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Book Review by Deirdre Sinnott

Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction, by Eric Foner, with illustrations edited and with commentary by Joshua Brown, 268 pp., Knoff.

September 17, 2006


No event in the history of the United States is more important than the release of four million enslaved people. More important than the country’s foundation, more important than other wars, the reverberations of the Civil War, the social revolution that emancipated the slaves, are still being felt to this day.


Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction, by Columbia history professor Eric Foner, is a critical contribution to the understanding of the much maligned period following the Civil War known as Reconstruction. Foner has created an accessible history that carefully exposes the strengths and weaknesses of the period, as well as dispels the racist notions used to discredit the accomplishments of the freed people and their allies in the Republican Party.


The book is filled with illustrations to help illuminate the tenor of the periods discussed, but additionally many photos and illustrations are collected in commentary pages written by Joshua Brown, executive director of American Social History Project at City University of New York. These illustrations and commentaries follow the depiction of African-Americans beginning before the Civil War all the way through the civil rights struggles of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. Changing attitudes of the dominate culture are documented by the cartoons, engravings, paintings, and photographs included in the book.


In his newspaper, North Star, Frederick Douglass said, “Negroes can never have impartial portraits, at the hand of white artists.” And Brown follows that idea showing that the visual depiction of African-Americans follows the politics of the times. Both sides of the conflict used images to mold reader opinion. Some of the illustrations are extremely painful to look at, but they accurately reflect the racist ideology that dominated both the North and the South. Even abolitionist books and pamphlets, for the most part, sought to portray African-Americans as hapless victims instead of potential equals in a free society.


Foner’s concise book covers the last stages of slave system, the Civil War, emancipation and the struggle to include black men in the army, through the maneuverings of President Andrew Johnson (a southerner who supported the planter class over the newly freed slaves in his version of Reconstruction), into the era known as “Radical Reconstruction” where a new class replaced the southern slaveocracy, into the violent overthrow of Reconstruction, and the period of “Jim Crow” reaction that lasted into the mid-twentieth century.


The true gift of this book is that Foner focuses his attention on the actual players of history, the oppressed masses and the working classes. What made the Civil War and the elimination of chattel slavery so significant is that millions of people, those who had been robbed of the fruits of their labor for centuries, were transformed into potential members of the working class. Unfortunately the violent repression of the African-American masses by racist counter-revolutionary forces denied many from fully reaching that stage. For years before and after the demise of Radical Reconstruction many freed people were brutally repressed and kept tied to the land. The “Black Codes,” a group of laws instituted in the South and designed to strip people of the rights won by emancipation, were repealed by the 14th amendment to the Constitution (1869), but continued in spirit.


Both the movement for women’s suffrage and the labor movement, (which remained hostile to black workers and mostly segregated for decades after the Civil War), understood that emancipation was an opportunity for them to push for more rights. Both labor and the women’s movement used the example of Reconstruction, and the revolutionary ideas that it embodied, to demand more from the Federal Government, such as laws mandating an eight-hour working day and voting rights for women.


Reconstruction, while never fulfilling the promise to redistribute the land that had been cultivated by black labor, accomplished much. The idea of public education for both black and white was boosted by the desire of the freed people to learn to read, a skill long denied them under slavery. Other social support institutions, such as Black churches and community defense groups, sprung up as a result of the work “Freedmen’s Bureaus.” The Bureaus were working groups established to help the transition and became a clearing house for many of the demands of the former slaves. Marriage, a long-denied right, flourished when freed people were offered the opportunity to obtain marriage licenses.


The extreme violence that overthrew Reconstruction has its echoes today. Racism embodied by the rise of the KKK and the complicity of the Supreme Court, the Federal Government, and almost all social institutions in the country, has never been completely eradicated. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina exposed systematic failures not only in emergency preparedness, but also in the orientation of the role of both local and national governments. Economic deprivation, rampant in New Orleans, is common in cities across the U.S.


The answer to the question: how could U.S. citizens be left to their own devices in the middle of a long-predicted national crisis, can be answered with one word—racism. Racism was also evident in the mass media’s portrayal of the efforts of African-Americans to secure the means of existence in the wake of the failure of the Federal Government to come to the rescue.


The role of the Federal Government was greatly expanded during the Reconstruction era and included a concern for the well being of the freed people. That roll is central to the debate in today’s election period. Should there be any social safety net? Should government provide health insurance for the millions who cannot afford to get sick? What control do states have over the National Guard units? Should those resources, traditionally used for natural emergencies (and occasionally used to repress demonstrations and uprisings), be sent to Iraq to occupy and oppress the people there? Just what do the taxes we pay get us in return? Who sets up labor law? Certainly former Enron workers, who lost their pensions when the company failed, would prefer to be first in line, ahead of banks and other creditors, when bankruptcy courts spilt up the assets. During Radical Reconstruction laws placed the freed people ahead of other creditors if a farm they work on went under. That law and other protections disappeared during the period of reaction that followed Reconstruction.


Karl Marx watched the events of the Civil War with great interest and wrote extensively about the class nature of the clashing forces. “The present struggle between the South and North is, therefore, nothing but a struggle between two social systems, the system of slavery and the system of free labour. The struggle has broken out because the two systems can no longer live peacefully side by side on the North American continent. It can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other.” Die Presse No. 306, November 7, 1861.


A full understanding of the ramifications of the post Civil War period in both its victories and defeats must be part of the national consciousness. Foner’s book should be required reading for students trying to understand the history of the U.S. and how that history reverberates in their everyday existence.

Copyright © Deirdre Sinnott, 9/17/06.

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