Looking Back to Move Forward: The Legacy of Reconstruction

Posted by Jason David on September 13, 2018

I recently facilitated a workshop in San Diego on the Reconstruction Era; it was a wonderful experience engaging with educators looking to teach US history through the lens of “identity and agency.” There was, of course, so much more I wish we could have covered about this  “unfinished revolution;” this pivotal period in US history, that in some sense, “never ended,” as historian Eric Foner describes it.

It is a historical case study that can be used as a powerful lens to understand today’s racial tensions. When brought into our classrooms, it begs for creative extensions that allow our students to wrestle with the nature of history and freedom - which is not a straight, progressive line but a far more complex, painful and frustrating graph which dips and dives, rises and climbs, and seemingly does circles and spirals.

IMG-2969I found myself moving through this complicated, twisting relationship to history when I visited Montgomery, Alabama last year on a Facing History study tour with colleagues and Board members. I was able to get a sneak peak of the new museum and memorial that the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) built to encourage a more courageous confrontation with our past. The TED Talk, “We Need To Talk About an Injustice,” by EJI founder and executive director Bryan Stevenson, is featured in the Facing History Reconstruction Era study guide.

The Legacy Museum attempts to tell a more accurate story of the United States as it narrates an evolving system of oppression from slavery, through segregation, to mass incarceration. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice provides sacred space for truth-telling about the horrors of racial terror lynchings while simultaneously calling upon counties throughout the South to claim their history. Listen to “The Worst Thing We’ve Ever Done,” from On the Media and hear Stevenson describe the motivation and intention for these projects.

The work of EJI is one possible answer to a key essential question about memory, legacy and justice that Facing History asks in our scope and sequence: How do we choose to remember difficult and complex histories?


Here are a few other ideas and resources:

  • Make space for students to learn about and engage in the ongoing debates and controversies over confederate monuments. This lesson focuses on the contested history surrounding the way we remember the Civil War and confederate monuments and features the powerful moment when Bree Newsome scaled the flagpole of the South Carolina state house and removed the confederate flag. This companion lesson invites students to create their own memorial or monument and features the inspiring story of two high school upstanders in Memphis who educated themselves and then their community about a lynching that occurred near their high school almost 100 years earlier.
  • REC_book_cover_smallExamine the way our own identity shapes the way we view history. Lesson 4 in The Reconstruction Era and The Fragility of Democracy includes excerpts from the diaries of Kate Stone, part of the planter class in Louisiana, and Caroline White, a resident of Brookline, Massachusetts, at the end of the Civil War. Even the first few words of their entries – “Conquered, Submission, Subjugation” versus “Hurrah! Hurrah!” – reveal so much about how identity, location, and context shapes the way we view events. How are your students taking these factors into account as they explore the way we remember our history in general, or about the Civil War and Reconstruction Era more specifically?
  • Delve into the power of language, especially around group membership and identity. We are once again seeing dehumanizing, “us vs. them” rhetoric rise to the national level of discourse around who belongs and who is American. What can we learn from this history to inform our perspective and action on this today?
  • Screen 13th, Ava Duvernay’s documentary that looks at the critical loophole in the amendment which abolished slavery, except as a punishment for those convicted of a crime. The film looks at the immediate attempts to arrest freedpeople directly after the Civil War in order to lease them to the state for labor, and using moving graphics and interviews, outlines the next 100 years of disenfranchisement, Jim Crow, lynchings, and criminalization. Support students in making accurate connections between our history and our current challenges.
  • Trace the legacy of the civil rights movement that begins during the Reconstruction Era. Stevenson makes reference to the “permanent disenfranchisement of people with criminal convictions,” noting the legacy and fight for voting rights that runs through the enslavement to mass incarceration timeline. Reverend William Barber, one of the instrumental figures in resurrecting the Poor People’s Campaign that Martin Luther King, Jr. was engaged in just before he was assassinated, refers to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s as a Second Reconstruction. He believes we are on the precipice of a Third Reconstruction. Consider: what do your students need to know, understand, and be able to do to participate in a Third Reconstruction of the United States? Consider utilizing some of the lessons contained in our What Makes Democracy Work unit.

Topics: Reconstruction

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