For this week’s post, I’d like to say a bit more about what historians were writing about Reconstruction in the 1960s. As I argued last week, this discourse is difficult to separate from the then-prevailing discussions about African Americans and the future of American politics after the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Memory of Reconstruction, which in the late 1960s was entangled with both the changes in the historiography of that era and the rise of Black Studies, became a way for African American scholars to remind their readers that America had a chance to finish the job of the first Reconstruction. Before continuing on, I’d like to address the issue of Haiti that arose last week in the comments. It’s a very important one, because it also demands a new research question which, it seems, either hasn’t been answered or hasn’t even been asked. What, exactly, was Haiti in the public memory of African Americans in the 20th century?
I, and others on the blog, were surprised when Bennett stated that the Reconstruction meeting in Charleston that involved a Black crowd was the “first official Western assembly with a black majority” to hold a session. It’s interesting to note, however, that in the book version of these essays, also titled Black Power, there is a subtle change to the wording: “As these men gather, diffident and somewhat unsure of themselves, their words and gestures are recorded by passels of reports, drawn here by the spectacle of the first official assembly in the white Western world with a black majority.” Emphasis added by me to show how Bennett further clarifies the importance of what happened in the South during Reconstruction. Perhaps he remembered Haiti in his revisions of the essays into a book, but regardless, it’s something that further begs the question of Haiti’s importance to the 20th century variant of the Black Freedom Struggle.
Lerone Bennett’s series in Ebony magazine continued through the rest of 1965 and into 1966. He focused on individual Southern states to show the complexity of Reconstruction-era politics in the South. For South Carolina, as an example, he argued that Black leaders were faced with an unenviable task. Such leaders would have to be “both Martin King and Malcolm X” in how they dealt with the unstable mix of politics, power, and race in South Carolina. Bennett was pointing out that the issue of Reconstruction-era Black Power, at least as it pertained to the situation of a majority-Black population in South Carolina and a still-energized white population, required both power and finesse. Bennett’s goal, as one reads either the essays or the book version, is to give voice to newer interpretations of Reconstruction. In the introduction for his book, Bennett argues to bringing back mostly forgotten voices on the history and legacy of Reconstruction. “Within recent years, modern scholars, following the lead of W.E.B Du Bois and other Negro historians, have proved conclusively that the works of (Woodrow) Wilson and other conservative writers were white-oriented distortions of Reconstruction reality,” Bennett wrote. “I have attempted in this brief history to give wider currency to the findings of these scholars.” He also goes on to defend his use of Black Power as a title, arguing that Reconstruction was “the only real period in American history in which black people had real, that is to say effective, power.”
It is interesting to think of these works in light of Kenneth Stampp’s own book Reconstruction that was released in 1965, The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877. There, Stampp lays out his own version of Reconstruction history. For him, the Dunning School of Reconstruction (which argued that it was a tragic era for white Southerners, only “redeemed” by the electoral results of 1876 and the concurrent paramilitary campaign against the Black Republican vote in the South) was not necessarily incorrect: “Few revisionists would claim that the Dunning interpretation of reconstruction is a pure fabrication.” Instead, what the revisionists had to offer was that “the Dunningites overlooked a great deal, and they doubt that nobility and idealism suddenly died in 1865.” I don’t want to give the impression that Stampp was in any way soft on tackling the problems of Dunning School historiography. He dismisses their claims that white Southerners suffered severely during Reconstruction, especially in comparison with African Americans. He also holds white Northerners as responsible for the Dunning School and the racism often associated with it, due to both sections of the nation needing an “intense nationalism” to fuel sectional unity and the rise of a stronger United States.
For the future I’ll delve a bit more into both Black Power and Black Studies, and how they were influenced by the changes in Reconstruction historiography. I think it’s also interesting to consider how Black historians such as Lerone Bennett and John Hope Franklin were creating, and remembering for the sake of African Americans, this history in the very public place of Ebony magazine. Next week I’ll get a bit more into that aspect of this remembering, and end on a very personal point that, well, explains why the heck I’m a historian in the first place.
EDIT: Thanks to Dan Wickberg for pointing out the correct date of publication for Kenneth Stampp’s The Era of Reconstruction. I was wrongly looking at the fourth printing date instead of the original publication date of 1965. My sincerest apologies.
 Lerone Bennett, “Black Power,” Ebony, Nov. 1965, pg. 28.
 Bennett, Lerone. Black Power U.S.A.: The Human Side of Reconstruction, 1867-1877. (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, Inc., 1967), p. 3.
 There’s a good bit on the 19th century and how Haiti becomes a symbol for African Americans. See Matthew Clavin, Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War (Philadelphia: University of Penn Press, 2011).
 Bennett, “Black Power Part III: Post-Bellum Paradise for Negroes,” Ebony, January 1966, pg. 117.
 Bennett, Black Power U.S.A., preface.
 Stampp, Kenneth. The Era of Reconstruction: 1865-1877. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), p. 9.
 Stampp, 13.