24 Hours That Told America's Story

The attack on the U.S. Capitol was no aberration. White mobs often turned to violence when they didn't like election results in the post-Civil War South.

From time to time, history affords us glaring contrasts that capture the story and tragedy of a nation.

On January 5, a pastor who preaches from the pulpit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became the first Black person elected to the Senate from Georgia, the same state that birthed the vice president of the Confederacy.

The same state where the Ku Klux Klan resurfaced a century ago atop Stone Mountain, whose rockface is adorned with a carving of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson, a memorial which opened to the public on April 14, 1965, 100 years to the day after Abraham Lincoln was shot.

The same state that witnessed more lynchings in the decades after the Civil War than any place but Mississippi.

Little more than 12 hours after Rev. Warnock declared victory, a violent mob of Trump supporters overran the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to disrupt, delay, and overturn the Electoral College vote count in the president’s favor. That very morning, Trump capped off two months of apocalyptic rhetoric by urging followers gathered in Washington to “fight like hell” to “take back our country.” By day’s end, four people were dead.

If the president’s words sound familiar to students of history, it’s because they were the same rallying cries used by those who fought Reconstruction and later built and defended Jim Crow.

For a dozen-odd years after the Civil War, America embarked on an imperfect journey to fulfill its founding ideals. And while the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments live on as indelible triumphs of that era, the spirit of the Confederacy won what its sons could not win on the battlefield: a lasting peace for white rule in the South.

Share

The elements that spurred Reconstruction’s demise sound all too familiar today: white mobs terrorizing legislators, often questioning the legitimacy of elections that installed biracial governments across the Deep South. In Wilmington, North Carolina, white supremacists engineered a successful coup after rampaging through the city.

Until recently, many Americans (North and South) viewed Reconstruction as a haphazard mistake, a social experiment run by corrupt outsiders who were punishing an already vanquished people. The real horrors of that period—the thousands of free Black citizens murdered with no consequence, the refusal to hold Confederate leaders to account, the near-slavery existence of sharecropping—were swept aside, too inconvenient for any tidy narrative of a nation trying to move on.

In truth, Reconstruction’s failure was America’s second great betrayal. It was our second chance to amend our story, to align our words with our deeds. What Grant had won at Appomattox, equality under the law would win in statehouses and courthouses. Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom” made real.

It never came to pass. We lost our will and our courage. It would be nearly 90 years before major civil rights legislation became law again.

Now we’re at another inflection point, another chance to exorcise the demons that have haunted us since delegates put pen to parchment in Philadelphia 245 years ago, another chance to reject the forces trying to kill multiracial democracy in America.

You will hear more calls for unity this week, just as there were when Reconstruction began to crumble. You will hear that what happened at the Capitol isn’t who we are, that extremists on the margins can’t hold us back. But this is who we are. This is the legacy we can’t deny.

It’s up to us to insist that we can govern and punish those who threaten the work of democracy. That we can address the crises confronting us right now and the defining crisis we’ve been running from for far too long. - MS

Photo credit: Shutterstock