With the election of Barack Obama, the icons of the 1960s civil rights movement were given another moment in the sun. The first black congressmen, who took office during Reconstruction in the nineteenth century, remained largely in the shadows. In Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen, Philip Dray gives these men their proper place, as pioneers in the story of African American liberation. Dray, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, has created a very timely book as well as an exceptionally good read.
The history of Reconstruction has had an interesting trajectory. When Reconstruction ended in 1877, Southerners rushed to restore white rule and to justify their renewed oppression of blacks. By the twentieth century, historians had unquestionably accepted white Southern propaganda about Reconstruction. In schoolbooks, historians portrayed Reconstruction as a tragic mistake and an unmitigated failure. They completely ignored the African American point-of-view. In the 1960s, the civil rights movement forced a reappraisal of exactly why giving power to blacks seemed so evil to the white South..
As Dray explains:
As long as forces largely inimical to Reconstruction dominated Reconstruction scholarship, black officials were depicted as incompetents and thieves, or worse, simply airbrushed from the historical record. Later, when greater objectivity was brought to the subject, the black representatives nonetheless often remained marginal figures, their role in Congress and on the national political stage considered largely symbolic. Either view tends to invalidate black political initiative. (more…)