By David M. Kinchen
“He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.” — George Orwell
I was alerted to “Before Obama: A Reappraisal of Black Reconstruction Era Politicians” (Praeger, Santa Barbara, CA. 2 volumes, 638 pages, $131) by Nicholas Patler, who contributed two essays to this scholarly work edited by Matthew Lynch, with a foreword by Molefi Keto Asante.
Nick Patler is a friend and contributor to this site, as well as the author of a book about Woodrow Wilson and the resegregation of the federal government: “Jim Crow and the Wilson Administration” (University Press of Colorado 2004, 268 pages) republished in 2007 in a paperback edition. For my review of Patler’s book, which is also an excellent biography of civil rights leader Monroe Trotter, click: www.huntingtonnews.net/columns/070402-kinchen-review.html).
I’m calling this piece a “Book Notes” rather than a “Book Review” because I read Patler’s two essays and several others, including a few by the editor, but not the entire two volumes. I intend to do this, because this is a scholarly book that is accessible to the general reader and it’s important because it debunks the false history of black lawmakers during the all-too short Reconstruction era. “Before Obama” is an attempt to undo the injustices of so-called nonfiction accounts of the era, as well as the most infamous fictional account, Thomas Dixon’s “The Clansman” which was filmed by D.W. Griffith as the racist silent film “The Birth of a Nation” — and screened by Woodrow Wilson in the White House in 1917.
Patler’s essays are in Volume 1: Legacies Lost” and deal with Blanche Kelso Bruce from Mississippi, the first black man to serve a full six-year term as a U.S. senator (pages 23-46) and the attempt to seat in the Senate P.B.S. Pinchback from Louisiana (pages 211-233). Both essays — and all the other ones I’ve read so far — are beautifully written, and — as I said above — accessible to the general reader. My advice to anyone reading “Before Obama” would be to read a book, any book, by Professor Eric Foner of Columbia University about Reconstruction. He’s the recognized authority on the subject and his books have won every prize available to a historian, including the Pulitzer Prize.
“Before Obama” introduces America to the Black Reconstruction politicians who fought valiantly for the civil rights of all people—important individuals who have been ignored by modern historians as well as their contemporaries.
In the roughly two-decade-long period after the Civil War, a cadre of Black Reconstruction politicians found the courage to stand and attempt to effect change against powerful opposition—and at a time when the United States was not ready. The contributions of these brave souls set the stage for the Civil Rights movement and heightened the world’s consciousness of the need for equality.
Between 1865 and 1876, about 2,000 blacks held elective and appointive offices in the South, but these men faced astounding odds. They were belittled as corrupt and inadequate by their white political opponents, who used legislative trickery, libel, bribery, and brutal intimidation of their constituents to rob these black lawmakers of their base of support. All of the black politicians were Republicans, who were at first welcomed by white Republicans from the North. This changed, as the contributors point out, but most American blacks voted Republican until FDR.
Thetwo volumes of “Before Obama” examine the leadership and contributions of black politicians during the Reconstruction era—diverse men whose efforts during Reconstruction should not be overlooked. A few were born free, but most were born into slavery, often with a white father. Each biographical essay examines how each individual contributed to the Reconstruction Era and fostered the development of a parallel civil society within black communities, what influence his actions had on the future of blacks in politics, and why he has been ignored. This work also serves to set the record straight about these black politicians who are often scapegoated for the overall failure of the Reconstruction.
• Explains the current social standing of African Americans as well as the United States current political organization
• Provides a framework for introducing these redoubtable figures to the mainstream, including arguments for increased inclusion in history textbooks for all grade levels
• Introduces new theories that explain why Black Reconstruction politicians have been ignored by modern historians
About the editor
Dr. Matthew Lynch is a Chair and Associate Professor of Education at Langston University, a blogger for the Huffington Post, a columnist for Education News, and a education advice columnist for Education World. He spent seven years as a K-12 teacher, which gave him an intimate view of the impediments that hinder genuine education reform. He has focused the second stage of his career on researching topics related to educational policy, school leadership and education reform, particularly in the urban learning environment. He’s
the author of “It’s Time for a Change: School Reform for the Next Decade”, the newly released “A Guide to Effective School Leadership Theories”, the forthcoming “The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Education” (Pearson, January 11, 2014), and Pass or Fail in America’s Schools: How Social Promotion and Academic Retention are Destroying Public Education (Praeger, November 2013). In addition, he is the author of a forthcoming book entitled “Reimagining School Reform and Innovation” (Sense, 2013).