was actually one of the shorter versions of a civil war, which are otherwise the most intractable of armed conflicts. It lasted only four years, from the secession of the first Southern states, through the great campaigns to reestablish federal control over the Mississippi Valley, the overland campaigns by the federal armies in Georgia and Virginia that wore down Southern resistance, to the final surrenders of Confederate forces in the spring of 1865. (By comparison, the English Civil Wars of the seventeenth century lasted for eleven years, and didn’t reach a final resolution until the restoration of King Charles II seven years further the Roman Republic endured two back-to-back civil wars in one century, one lasting sixteen years and the other seven). On those terms, we might have hoped that the comparatively swift conclusion of the Civil War would mean a swift Reconstruction as well. 3
But the shortness of the war belied the long decades of growing hostility and alienation between the slave states and the free North, and growing paranoia in the slave states about a future that emancipated their slaves. The hatreds and resentments ran deep, and were entangled around questions of sectional culture and race, rather than politics (in the specific sense of regime type) or religion. In the absence of a convenient template that Americans in 1865 could borrow, Reconstruction would constantly stumble against long-buried hatreds of which the war years had revealed only parts.
There were theories of what might be done. But not more than theories. For instance, Reconstruction could have simply followed the law of conquest, which is to say that the federal government, having triumphed by brute force, was free to impose any settlement on the South it liked, from mass executions to ethnic cleansing. There was, however, no constitutional authority for such measures, nor much popular enthusiasm in the victorious North for these extreme solutions. At the end of a war fought to preserve the integrity and continuity of the Constitution, it would have seemed surpassingly strange to have then waved away every constitutional right to which the defeated were, by Lincoln’s definition, still entitled.
Or, if not the law of conquest, federal authorities might have reduced the Southern states to the constitutional status of territories, which would have put them under the direct supervision of Congress and the federal courts, and required them to go through the whole process of creating territorial legislatures, writing territorial constitutions, and finally petitioning Congress for admission as states. But territorialization would, in effect, have been a concession that the Southern states, by seceding, had indeed removed themselves from the Union, and could only rejoin it by starting over again as federal territories. Lincoln’s argument all along had been that, because secession was a constitutional impossibility, the Southern states had never legally left the Union and thus had never stopped being states. Making them stand outside the Union as territories would have been an admission that they really had left the Union in the first place, and that secession really was a constitutional option.
Yet another solution might have been to address the root cause of secession, which was the determination of the Southern white ruling class to perpetuate slavery. One very direct way of breaking their power would have been to confiscate their plantations and re-distribute the land to the freed slaves who, after all, had been the people who worked that land for 250 years. That had the advantage of fairness to the ex-slaves while stripping the old Southern elite of economic control. 4 But the Constitution explicitly bars this kind of confiscation, through Article I’s strict prohibition of bills of attainder and the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The irony of the Civil War is that the same people who fomented it were, after the war, constitutionally protected in their right to continue owning the lands that had originally given them power.
At this point, it might be worth wondering whether federal authorities should have simply given up entirely on remaking the old Confederacy, and turned instead to resettling the freed slaves in the federally owned territories in the West. In 1862, Congress had opened much of the western territorial land to settlement through the Homestead Act why not a second Homestead Act designed to give the freed slaves an entirely fresh start in our national life, away from the overlords who had once been their masters? The problem here is that there was no enthusiasm in Congress or in the North for such a mass resettlement—too many in Congress thought of the Homestead Act as affirmative action for white people, not blacks—and even less in the South, where the old Southern elite who had survived the war wanted the former slaves as a labor force, no longer perhaps as slaves, but as near to slavery as white state legislatures could make them through the Black Codes they passed in late 1865. Nor were the freedpeople themselves ready to subscribe to what amounted to deportation, since it smacked all too strongly of pre-war colonization schemes to Africa.
These four options—which turned out, for separate reasons, to be non-options—all contained structural, legal, or systemic problems but even if they hadn’t, implementing any of them would assume that the Republican majority in Congress would have faced no serious opposition in doing so. That does not begin to account for the struggle of Northern Democrats to resist the implementation of anything beyond the most token measures of Reconstruction. Northern and Southern Democrats constituted a potent and mutually protective alliance in the decades before the Civil War, and Northern Democrats routinely linked arms with their Southern brethren to ensure that the executive and judicial branches were largely a Democratic fiefdom. “They flattered the lordly ambition of the aristocratic South,” complained the veteran politico, John Pendleton Kennedy, “courted its favor, obeyed its behests, and found a satisfactory compensation in being permitted to share in the spoils of the victory which their alliance enabled their patrons to win.” 5
The emergence of an antislavery political party, the Republicans, in the mid-1850s, and the election of a Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, as president in 1860 brought defeat crashing down on Northern Democratic heads, and the secession of the Southern states reduced Democrats in Congress to a pitiful minority. But Northern Democrats showed impressive powers of recuperation, even during the war. Once the shooting stopped, Northern Democrats were delighted at the prospect of welcoming back their old Southern allies to the halls of Congress, where together they would prove to be an increasingly formidable bastion of resistance to Republican plans for Reconstruction. After the economic Panic of 1873, Democrats regained a majority in the House of Representatives, and retook the Senate in 1878, before finally electing a Democratic president in 1884. Long before that, the revival of Democratic political fortunes had rendered Reconstruction a dead letter.
It did not help matters that Abraham Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, who stepped into Lincoln’s boots after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, was himself a Democrat. He had been added to the Republican ticket as Lincoln’s vice presidential candidate in an effort to woo Democratic votes in the 1864 election. No one had ever imagined that Johnson would actually become president. But he did, thanks to John Wilkes Booth’s fatal shot at Ford’s Theatre, and Johnson proceeded to oversee Reconstruction in just the fashion any Democrat might, including serial vetoes of Republican Reconstruction measures in Congress.
Under these conditions, the wonder is not that Reconstruction was managed badly, but that it happened at all.
The South’s Economy and Its Politics
And yet, Lincoln’s Republicans did have a game plan of sorts for Reconstruction, but it was a plan which did not look like what we might have expected. Much of modern American historians’ perspective on Reconstruction was shaped by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which is sometimes called the “Second Reconstruction.” The Civil Rights Movement was unambiguously a story about race—about mandating civil equality for white and black in voting, education, and public life through landmark legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. From that, most modern historians of the first Reconstruction (beginning with Kenneth Stampp’s The Era of Reconstruction and continuing through Eric Foner’s epic Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877) have assumed that it, too, should also be a story predominantly about race.
But it isn’t. The story of Republican Reconstruction after 1865 is also a story about economics, for in the eyes of Lincoln’s Republicans, the offenses of the slave South ran far deeper than either slavery or race. Eliminating slavery was easy enough (that was done through the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified eight months after the end of the Civil War, in December 1865). What was not easy was persuading white Southerners to turn away economically from the neo-feudalism of plantation agriculture and to accept the freed slaves as equal participants in a new system of “free labor,” which would then open the path to solving the problems posed by race and politics.
From the moment in the 1820s when the Industrial Revolution successfully remade the world’s economy through the inexpensive manufacture of cotton textiles—and made Southern cotton a critical resource in that revolution—the slave states of the American Union had gradually begun marching to a different drummer than the one which had played at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. James Madison had dreaded the likelihood that slaveholding would work a kind of perversion in the life of the slaveholding states, and wrote that “in proportion as slavery prevails in a State, the Government, however, democratic in name, must be aristocratic in fact. . . . All antient popular governments, were,” in reality, “aristocracies” because the “majority were slaves. . . . The Southern States of America, are on the same principle aristocracies.” 6 Even as the Northern states one by one outlawed slavery and embraced ever-wider notions of democracy, slavery and its immense transatlantic profitability gradually converted the Southern states, economically and politically, into what Forrest Nabors has rightly called oligarchies. They still managed to present capitalist appearances they could even tolerate a certain measure of urbanization and industrial development. But behind that façade, they could not accept the ideas key to bourgeois capitalist transformation because the result of that transformation would be an economic freedom that rendered slavery an impossibility as a form of labor. 7
Instead, the Southern states came to resemble a hierarchical world reminiscent of the Middle Ages, or at least the Middle Ages as popularized in Romantic philosophy and popular culture, from Hegel to Sir Walter Scott, and characterized by “imperiousness of manner, impatience of contradiction or delay, ungovernable passion, contempt of labor.” 8 This gradual shifting away from the directions set by the Founders can be seen in three telltale ways, moving from economics to culture to politics, through patterns of landownership, repression of education, and shrinking political participation.
On the eve of the Civil War, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania had a population of approximately three million people the state of Louisiana had a population of about 708,000 (47 percent of whom were black slaves). In Pennsylvania, only seventy-six farms were larger than 500 acres in fact, across the North, in 94 percent of counties in the free states, the median size of farms was between 20 and 99 acres. But in Louisiana, despite the smaller overall population, the average cotton planter owned 2,460 acres indeed, across the slave South, the median farm size was 1,000 acres and more, so that we cease to speak of farms and begin to talk instead of plantations. 9 Simply in terms of landownership, the South had become Downton Abbey.
Of course, the great solvent of oligarchy is education, since education is what would equip up-and-coming entrepreneurs to think their way around the stagnant grasp of the thousand-bale planters. In tiny Maine, with a population of 583,000 in 1859, there were 4,855 public schools in Michigan, with a population of 511,000, there were 3,255 “common schools.” But in Louisiana, a rudimentary school system supported just 749 schools for a population of 587,000 in Georgia, with its 935,000 people, there was no public school system at all in Mississippi, “there is no uniform common-school system for all the counties,” and what public money there was for education went to “all the larger towns.” In Virginia in 1853, “it may convey a just notion of the benighted condition of our State to say, that on the 1 st of October last, there were thirty thousand poor children, over the age of five years, in one hundred and seven counties and towns, without any means of instruction whatever.” 10
Nevertheless, in the South, legislatures dominated by slaveholders regularly voted against systems of public education, and not surprisingly, slave-owning and illiteracy went hand in hand. In 1850, illiteracy rates among whites in the slave states stood at 17.23 percent in the free states, it was just 4.12 percent, and in New England, a minuscule 0.42 percent. This set a pattern congenial to the cotton oligarchs: if you cannot read, you cannot imagine if you cannot write, you cannot invent. If you are a planter, that is a recipe for stability and no competition if you are a slave or a poor white, that is a recipe for subservience. 11
The most revealing aspect of the South’s slow, sclerotic descent into a new feudalism lies in its slowing pace of public political participation. In the presidential election year of 1852, approximately 69.6 percent of Americans cast votes for the presidency. In the Northern states, that percentage was always exceeded: in Pennsylvania, 72.6 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in Ohio and New York, the percentages rose to 80.6 percent and 84.7 percent, and even in frontier Michigan, 71.3 percent of those eligible voted. But in the South, voter participation shrank: in Louisiana, the numbers decline to 48.7 percent, and to 45.3 percent and 48.6 percent in Alabama and Arkansas, respectively. Apart from Tennessee, voter participation in the South stood 15 percentage points lower than the national average—lower, in fact, by 20 percent than in the free states. 12
Together, these shifts away from a bourgeois capitalist order made for a landscape which looked not like America but more like Calabria or Prussia, to the point where it seemed that the South had practically become a no-go area for both liberal economics and politics. “As to any liberty of opinion or real freedom here,” reported the London Times’s correspondent, William Howard Russell, in 1861, “the boldest Southerners would not dare to say a shadow of either exists.” In Mississippi, “itinerant preachers, clock pedlars, gamblers, and steam doctors” were lynched on suspicion of promoting slavery’s abolition. In 1849, Virginia made “speaking or writing” against slavery a statutory offense, punishable by a year in jail and a fine of $500. Southern postmasters routinely censored the mail passing through their offices to destroy abolitionist “propaganda.” Even in border-state Kentucky, Cassius Marcellus Clay’s antislavery newspaper, the True American, was driven out of Lexington under the pretense of being “dangerous to the peace of our community,” but which Clay understood all too clearly as proof that “slavery and a free press could not live together.” “Under pretense of holding colored men in slavery,” said Harper’s Weekly in January 1864, “the real purpose of the aristocracy is . . . an immediate reorganization of society upon a strictly aristocratic basis. . . . Consequently, in its most important provision, the Constitution has been a dead letter in every slave State for more than thirty years.” 13
It was to the breaking of this aristocracy that Lincoln’s Republicans hoped to steer Reconstruction, and the way to do it was to re-open the South to a middle-class economy and free labor. “I see national glory in the future such as the past has never seen,” exulted the perennial Washington insider, Benjamin Brown French, after the Union triumph at Gettysburg, and not only because slavery would be “forever abolished!” The way was now open for the South to be rebuilt by “Free labor & Free rule! No more Cotton lords, but plenty of Cotton Commons, and all the land pouring out its productions & becoming immensely rich,” with “Industry, Wealth, Happiness, Virtue, all marching hand in hand.” “The wilderness shall vanish,” predicted New York congressman Hamilton Ward, “the church and the school-house will appear, and light and knowledge will illumine her dark corners . . . the whole land will revive under the magic touch of free labor, and we shall arise from the ashes of the rebellion to a purer life and a higher destiny, illustrating the grand truth of man’s capacity for self-government.” 14 In short, a long dose of Northern-style capitalism would make the South see green, and in the process, forget all about seeing black and white.
The Rebellion against Reconstruction
And at first, this seemed like it would work. New business start-ups were funded by Northern entrepreneurs (whom Southerners otherwise sneered at as “carpetbaggers”) who expected to create a new economic order in the South, built around the same small-scale industries and commercial export agriculture which characterized the New England village society, rather than reliance on a single, massive export commodity like cotton. 15 Congress created a new environment for encouraging economic regime change through the four Reconstruction Acts of 1867, which superimposed an overlay of five Military Districts on the Southern states. The Black Codes would be swept away, and federal officers would register new black voters and exclude the former Confederate leadership.
By these means, the old Southern state governments would be replaced by new faces—former slaves or free Southern blacks, co-operative Southern Unionists (who were tagged as “scalawags” by their enemies) and Northern transplants. There would be a new pro-business direction to state policy, ambitious schemes of public schooling, and equal justice in the courts. A Freedmen’s Bureau, headed by the “Christian general,” Oliver Otis Howard, would act as an advisor to ex-slaves in creating their own farms and businesses. Between 1868 and 1870, ten of the ex-Confederate states acquired new state governments, some of them featuring the first black legislators ever elected in the South, and those new state governments were then restored to their old status in the Union and allowed to send representatives and senators to Washington—once again including the first black members of Congress. 16
For the brief time that Congress took an active role in Reconstruction, a great deal of positive good was accomplished: public school systems were put in place where frequently there had been none at all investments in infrastructure opened new markets and four million African Americans entered free labor markets and led lives of public meaning as officers, postmasters, jurors, and above all, voters. But hopeful as this looked in planning, it greatly underestimated the willingness of Southern whites to use insurgency tactics to sabotage it. The South did not welcome Yankee capitalism: “Slavery, dying, cursed the soil with its fatal bequest, contempt for labor.” When in 1866, white paramilitary groups staged race riots in New Orleans and Memphis in order to murder and intimidate black voters, these paramilitaries—the Knights of the White Camellia, the League of Pale Faces, and most notoriously, the Ku Klux Klan, who wore the badge of feudalism by dressing like characters out of Ivanhoe—also took aim at the Northern investors whose entrepreneurship would provide the economic undergirding for Reconstruction. 17 Leander Bigger, an Ohioan who moved to South Carolina as a Freedmen’s Bureau agent after service in the Union army, described the burning of a store he owned west of Manning, South Carolina, where the chief offense seemed to have been his willingness to extend credit to black farmers trying to set up on their own:
They ransacked the store. . . . All my dry goods—everything that was combustible—they took out into the square, and took a keg of powder that I kept in a concealed place . . . piled the goods over it, and set the pile on fire. The goods, being calicoes, muslins, and delains, burnt slowly. They carried us up to the fire, and the speaker (they gave all their orders by signals) ordered his men to mount. They mounted their horses, formed in line, and then the speaker came up to me and told me, “You must quit business. This is only a warning: the next time we will put you on the fire.” . . . He said he was from hell and represented the devil that he would take me with him if I did not obey orders. 18
Northern investors and entrepreneurs could not afford the costs of business startups and physical protection from the depredations of the Southern paramilitaries, nor did they have much hope that Southern judges or juries would convict the predators who burned their shops and farms. Gradually, they shut their doors and returned North, since, as Benjamin Butler explained:
No man will risk his capital where he does not believe he can get Justice before a Jury where he does not believe that the community would look favorably upon his enterprise and where he does believe every advantage will be taken from him and every wrong done him. And he now believes all that in the Southern States. . . . New England is dotted all over with men who have gone down to Virginia, and bought farms . . . and who have been absolutely driven out by their neighbors. 19
The Southern Unionists proved even easier to intimidate. All too often, they actually clashed with the “carpetbaggers” for political power and would strike up alliances with ex-Confederates in a bid to establish their own political base. After all, public schools required taxes which fell heaviest on poor whites, and it became easy for the old cotton elites to persuade those whites that they were being cheated by corrupt politicians and to join insurgent movements to resist them the infrastructure investments often failed, and when they failed, they were seized upon as evidence of the evils of Northern-style commerce and of course those same elites shamelessly played the race card to whip up frenzies and riots against black officials and the hated carpetbaggers. At the same time, the freed people were frequently politically inexperienced and badly divided by factionalism within their own ranks they, too, were wooed by ex‑Confederates, offering political alliances that succeeded in putting the old Southern elite back in power—whereupon the restored white leadership promptly forgot any promises it had made to the blacks.
From time to time, the federal government tried to reestablish order in the South, especially in 1871, when President Ulysses Grant invoked the powers given him by the Force Acts to suspend habeas corpus and prosecute the Ku Klux Klan into oblivion. But that kind of intervention depended on support from the federal courts and money from Congress to fund the military and judicial muscle needed to suppress the Klan and its white supremacist copycats, and through the 1870s, both of those supports collapsed. The U.S. Supreme Court handed down a series of decisions, beginning with the Slaughter-House Cases in 1873 and running through the Civil Rights Cases ten years later, which shrank the boundaries of federal jurisdiction over state laws. The year after the Slaughter-House Cases, the Panic of 1873 sent frightened voters to the polls to elect the first Democratic majority in the House of Representatives since the Civil War, and the new Democratic majority there would ensure that no further support for military or legal intervention in the South would be forthcoming.
With the threat of federal intervention removed, the old prewar oligarchy, recruiting impoverished whites with a racist them-or-us message, regained control of Southern state legislatures and governor’s offices, and gradually, between October 1869, and April 1877, the new Reconstruction state governments were overthrown. In 1876, the narrowest presidential contest in American history, between the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and the Democrat Samuel Tilden, installed Hayes in the White House only because he promised Southerners not to obstruct these overthrowings. This might have changed with the radical Republican James Garfield, who was elected president in 1880 but Garfield, like Lincoln, was assassinated, and thereafter all energy for more Reconstruction drained away for another seventy years.
Of course, the South paid a stiff price for Reconstruction’s overthrow, especially in economic terms, since the South’s embrace of racial serfdom doomed it to eight decades of economic backwardness, during which time it hardly seemed to be part of the same economy as the rest of the country. In 1880, per capita income in the South was $88 per annum, while in the rest of the nation, it stood at $175. From there, the numbers fell further behind: by 1900, Southern per capita income had risen to $102, but the rest of the nation had risen to $203. In other words, Southern per capita income in 1900 still stood at only half that of the rest of the nation. Its labor force remained rooted in the old prewar economy, with 67 percent of its laborers committed to agriculture, forestry, fishing and mining, much of it shipped north for processing rather than developed by domestic Southern industry. The Southern postal system was so feeble that letters mailed from New York in 1896 would take more than twice as long to get to Hot Springs, Arkansas, as to Detroit, Michigan, twice as long to get to Memphis as to Cincinnati. 20
Southerners, wailed Lewis Harvie Blair in 1888, “leave undone all the things we ought to do”—things which “all the power of the United States Government cannot compel us” to do—and as a result, “we are . . . digging broad and deep graves in which to bury prosperity and all its untold advantages.” 21 What the South got as its reward for turning its back on the rest of the nation was sharecropping, white supremacy, and Jim Crow—with which, unhappily, it appeared to be entirely content.
Lessons Not Learned
We have assumed, from time to time, that democracy and capitalism are the default desires of humanity—or, as Francis Fukuyama memorably put it in 1989, around the collapse of the Soviet Union, “the end of history.” But events since then have shown that democracy and capitalism are by no means inevitable they can be derailed and destroyed, even by ideologies as antique and brittle as Islamic fundamentalism.
There is a perverse attraction in oligarchy, and democracies do not always show much stamina in resisting it. In the twenty-first century, the United States could be said to have slipped increasingly into oligarchy itself. Between 1948 and 2000, the gross domestic product of the United States grew at an average rate of 2.3 percent. Before 1980, the chief beneficiaries were the bottom 50 percent of income earners who saw their incomes double. After 1980, the percentage of low-income earners moving into the middle class dropped by 30.4 percent in fact, a greater percentage fell out of the middle class and into the ranks of the “working poor.” It was, instead, households in the upper classes—the top fifth of income earners—who have seen a doubling of their own incomes. (Not surprisingly, these trends have been accompanied, as before, by the collapse of our educational systems and the decline in public political participation). We have, in effect, created our own modern oligarchy, in which the likelihood of intergenerational economic mobility fell from 92 percent of those born in the 1940s to just 50 percent for those born in the 1980s. Democracy possesses, even for us, no immunity from oligarchy. 22
We might have done better, or at least found it easier, to have anticipated this in situations more nearly parallel to our own Reconstruction—in the direct aftermath of war in Iraq and Afghanistan—where we expected people to embrace democracy and capitalism, only to have them respond with insurgency and theocracy. Unhappily, we have shown the same fecklessness and impatience in reconstructing those regimes as that which ruined our own Reconstruction from 1865 to 1877. For that Reconstruction to have been a success, we should have found a way to redistribute ex-Confederate-owned land to freed people, disfranchised the old Southern ruling class, and (as Ulysses Grant finally concluded) established a military occupation regime of at least forty years (in other words, an occupation similar to that employed against Japan and Germany after World War II). But we did not: we had no lesson book to show us that this was the way, and a distaste for proceeding in that fashion, and the result was the payment of a high price. Before we embark on any similar projects in regime change, we should take a leaf from our own history book to learn how not to do a Reconstruction.
This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume II, Number 3 (Fall 2018): 210–26.
2 Leigh Robinson, The South before and at the Battle of the Wilderness (Richmond: Goode, 1878), 6.
3 David Armitage, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 53–56 “The President’s Message,” North American Review 102 (January 1866): 260.
4 Thaddeus Stevens, “Speech to the Lancaster County Republican Convention, September 3, 1862, in Lancaster,” and “Speech on Conquered Provinces, April 4, 1863, to the Union League of Lancaster,” in Selected Papers of Thaddeus Stevens, ed. B. W. Palmer, 2 vols. (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), 1:322, 393–94.
5 “Federal Administration Keeping up to the ‘Rebellion,’” Old Guard (August 1865): 374 Kennedy, “Letter VIII” (March 1864), in Mr. Ambrose’s Letters on the Rebellion (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1865), 147–48.
6 James Madison, “Notes for the National Gazette Essays,” in The Papers of James Madison, ed. R. A. Rutland and T.A. Mason, 17 vols. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983), 14:157.
7 Peter Kolchin, American Slavery (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), 179 Lincoln, “Fragment on Free Labor” (September 17, 1859), in Collected Works 3:462.
8 Robert Dale Owen, The Wrong of Slavery, the Right of Emancipation and the Future of the African Race in the United States (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1864), 116–17.
9 Forrest A. Nabors, From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction (Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 2017), 247–49 James L. Huston, The British Gentry, the Southern Planter, and the Northern Family Farmer: Agriculture and Sectional Antagonism in North America (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013), 133.
10 The American Almanac and Repository of Useful Knowledge, for the Year 1859 (Boston: Crosby, Nichols, 1859), 227, 290, 296, 317 John R. Thompson, Education and Literature in Virginia: An Address Delivered before the Literary Societies, of Washington College, Lexington, Virginia, 18 June 1850 (Richmond: H. K. Ellyson, 1850), 14.
11 J. D. B. De Bow, ed., Statistical View of the United States: Embracing Its Territory, Population—White, Free Colored and Slave—Moral and Social Condition Industry, Property and Revenue (Washington, D.C.: Beverly Tucker, 1854), 153.
12 The American Almanac and Repository of Useful Knowledge, for the Year 1858 (Boston: Crosby, Nichols, 1857), 214 “Popular Vote for President,” in The Tribune Almanac and Political Register for 1856 (New York: Greeley and McElrath, 1857), 2 Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970, ed. William Lerner (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1975), 2:1072.
13 Russell, Pictures of Southern Life, Social, Political and Military (New York: James G. Gregory, 1861), 63 Edwin A. Miles, “The Mississippi Slave Insurrection Scare of 1835,” Journal of Negro History 42 (January 1957): 51 Joseph Mayo, A Guide to Magistrates: With Practical Forms for the Discharge of Their Duties Out of Court (Richmond: A. Morris, 1860), 444 Clay, Appeal of Cassius M. Clay to Kentucky and the World (Boston: J. M. Macomber, 1845), 8, 14 “The Truth Confessed,” Harper’s Weekly (January 16, 1864).
14 French, diary entry for July 8, 1863, in 426 Witness to the Young Republic: A Yankee’s Journal, 1828–1870, eds. D. B. Cole and J. J. McDonough (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1989), Ward, “President’s Message” (December 13, 1866), Congressional Globe, 39th Congress, 2nd session, 118.
15 Ted Tunnell, “Creating ‘The Propaganda of History’: Southern Editors and the Origins of ‘Carpetbagger and Scalawag,’” Journal of Southern History 72 (November 2006), 789–822 James L. Huston, Calculating the Value of the Union: Slavery, Property Rights, and the Economic Origins of the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 234–35.
16 Mark Wahlgren Summers, The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 252.
17 George William MacArthur Reynolds, “The Late Insurrection in Jamaica,” Atlantic Monthly 17 (April 1866): 480 Michael W. Fitzgerald, “Reconstruction Politics and the Politics of Reconstruction,” in Reconstructions: New Perspectives on the Postbellum United States, ed. Thomas J. Brown (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 98.
18 Examination of Leander Bigger (July 15, 1871), in Testimony Taken by the Joint Select Committee to Inquiry into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States, 13 vols. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1872), 1:276.
19 “The Political Condition of South Carolina,” Atlantic Monthly 39 (February 1877): 186 Anne Sarah Rubin, A Shattered Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Confederacy, 1861–1868 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 214 Benjamin F. Butler to John C. Underwood (April 8, 1871), John C. Underwood Papers, Library of Congress.
20 Paul M. Gaston, The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 202–3 The World Almanac and Encyclopedia 1896 (New York: The Press Publishing, 1896), 142 C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877–1913: A History of the South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951), 107, 139.
21 Blair, The Prosperity of the South Dependent upon the Elevation of the Negro (Richmond: Everett Waddey, 1889), v.
22 Wallace C. Peterson, Silent Depression: The Fate of the American Dream (New York: Norton, 1994), 57, 63–64 “Trends in Family Wealth, 1989 to 2013,” Congressional Budget Office (August 16, 2016) R. Chetty, D. Grusky, M. Hell et al., “The Fading American Dream: Trends in Absolute Income Mobility Since 1940,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working paper #22910 (Cambridge: NBER, 2016).
Black Political Leadership During Reconstruction
The key to Reconstruction for both blacks and whites was black suffrage. On one hand this vote made possible the elevation of black political leaders to positions of prominence in the reorganization of the South after the Civil War. For southern whites, on the other hand, black participation in the Reconstruction governments discredited the positive accomplishments of those regimes and led to the evolution of a systematized white rejection of the black as a positive force in southern politics. For white contemporaries and subsequent historians, the black political leader became the exemplar of all that was reprehensible about the period. … continued below
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- Department:Department of History
- Name:Doctor of Philosophy
- PublicationType: Doctoral Dissertation
- Grantor:North Texas State University
The key to Reconstruction for both blacks and whites was black suffrage. On one hand this vote made possible the elevation of black political leaders to positions of prominence in the reorganization of the South after the Civil War. For southern whites, on the other hand, black participation in the Reconstruction governments discredited the positive accomplishments of those regimes and led to the evolution of a systematized white rejection of the black as a positive force in southern politics. For white contemporaries and subsequent historians, the black political leader became the exemplar of all that was reprehensible about the period. Stereotyped patterns, developed to eliminate black influence, prevented any examination of the actual role played by these men in the reconstruction process. This study is partially a synthesis of recent scholarly research on specific aspects of the black political role and the careers of individual political leaders. Additional research included examination of a number of manuscript collections in the Library of Congress and the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina, state and federal government documents, and contemporary newspapers. On the basis of all these sources, this study evaluates the nature of black political leadership and its impact on the reconstruction process in all the ten states which were subject to the provisions of congressional reconstruction legislation. The topic is developed chronologically, beginning with the status of blacks at the end of the Civil War and their search for identity as citizens. Black leadership emerged early in the various rallies and black conventions of 1865 and early 1866. With the passage in March 1867 of reconstruction legislation establishing black suffrage as the basis for restoration of the former Confederate states, black leaders played a crucial role in the development of the southern Republican party and the registration of black voters. Black influence reached its apex in the constitutional conventions and the subsequent ratification elections of 1868-1869. Blacks were elected to posts in the new state governments in varying numbers, but with increasing political sophistication began to demand a larger voice in Republican party councils and a larger share of public offices. Their resulting prominence fueled a white determination to eliminate the Republican governments which had allowed elevation of black politicians. This study of state political leadership is not a history of the black in the Republican party, nor is it a history of the black masses in Reconstruction. It does examine the role of black leaders and seeks to determine the nature and degree of their influence. The development of black leadership was one facet of building a southern Republican party, and in the tenuous coalition which made up that party the black inevitably became the weakest link because he was the most vulnerable. This study challenges a number of stereotypes. Southern Reconstruction was not a period of "black rule," as both historians hostile to the black leaders and those sympathetic to them have intimated. Nor was the black politician a passive tool to be manipulated at the will of whites. Strong disagreements among black leaders show the weakness of the traditional monolithic picture of black political action. Black leaders had considerable influence in some states and practically none in others. Total failure of black political leadership would have been welcomed by southern whites, but its successes were intolerable. This study traces the development of a leadership whose successes led to its destruction.
Reconstruction and Beyond: The 8 African-American Senators
Eight African-American Senators made huge impacts on the history of politics.
Feb. 1, 2013 -- intro:The United States Senate has a long history of producing historic leaders, but has featured only eight African-American members. The following eight senators set a number of political and social milestones spanning the Reconstruction and beyond. Continue reading to learn more about their many achievements.
quicklist:1title:Hiram Rhodes Revels, R-Miss.text:Revels was the first African-American to serve as a state senator, representing Mississippi. Revels was elected by the Mississippi State Senate to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat, which was abandoned by Albert G. Brown when Mississippi seceded from the Union during the Civil War.
Revels was greeted in Washington by two days of debate about his seating in the Senate. Southern Democrats staunchly opposed Revels' admission into the Senate because of the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision, which stated that African-Americans were property rather than citizens. Since the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, two years before Revels was elected to the Senate, Democrats argued that Revels could not fulfill the nine-year citizenship requirement and, therefore, could not legally assume the position of senator. Their argument was ruled invalid after a decision that the Civil War and Reconstruction amendments overturned Dred Scott.
Despite only serving from Feb. 25, 1870, to March 3, 1871, Revels served on the Committee on Education and the Committee on the District of Columbia, and helped introduce a number of bills. After his term ended, Revels became president of historically black Alcorn College and later served as pastor of the Holy Springs Methodist Episcopal Church in Mississippi.
quicklist:2title:Blanche Kelso Bruce, R-Miss.text:Also elected by the Mississippi Senate, Blanche Kelso Bruce was the first African-American senator to serve a full term, from 1875 to 1881.
Bruce's mother, Polly Bruce, was a house slave, and his father was a white Virginia plantation owner. As a child, Bruce was educated alongside his white half-brother and legally freed by his father to pursue an apprenticeship as a printer. After attending Oberlin College in Ohio for two years, Bruce moved to Mississippi, where he purchased an abandoned plantation. The purchase allowed him to prosper and gain notoriety within the state.
As senator, Bruce participated in debates regarding the civil rights of minorities, including those of African-Americans, American Indians, Chinese immigrants and even those of former Confederates. Despite his efforts in the Senate, Republican influence in Mississippi diminished toward the end of the Reconstruction period and Bruce was not elected for a second term.
In 1881, President James Garfield appointed Bruce as register of the United States Treasury.
quicklist:3title:Edward William Brooke III, R-Mass.text:Edward Brooke made history in 1967 as the first African-American senator elected by popular vote. He was also the first black senator to carry out two full, consecutive terms before being defeated in 1978.
As part of the liberal wing of the Republican Party, Brooke organized the "Wednesday Club" that allowed progressive Republican senators to meet and discuss upcoming political strategies. Brooke supported then-Michigan Gov. George W. Romney and then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in their 1968 presidential bids against Richard Nixon.
Brooke exhibited a moderate political stance, stating that his intentions as senator were not rooted in "[being] the national leader of the Negro people."
Even so, he was the leading advocate for affordable housing and spoke out against housing discrimination practices. Brooke took his advocacy across party lines by co-authoring the 1968 Fair Housing Act with Sen. Walter Mondale, D-Minn.
Although Brooke exhibited bipartisan tendencies, he was often at odds with President Nixon. After voting against two of Nixon's Supreme Court nominees, Brooke was the first Republican to call for the president's resignation during the Watergate scandal. Despite their differences, the president reportedly respected Brooke's abilities and even considered offering him a Cabinet position.
Brooke was awarded a number of accolades for his service, including the 2004 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the 2004 Jeremy Nicholson Negro Achievement Award and the 2009 Congressional Gold Medal.
quicklist:4title:Carol Moseley Braun, D-Ill.text:Carol Moseley Braun represented a number of senatorial firsts. She was the first and only elected African-American female senator, the first woman to defeat an incumbent in a senatorial election, and the first and only female senator to represent Illinois. She was also the only African-American in the Senate during her term.
Braun maintained a moderate economic voting record despite her liberal reputation. She voted in favor of NAFTA and various tort overhaul measures.
Her liberal stance emerged on social issues. She was strongly in favor of abortion rights, voted for gun-control measures and opposed the death penalty.
Braun's senatorial term also included some controversies. In 1993, she was the subject of an FEC investigation regarding $249,000 of unaccounted for campaign funds, but there were no actions taken against her. In 1999, journalist George Will wrote a column addressing possible allegations of corruption against Braun, to which she responded by comparing Will to the Ku Klux Klan. She later apologized for her statements.
After losing a a bid for a second Senate term to Peter Fitzgerald, Braun was appointed to be United States ambassador to New Zealand by then-President Clinton. In 2004, she announced her intentions to run for the Democratic presidential nomination, but pulled out before the Iowa caucus.
quicklist:5title:Barack Obama, D-Ill.text:Before winning two terms as the first African-American president of the United States, Barack Obama served three terms as an Illinois state senator. Obama was the only Senate member of the Congressional Black Caucus throughout his shortened term as U.S senator.
As a state senator, Obama was loyal to the Democratic Party, pushing for health care overhaul, campaign finance changes, law enforcement improvement, welfare and community reinvestment. Obama represented Illinois from 1994 to 2004, when he resigned from the state Senate upon his election to the United States Senate.
In the U.S. Senate, Obama served on many committees and chaired the United States Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs. He continued to support Democratic Party issues, including on the topics of immigration, lobbying, campaign finance, climate change and troop reduction.
During his time in the Senate, Obama was awarded a number of honors, including being named as one of Time magazine's Most Influential People, receiving honorary degrees from a number of universities and winning a Grammy for the spoken-word edition of his book "The Audacity of Hope."
quicklist:6title:Roland Wallace Burris, D-Ill.text:Roland Wallace Burris entered the political arena as the Illinois comptroller, serving three terms from 1979 to 1990. It made him the first African-American to be elected to a state office position in Illinois.
In 1991, Burris made more history as the second African-American ever to be elected to the office of state attorney general. He later pursued unsuccessful campaigns for the offices of governor of Illinois and mayor of Chicago.
Despite Burris's long track record of public service, his appointment as the junior senator from Illinois was tainted by controversy. After President-elect Barack Obama resigned from the Senate, Burris was appointed as his replacement by Gov. Rod Blagojevich. At the time, Blagojevich was already under investigation for corruption for attempting to sell the empty Senate position Obama previously filled. Burris faced an ethical investigation and experienced a number of legal roadblocks throughout the appointment process, but eventually was able to carry out his interim position.
In the Senate, Burris served on the Committee on Armed Service and the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. After his term ended, Burris decided not to seek a full six-year term in the 2010 U.S. Senate election as a result of unsuccessful fundraising.
quicklist:7title:Timothy Scott, R-S.C.text:Before his appointment to the Senate in 2012, Tim Scott was the first elected African-American representative in South Carolina since 1897. His senatorial appointment made him the first black senator to represent South Carolina and the first African-American to represent a southern state in the Senate since 1881.
Scott's background in financial advising has influenced his fiscally conservative policy views, and he was equally conservative on social issues.
During his 2010 campaign for South Carolina's 1st Congressional District, he was endorsed by Tea Party activists, the Anti-Tax National Club for Growth, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. Upon his election to the House, Scott declined an invitation to join the Congressional Black Caucus.
In December 2012, Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Scott as Jim DeMint's replacement to the Senate. Haley was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, "It is important to me, as a minority female, that congressman Scott earned this seat. He earned this seat for the person that he is. He earned this seat with the results he has shown."
quicklist:8title:William "Mo" Cowan, D-Mass.text:Mo Cowan is the newly appointed senator from Massachusetts and successor of Secretary of State John Kerry. Before his interim appointment, Cowan served as chief of staff and legal counsel to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. After Edward Brooke, Cowan is the second Africa-American senator to serve from the state of Massachusetts and the eighth African-American senator overall.
As a lawyer, Cowan practiced civil litigation and helped Gov. Mitt Romney with the appointments of black judges as a response to criticisms of the Romney administration's lack of diversity.
Cowan joined the Patrick administration in 2009, where he was responsible for the legal operations of Massachusetts and judicial nominations.
In January 2011, he became Patrick's chief of staff, but announced plans to return to the private sector in 2012. Cowen did not get to carry out his private-sector plans because of his appointment. But he has been quoted as saying that returning to the private sector is still his priority after the interim appointment is completed.
"This is going to be a very short career," Cowan said when appointed. "I'm not a candidate for public service at any time today or in the future."
Reconstruction revisionism Edit
In the early part of the 20th century, some white historians put forth the claim that Reconstruction was a tragic period, when Republicans who were motivated by revenge and profit used troops to force Southerners to accept corrupt governments that were run by unscrupulous Northerners and unqualified blacks. Such scholars generally dismissed the idea that blacks could ever be capable of governing societies. 
Notable proponents of this view were referred to as the Dunning School, named after influential historian William Archibald Dunning at Columbia University. Another Columbia professor, John Burgess, was notorious for writing that "black skin means membership in a race of men which has never of itself. created any civilization of any kind."  
The Dunning School's view of Reconstruction held sway for years. It was represented in D. W. Griffith's popular movie The Birth of a Nation (1915) and to some extent in Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone with the Wind (1934). More recent historians of the period have rejected many of the Dunning School's conclusions, and offer a different assessment. 
History of Reconstruction Edit
Today's consensus regards Reconstruction as a time of idealism and hope, with some practical achievements. The Radical Republicans who passed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were, for the most part, motivated by a desire to help freedmen.  African-American historian W. E. B. Du Bois put this view forward in 1910, and later historians Kenneth Stampp and Eric Foner expanded it. The Republican Reconstruction governments had their share of corruption, but they benefited many whites, and were no more corrupt than Democratic governments or, indeed, Northern Republican governments. 
Furthermore, the Reconstruction governments established public education and social welfare institutions for the first time, improving education for both blacks and whites, and tried to improve social conditions for the many left in poverty after the long war. No Reconstruction state government was dominated by blacks in fact, blacks did not attain a level of representation equal to their population in any state. 
Reconstruction era violence Edit
For several years after the war, the federal government, pushed by Northern opinion, showed itself willing to intervene to protect the rights of black Americans.  There were limits, however, to Republican efforts on behalf of blacks: in Washington, a proposal of land reform made by the Freedmen's Bureau which would have granted blacks plots on the plantation land (forty acres and a mule) they worked never came to pass. In the South, many former Confederates were stripped of the right to vote, but they resisted Reconstruction with violence and intimidation. James Loewen notes that between 1865 and 1867, when white Democrats controlled the government, whites murdered an average of one black person every day in Hinds County, Mississippi. Black schools were especially targeted: school buildings were frequently burned and teachers were flogged and occasionally murdered.  The postwar terrorist group the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) acted with significant local support, attacking freedmen and their white allies the group was largely suppressed by federal efforts under the Enforcement Acts of 1870–71, but did not disappear and had a resurgence in the early twentieth century.
Despite these failures, however, blacks continued to vote and attend schools. Literacy soared, and many African-Americans were elected to local and statewide offices, with several serving in Congress. Because of the black community's commitment to education, the majority of blacks were literate by 1900.
Continued violence in the South, especially heated around electoral campaigns, sapped Northern intentions. More significantly, after the long years and losses of the Civil War, Northerners had lost heart for the massive commitment of money and arms that would have been required to stifle the white insurgency. The financial panic of 1873 disrupted the economy nationwide, causing more difficulties. The white insurgency took on new life ten years after the war. Conservative white Democrats waged an increasingly violent campaign, with the Colfax and Coushatta Massacres in Louisiana in 1873 as signs. The next year saw the formation of paramilitary groups, such as the White League in Louisiana (1874) and Red Shirts in Mississippi and the Carolinas, that worked openly to turn Republicans out of office, disrupt black organizing, and intimidate and suppress black voting. They invited press coverage.  One historian described them as "the military arm of the Democratic Party." 
In 1874, in a continuation of the disputed gubernatorial election of 1872, thousands of White League militiamen fought against New Orleans police and Louisiana state militia and won. They turned out the Republican governor and installed the Democrat Samuel D. McEnery, took over the capitol, state house and armory for a few days, and then retreated in the face of Federal troops. This was known as the "Battle of Liberty Place".
End of Reconstruction Edit
Northerners waffled and finally capitulated to the South, giving up on being able to control election violence. Abolitionist leaders like Horace Greeley began to ally themselves with Democrats in attacking Reconstruction governments. By 1875, there was a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. President Ulysses S. Grant, who as a general had led the Union to victory in the Civil War, initially refused to send troops to Mississippi in 1875 when the governor of the state asked him to. Violence surrounded the presidential election of 1876 in many areas, beginning a trend. After Grant, it would be many years before any President would do anything to extend the protection of the law to black people.  
White supremacy Edit
The Wilmington Weekly Star (North Carolina) 
November 11, 1898
As noted above, white paramilitary forces contributed to whites' taking over power in the late 1870s. A brief coalition of populists took over in some states, but conservative Democrats had returned to power after the 1880s. From 1890 to 1908, they proceeded to pass legislation and constitutional amendments to disenfranchise most blacks and many poor whites, with Mississippi and Louisiana creating new state constitutions in 1890 and 1895 respectively, to disenfranchise African Americans. Democrats used a combination of restrictions on voter registration and voting methods, such as poll taxes, literacy and residency requirements, and ballot box changes. The main push came from elite Democrats in the Solid South, where blacks were a majority of voters. The elite Democrats also acted to disenfranchise poor whites.    African Americans were an absolute majority of the population in Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina, and represented more than 40% of the population in four other former Confederate states. Accordingly, many whites perceived African Americans as a major political threat, because in free and fair elections, they would hold the balance of power in a majority of the South.  South Carolina U.S. Senator Ben Tillman proudly proclaimed in 1900, "We have done our level best [to prevent blacks from voting]. we have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it." 
Conservative white Democratic governments passed Jim Crow legislation, creating a system of legal racial segregation in public and private facilities. Blacks were separated in schools and the few hospitals, were restricted in seating on trains, and had to use separate sections in some restaurants and public transportation systems. They were often barred from some stores, or forbidden to use lunchrooms, restrooms and fitting rooms. Because they could not vote, they could not serve on juries, which meant they had little if any legal recourse in the system. Between 1889 and 1922, as political disenfranchisement and segregation were being established, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) calculates lynchings reached their worst level in history. Almost 3,500 people fell victim to lynching, almost all of them black men. 
Historian James Loewen notes that lynching emphasized the powerlessness of blacks: "the defining characteristic of a lynching is that the murder takes place in public, so everyone knows who did it, yet the crime goes unpunished."  African American civil rights activist Ida Bell Wells-Barnett conducted one of the first systematic studies of the subject. She documented that the most prevalent accusation against lynching victims was murder or attempted murder. She found blacks were "lynched for anything or nothing" – for wife-beating, stealing hogs, being "saucy to white people", sleeping with a consenting white woman – for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. 
Blacks who were economically successful faced reprisals or sanctions. When Richard Wright tried to train to become an optometrist and lens-grinder, the other men in the shop threatened him until he was forced to leave. In 1911 blacks were barred from participating in the Kentucky Derby because African Americans won more than half of the first twenty-eight races.   Through violence and legal restrictions, whites often prevented blacks from working as common laborers, much less as skilled artisans or in the professions. Under such conditions, even the most ambitious and talented black person found it extremely difficult to advance.
This situation called into question the views of Booker T. Washington, the most prominent black leader during the early part of the nadir. He had argued that black people could better themselves by hard work and thrift. He believed they had to master basic work before going on to college careers and professional aspirations. Washington believed his programs trained blacks for the lives they were likely to lead and the jobs they could get in the South.
. "it is utterly impossible, under modern competitive methods, for working men and property-owners to defend their rights and exist without the right of suffrage". 
Washington had always (though often clandestinely) supported the right of black suffrage, and had fought against disfranchisement laws in Georgia, Louisiana, and other Southern states.  This included secretive funding of litigation resulting in Giles v. Harris, 189 U.S. 475 (1903), which lost due to Supreme Court reluctance to interfere with states' rights.
African-American migration Edit
Many blacks left the South to seek better conditions. In 1879, Logan notes, "some 40,000 Negroes virtually stampeded from Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia for the Midwest." [ citation needed ] More significantly, beginning about 1915, many blacks moved to Northern cities in what became known as the Great Migration. Through the 1930s, more than 1.5 million blacks would leave the South for lives in the North, seeking work and the chance to escape lynchings and legal segregation. While they faced difficulties, overall they had better chances in the North. They had to make great cultural changes, as most went from rural areas to major industrial cities, and had to adjust from being rural workers to being urban workers. As an example, in its years of expansion, the Pennsylvania Railroad recruited tens of thousands of workers from the South. In the South, alarmed whites, worried that their labor force was leaving, often tried to block black migration. [ how? ]
Northern reactions Edit
During the nadir, Northern areas struggled with upheaval and hostility. In the Midwest and West, many towns posted "sundown" warnings, threatening to kill African Americans who remained overnight. These "Sundown" towns also expelled African-Americans who had settled in those towns during Reconstruction and before. Monuments to Confederate War dead were erected across the nation – in Montana, for example. 
Black housing was often segregated in the North. There was competition for jobs and housing as blacks entered cities which were also the destination of millions of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. As more blacks moved north, they encountered racism where they had to battle over territory, often against ethnic Irish, who were defending their power base. In some regions, blacks could not serve on juries. Blackface shows, in which whites dressed as blacks portrayed African Americans as ignorant clowns, were popular in North and South. The Supreme Court reflected conservative tendencies and did not overrule Southern constitutional changes resulting in disfranchisement. In 1896, the Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that "separate but equal" facilities for blacks were constitutional the Court was made up almost entirely of Northerners.  However, equal facilities were rarely provided, as there was no state or federal legislation requiring them. It would not be until 58 years later, with Brown v. Board of Education (1954), that the Court recognized its 1896 error.
While there were critics in the scientific community such as Franz Boas, eugenics and scientific racism were promoted in academia by scientists Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant, who argued "scientific evidence" for the racial superiority of whites and thereby worked to justify racial segregation and second-class citizenship for blacks.
Ku Klux Klan Edit
Numerous blacks had voted for Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 election, based on his promise to work for them. Instead, he segregated government workplaces and employment in some agencies. The first feature-length film, The Birth of a Nation (1915), which celebrated the original Ku Klux Klan, was shown at the White House to President Wilson and his cabinet members. Writing in 1921 to Joseph Tumulty, Wilson said of the film "I have always felt that this was a very unfortunate production and I wish most sincerely that its production might be avoided, particularly in communities where there are so many colored people."  [ page needed ]
The Birth of a Nation resulted in the rebirth of the Klan, which in the 1920s had more power and influence than the original Klan ever did. In 1924, the Klan had four million members.  It also controlled the governorship and a majority of the state legislature in Indiana, and exerted a powerful political influence in Arkansas, Oklahoma, California, Georgia, Oregon, and Texas. 
Mob violence and Massacres Edit
In the years during and after World War I there were great social tensions in the nation. In addition to the Great Migration and immigration from Europe, African-American Army veterans, newly demobilized, sought jobs, and as trained soldiers, were less likely to acquiesce to discrimination. Massacres and attacks on blacks that developed out of strikes and economic competition occurred in Houston, Philadelphia, and East St. Louis in 1917.
In 1919 there were violent attacks in several major cities, so many so that the summer of 1919 is known as Red Summer. The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 erupted into mob violence for several days. It left 15 whites and 23 blacks dead, over 500 injured and more than 1,000 homeless.  An investigation found that ethnic Irish, who had established their own power base earlier on the South Side, were heavily implicated in the riots. The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was even more deadly white mobs invaded and burned the Greenwood district of Tulsa 1,256 homes were destroyed and 39 people (26 black, 13 white) were confirmed killed, although recent investigations suggest that the number of black deaths could be considerably higher. 
Black literacy levels, which rose during Reconstruction, continued to increase through this period. The NAACP was established in 1909, and by 1920 the group won a few important anti-discrimination lawsuits. African Americans, such as Du Bois and Wells-Barnett, continued the tradition of advocacy, organizing, and journalism which helped spur abolitionism, and also developed new tactics that helped to spur the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The Harlem Renaissance and the popularity of jazz music during the early part of the 20th century made many Americans more aware of black culture and more accepting of black celebrities.
Overall, however, the nadir was a disaster, certainly for black people. Foner points out:
. by the early twentieth century [racism] had become more deeply embedded in the nation's culture and politics than at any time since the beginning of the antislavery crusade and perhaps in our nation's entire history. 
Similarly, Loewen argues that the family instability and crime which many sociologists have found in black communities can be traced, not to slavery, but to the nadir and its aftermath. 
Foner noted that "none of Reconstruction's black officials created a family political dynasty" and concluded that the nadir "aborted the development of the South's black political leadership." 
Rooted in Reconstruction: The First Wave of Black Congressmen
October 15, 2008
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Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Robert Smalls and the Planter
A few months ago, an article in The New York Times Magazine portrayed Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy as marking the “end” of traditional black politics and the emergence of a new generation of black leaders whose careers began after the civil rights struggle, and who strive to represent not simply black voters but the wider electorate. “For a lot of younger African-Americans,” wrote Matt Bai, “the resistance of the civil rights generation to Obama’s candidacy signified the failure of the parents to come to terms, at the dusk of their lives, with the success of their own struggle–to embrace the idea that black politics might now be disappearing into American politics in the same way that the Irish and Italian machines long ago joined the political mainstream.”
Bai’s analysis assumes that until recently only one kind of politics existed among African-Americans: a politics focused solely on race and righting the wrongs of racism. Yet divisions among black politicians are nothing new. Some politicians have defined themselves primarily as representatives of a black community others have identified with predominantly white, nonracial parties like the Populists, Socialists or Communists. Some have been nationalists who believe that racial advancement comes only through community self-determination others have worked closely with white allies. These differences go back as far as debates among black abolitionists before the Civil War. Then, as now, black politics was as complex and multifaceted as any other kind of politics, and one of the valuable implications of the new book Capitol Men (although its author, Philip Dray, does not quite put it this way) is that Obama’s candidacy represents not so much a repudiation of the black political tradition as an affirmation of one of its long-established, vigorous strands.
Of the thousands of men and women who have served in the Senate or as governors since the ratification of the Constitution, only nine have been African-American. Three of the nine hold office today: Senator Obama and Governors David Paterson of New York and Deval Patrick of Massachusetts. Well over a century ago, during the turbulent era of Reconstruction, they were preceded by another three: Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce, both senators from Mississippi, and P.B.S. Pinchback, briefly the governor of Louisiana. The gulf between this trio and Obama, Paterson and Patrick is a striking reminder of the almost insurmountable barriers that have kept African-Americans from the highest offices in the land. It also underscores how remarkable, if temporary, a transformation in American life was wrought by Reconstruction. Revels, Bruce and Pinchback were only the tip of a large iceberg–an estimated 2,000 black men served in some kind of elective office during that era. The emergence of these men in the aftermath of the Civil War was living proof of an idea expressed after an earlier period of turmoil and bloodshed: “all that extent of capacity” of ordinary people, invisible in normal times, wrote Tom Paine in The Rights of Man, “never fails to appear in revolutions.”
For many decades, historians viewed Reconstruction as the lowest point in the American experience, a time of corruption and misgovernment presided over by unscrupulous carpetbaggers from the North, ignorant former slaves and traitorous scalawags (white Southerners who supported the new governments in the South). Mythologies about black officeholders formed a central pillar of this outlook. Their alleged incompetence and venality illustrated the larger “crime” of Reconstruction–placing power in the hands of a race incapable of participating in American democracy. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation included a scene in which South Carolina’s black legislators downed alcohol and propped their bare feet on their desks while enacting laws. Claude Bowers, in The Tragic Era, a bestseller of the 1920s that did much to form popular consciousness about Reconstruction, offered a similar portrait. To Griffith and Bowers, the incapacity of black officials justified the violence of the Ku Klux Klan and the eventual disenfranchisement of Southern black voters.
Historians have long since demolished this racist portrait of the era. Today Reconstruction is viewed as a noble if flawed experiment, a forerunner of the modern struggle for racial justice. If the era was tragic, it was not because Reconstruction was attempted but because the effort to construct an interracial democracy on the ruins of slavery failed. Capitol Men begins by calling Reconstruction a “powerful story of idealism,” one Dray tells by describing the careers of the sixteen black men (including Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce) who served in Congress between 1870 and 1877.
Popular histories like Dray’s, aimed at an audience outside the academy, have tended to infuse their subjects with drama by focusing on violent confrontations rather than the operation and accomplishments (public school systems, pioneering civil rights legislation, efforts to rebuild the shattered Southern economy) of the biracial governments established in the South after the Civil War. One thinks of recent works like Nicholas Lemann’s Redemption, a compelling account of Reconstruction’s violent overthrow in Mississippi Stephen Budiansky’s The Bloody Shirt, a survey of violence during the entire period and LeeAnna Keith’s The Colfax Massacre, about the single bloodiest incident in an era steeped in terrorism by the Klan and kindred white supremacist groups.
Dray’s previous books–well-regarded studies of lynching (At the Hands of Persons Unknown) and of the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964 (We Are Not Afraid)–fit within this familiar pattern. But in his latest work, Dray moves beyond violence, a vital but limited way of understanding the era’s political history. Perhaps because it concentrates on the careers of a few individuals, Capitol Men is episodic and somewhat unfocused. It does not really offer an assessment of Reconstruction’s successes and failings. Still, Dray is an engaging writer with an eye for the dramatic incident and an ability to draw out its broader significance and relevance to our own times.
One such episode involves Robert Smalls, who in 1874 was elected to Congress from Beaufort County, South Carolina. Twelve years earlier, Smalls had piloted the Planter, on which he worked as a slave crewman, out of Charleston harbor and delivered it to the Union navy, a deed that made him a national hero. In 1864, while the ship was undergoing repairs in Philadelphia, a conductor evicted Smalls from a streetcar when he refused to give up his seat to a white passenger. Ninety years before a similar incident involving Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, Smalls’s ordeal inspired a movement of black and white reformers to persuade the Pennsylvania legislature to ban discrimination in public transportation.
Equally riveting is the 1874 confrontation between Alexander Stephens, the former vice president of the Confederacy, then representing Georgia in the House of Representatives, and another black South Carolinian, Congressman Robert Elliott. The subject of their exchange was a civil rights bill banning racial discrimination in places of public accommodation. Stephens offered a long argument based on states’ rights as to why the bill was unconstitutional. Elliott launched into a learned and impassioned address explaining why the recently enacted Fourteenth Amendment justified the measure (which was signed into law by President Grant the following year), then reminded Congress of an infamous speech Stephens had delivered on the eve of the Civil War: “It is scarcely twelve years since that gentleman shocked the civilized world by announcing the birth of a government which rested on human slavery as its cornerstone.” Elliott already had proved that he refused to be intimidated by whites: in 1869 he whipped a white man in the streets of Columbia for writing inappropriate notes to his wife. A black man assaulting a white man in defense of his wife’s good name was not a common occurrence in nineteenth-century South Carolina.
Many of the black Congressmen spoke of the abuse they suffered while traveling to the Capitol. Joseph Rainey was removed from a hotel dining room Robert Elliott was refused service at a restaurant in a railroad station. Even when they reached Washington, hazards remained and insults swirled about them. A number of black Congressmen faced death threats and defended themselves by posting armed guards at their homes. In the House, one Virginia Democrat announced that he was addressing only “the white men,” the “gentlemen,” not his black colleagues. Another spoke of slavery as a civilizing institution that had brought black “barbarians” into modern civilization. Black Congressman Richard Cain of South Carolina responded that his colleague’s definition of “civilizing instruments” seemed to encompass nothing more than “the lash and the whipping post.”
The Congressmen Dray profiles came from diverse origins and differed in their approach to public policies. Some had been free before the Civil War, others enslaved. Some favored government action to distribute land to former slaves others insisted that in a market society the only way to acquire land was to purchase it. Some ran for office as representatives of their race, others as exemplars of the ideal that, with the end of slavery and the advent of legal equality, race no longer mattered. Reconstruction’s black Congressmen did not see themselves simply as spokesmen for the black community. Blanche Bruce was one of the more conservative black leaders yet in the Senate he spoke out for more humane treatment of Native Americans and opposed legislation banning immigration from China.
Like Obama, many of the sixteen black members of Congress discussed by Dray had enjoyed opportunities and advantages unknown to most African-Americans. Revels had been born free in North Carolina and later studied at a Quaker seminary in Indiana and at Knox College in Illinois. Bruce was the slave son of his owner and was educated by the same tutor who taught his white half-siblings. He escaped at the outset of the Civil War, organized a black school in Missouri and was a Mississippi newspaper editor and local officeholder before his election to the Senate. Some Congressmen had enjoyed unique privileges as slaves. Benjamin Turner’s owner allowed him to learn to read and write and to run a hotel and livery stable in Selma. Others, however, had experienced slavery in all its brutality. Jeremiah Haralson of Alabama and John Hyman of North Carolina had been sold on the auction block.
None of these men fit the old stereotype of Reconstruction officials as ignorant, incompetent and corrupt. All were literate, most were seasoned political organizers by the time of their election and nearly all were honest. One who does fit the image of venality was Governor Pinchback of Louisiana, whose career combined staunch advocacy of civil rights with a sharp eye for opportunities to line his pockets. Pinchback grew up and attended school in Cincinnati. In the 1850s he worked as a cabin boy on an Ohio River steamboat. He fell in with a group of riverboat gamblers and learned their trade. He turned up in New Orleans in 1862 and expertly navigated the byzantine world of Louisiana’s Reconstruction politics. Pinchback was undoubtedly corrupt (he accumulated a small fortune while in office) but also an accomplished politician.
Reconstruction ended in 1877, when President Rutherford B. Hayes abandoned the idea of federal intervention to protect the rights of black citizens in the South, essentially leaving their fate in the hands of local whites. But as Dray notes, black political power, while substantially diminished, did not vanish until around 1900, when the Southern states disenfranchised black voters. Six more African-Americans served in Congress before the end of the nineteenth century. Some of their Reconstruction predecessors remained active in politics. Robert Smalls, of Planter fame, served as customs collector at Beaufort until 1913, when he was removed as part of a purge of blacks from the federal bureaucracy by Woodrow Wilson, the first Southern-born president since Reconstruction.
Pinchback and Bruce moved to Washington, where they became leaders of the city’s black elite and arbiters of federal patronage appointments for African-Americans. Bruce worked tirelessly but unsuccessfully to persuade Congress to reimburse blacks who had deposited money in the Freedman’s Savings Bank, which failed during the Panic of 1873. Like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in our own time, the bank was a private corporation chartered by Congress that enjoyed the implicit but not statutory backing of the federal government. Its counterparts today are being bailed out with billions of taxpayer dollars, as they have been deemed too big to fail. The Freedman’s Savings Bank was too black to rescue.
The last black Congressman of the post-Reconstruction era was George White of North Carolina, whose term ended in 1901. From then until 1929, when Oscar DePriest took his seat representing Chicago, Congress remained lily-white. Not until 1972, with Andrew Young’s election in Georgia and Barbara Jordan’s in Texas, did black representation resume from states that had experienced Reconstruction. Today the Congressional Black Caucus numbers forty-two members, seventeen of them from the states of the old Confederacy. But the pioneering black predecessors have been all but forgotten. I know of only two examples of public recognition in their home states–a school named for Robert Smalls in Beaufort and a Georgetown, South Carolina, park named for Joseph Rainey. Reconstruction’s Capitol men deserve to be remembered, not least because without the political revolution they embodied, it would be impossible for a black man today to be a candidate for president.
Eric Foner Eric Foner, a member of The Nation’s editorial board and the DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University, is the author, most recently, of The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution.
Black Power U.S.A.: The Human Side of Reconstruction, 1867-1877
Book – Non-fiction. By Lerone Bennett Jr. 1967. 426 pages.
A bottom-up, student friendly text about the people’s history of Reconstruction.
Black Power U.S.A.: The Human Side of Reconstruction, 1867-1877 by Lerone Bennett Jr. is one of the best books on Reconstruction. It is readable for high school students. While out of print, it can be read for free online via the Internet Archive.
In the 1967 preface to the book, Bennett wrote,
Reconstruction in all its various forms was a supreme lesson for America, the right reading of which might still mark a turning point in our history. As a matter of fact, an understanding of the triumphs and failures of this first Reconstruction is indispensable for an understanding of the triumphs and failures of the second Reconstruction we are now undergoing.
In the conclusion (pages 384 – 385), Bennett writes about the achievements in the face of unimaginable obstacles:
All this was achieved by men who were condemned by history to make bricks without straws. This was particularly true of the black men of power. Pulled from the faceless masses and flung into the breach between advancing industrialism and a declining planter aristocracy, they were condemned to labor with inadequate tools on ground that had not been adequately prepared.
They never received proper backing from the Northern supporters, and they were betrayed repeatedly by their allies. History – the historic fears of poor whites and the historic greed of rich whites – stood between them and success. History, in fine, provided the opportunity, but cleverly withheld the raw materials. It may be true, as some contend, that they were condemned, no matter what they did. Still, what they did was important.
Within the limits of the time and the Revolution, and with the resources at their disposal, they served man well. Because of them and through them, America grew, adopting the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which would never have been adopted had they not been adopted then. More than that – these men established, beyond question, the right of black men to participate in power, and they created political instruments that would revolutionize America and the South if made concrete today.