U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reconstruction and 1968

As Sara Georgini noted last week, 2018 will be chock full of anniversaries for us to remember. Of course, what comes to mind is the fiftieth anniversary of 1968. It was a year full of tumultuous events. However, I’d like to consider the legacy of what happened 150 years ago—the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment and the beginnings of Congressional Reconstruction. The legacy of those events was an important part of 1968.

The Fourteenth Amendment’s formal ratification on July 9, 1868 defined, for the first time, American citizenship on a national level. Overturning Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), the Fourteenth Amendment was originally designed to protect the rights of African Americans recently freed from bondage. Entry back into the Union for Southern states was contingent on their ratification of the amendment. At the same time, state amendments—most notably South Carolina’s—also made strides for ideas of freedom and citizenship.

We should think about the legacy of Reconstruction—in both 1968 and the present-day. Recent questions about the validity of the Fourteenth Amendment and “birthright citizenship” show how the questions of 1868 and the nineteenth century have not gone away. Thinking back to 1968, that year’s domestic issues of race, law and order, and civil disorders have links back to the incomplete results of Reconstruction. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in Memphis reminded—or at least should have reminded—Americans of the intricate links between race and labor power in American history. That King was killed in Memphis, a city that was the site of a horrendous 1866 race riot that punctuated the violence of the South during the period, was a tragic historical irony.

The rise of “Black Power” as an ideology in the middle of the Sixties was seen by some African American historians as a callback to the 1860s and the first iteration of black political power in American society. Lerone Bennett titled his series about African American politics during the Reconstruction period “Black Power”—before the term took off in the summer of 1966. The re-release of W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in the late 1960s augured renewed interest in the book and its analysis of the Reconstruction period. The historiography of Reconstruction was already decades into its transformation from the Dunning thesis to its modern interpretation as an “unfinished revolution.”

In short, it would be a mistake to think about 1968 without thinking about 1868. We can tie other moments from 1968 to the late 1860s—the aborted revolution in Paris in May of 1968 has ties to the revolutionary spirit of 1860s and 1870s Europe. The dreams of going from the Earth to the Moon were nearly realized by 1968, a century after Jules Verne wrote his science fiction classic From the Earth to the Moon (1865). Remembering 1968 will be an important part of understanding history in 2018. But we should not forget the historical legacy of other time periods too.

(And to think—I didn’t even mention 1918!)

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