Historian Peniel E. Joseph’s spirited and informative presentation on Tuesday, May 23, based on his book The Third Reconstruction outlined a history of racism in the United States from the end of the Civil War and extending into the twenty-first century. Joseph’s presentation at the Newmark Theater was the concluding talk of this season’s Mark O. Hatfield Lecture Series sponsored by the Oregon Historical Society.
Joseph is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and is generally regarded as an expert on the Black Power movement in the United States. He has written books on Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and the Black Panthers, and has argued that these individuals and groups were not dangerous but rather important figures in the United States in the powerful cultural changes taking place during the 1960s.
He argues that the racial history of the United States is measured by the following: the First Reconstruction (1865-1898); the Second Reconstruction (1954-1968); and the Third Reconstruction (2008-Present).
The First Reconstruction was a thirty-three-year period of Black activism and the election of Black officials. Joseph emphasized the importance of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments that were passed during the First Reconstruction. According to Joseph, the Civil War was fought to ensure the dignity, citizenship, and democracy of all people born in the Unites States. The passage of the three amendments abolished slavery, provided citizenship, and secured voting rights to anyone born in this country. (Unfortunately, voting rights were not extended to white women until 1920, and Black women until 1965.)
Joseph spoke about the emancipation view of reconstruction and the redemptionist view of reconstruction. The reconstructionist view of the United States was as a multiracial society. In contrast, the redemptionist view of the Civil War ultimately won the propaganda war and called it the “Lost Cause.” The redemptionists rationalized their actions by sharecropping, convict leasing, racial segregation, and pogroms against Black Americans during this era.
Joseph notes that the violence of the Jim Crow era, which resulted in large-scale imprisonment of Black Americans and the denial of housing and educational opportunities (e.g., the G.I. Bill) to them, negatively impacted their ability to build generational wealth. Joseph argues this lack of opportunity for Blacks extends into the present.
The Second Reconstruction began with the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954 that started the integration of public schools in the United States. Another Supreme Court decision that helped to desegregate American schools was the Swann v. Charlotte-Meckelburg decision in 1971. American public schools were not fully integrated until 1988, Joseph said. He believes that de facto segregation of the nation’s public schools still exists.
Beginning in 1960, there was a series of demonstrations by Black students protesting racial segregation at lunch counters. This era was defined by the founding of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). According to Joseph, it was the most important grass-roots civil rights organization of the twentieth century. SNCC members believed in building a “beloved community” and traveled to the South, where “dignity, democracy, and citizenship” did not exist, to effect change. The Second Reconstruction also included the “Freedom Riders”; James Meredith, who became the first Black student to attend the University of Mississippi; the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation; Medgar Evers’ assassination; Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”; the March on Washington; the assassination of President Kennedy; the passage of the Civil Rights Act; and the Voting Rights Act.
Joseph points out that Reconstructionists during this era won the narrative war (i.e., “the nation believes that the idea of racial justice is a moral and political good and should be at the beating heart of American democracy”). Joseph believes that the Second Reconstruction institutionalized a racial justice consensus that lasted fifty years.
The Third Reconstruction began with four major events: 1) the election of Barak Obama, in 2008 as the first Black president of the United States; 2) the rise of Black Lives Matter in 2013; 3) the rise of Donald Trump in 2016; and 4) the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the racial uprisings that followed the most racially divisive presidential election in American history, and the pandemic.
Joseph reports that the United States has experienced the dichotomy of racial progress and backlash during the Third Reconstruction, adding that there is uncertainty regarding who will win this narrative war. Many anti-racist books have been published (e.g., The 1619 Project) during this era, followed by protests against critical race theory, because some declare that the nation’s children are being indoctrinated. Texas, Florida, and other states have banned the teaching of critical race theory.
Joseph argues that banning critical race theory also suppresses the teaching of American history, women’s history, labor history, Latinx history, Asian Pacific Islander history, and the history of other marginalized groups. He believes the United States has seen amazing racial equity and progress, but he notes the backlash against the teaching and talking about this history as perceived by some as “un-American and unpatriotic.” This, he says, goes back to the Confederacy, and we have been here before: Slavery is our country’s “original sin,” and we are still grappling with it during this period of the Third Reconstruction.
Joseph emphasizes the importance of storytelling in the teaching of history to better understand it. Storytelling in our families, he said, is vital for children to better understand their history. Stories about family, community, and the nation are the most powerful tools we have as individuals. Stories can also be used to divide and destroy communities and societies. History, he believes, is the present and the future, not just the past. History has a role to play in creating a beloved community.
Joseph asked the audience the following questions: What is the story that we are going to tell future generations? Are we going to lie and mythologize American history (“settler colonialism”)? Are we going to marginalize Black, Hispanic, and Asian women and other groups? Other questions Joseph posed that we need to mention in the teaching of American history are: the atrocities that have been done to some other groups; how to not “paper over” our differences and not lie about the past to create an oppressive consensus for future generations; or do we choose a different path? Joseph believes that what we need to do is create a “beloved community” that was the core of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s advocacy.
Joseph’s soaring rhetoric was inspiring and informative. As a historian, he skillfully outlined the eras of America’s racial history. At the same time, he did not include specifics to match his rhetoric of a “beloved community.” For the Third Reconstruction movement to succeed, he said, it will need to be matched by political allies who can turn activism into legislation. The United States needs to have a modern equivalent of President Lyndon Johnson who can translate the groundswell of Black Lives Matter activism and public support into legislation that will help our country achieve racial equality and create a “beloved community.”