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Understand vital historical periods

It was a continuation of the Civil War “by other means.” It has been called “the first Civil Rights Movement.” According to C. Vann Woodward, one of America’s greatest historians, it was “the moral core” of our national saga. And there is no doubt that Louisiana, Mississippi and Natchez stood at the geographical center of the moral core it represented.

“It” was Reconstruction.

As we continue to commemorate the Civil War’s sesquicentennial and the Civil Rights Movement’s demi-centennial, and as we approach Natchez’ tri-centennial, we need to try to better understand this most vital of historical periods. Beginning on Sept.17th, at Copiah -Lincoln Community College, in a two part non-credit class, we’ll do just that, through the lens of the best historical scholarship of the last generation.

The story is extraordinary on every level. In 1860, the United States was without question the world’s unparalleled Great Republic. In 1860, in a world sated with every variety of exploitative labor, it was also the greatest slaveholding country in that unkind world. For some, it offered the greatest freedom. For others, the greatest unfreedom. Thus, while almost all other slaveholding societies ended that practice with little if any violence, our emancipation movement took the form of a grand scale self-mutilation, a Civil War that would be the greatest bloodletting in the nation’s history.

And yet, the formal end of the war in 1865 was not the end of the conflict. The war of vast battles was over; the war of veto and override, of invective and insult, of conflicts over crop liens and constitutional amendments, of assassination and ballot stuffing, of a presidential impeachment decided by one vote in the Senate, of a presidential election decided by one vote in the electoral college, and yes, of a wave of terrorism without precedent in American history, … that war was just beginning.

This was the era of Reconstruction, in which the status of defeated Confederates had to be determined, but too, in which the status of four million emancipated freedmen remained unclear. It was, therefore, in Reconstruction that the true meaning of the Civil War was to be defined.

Because, in fact, the question of the status of Confederates and freedmen raised another, more fundamental issue—what does it mean to be an American? What of that proud Anglo-Saxon descendant of a Founding Father who nevertheless fought against the U.S. flag and Constitution under which he had prospered? Could such an act ever be morally and politically redeemed? But then, what of a man of African ancestry, born into chattel slavery, who nevertheless fought and bled for that flag and Constitution under which he had heretofore been denied the most elemental rights of humanity? Could such allegiance ever be negated and dishonored? Which of the two deserved full rights of citizenship in the Great Republic, and who was, as one historian put it, somehow “foreign, … in a domestic sense”?

We are still debating those issues of American identity. And so, in the course of the discussion, we will cover 150- year-old arguments over race relations, class relations, federal-state relations, presidential-congressional relations, taxation, education, property rights, civil rights and voting rights that will sound amazingly like this morning’s newscasts. If nothing else, it will be relevant.

We will begin with a consideration of how and why historians’ perspectives on Reconstruction have changed over time. Then, some global perspective, as we examine how other societies, from Brazil to Russia, abolished their systems of bondage in the 19th century and incorporated their freedmen into society. And then, we will cover the process of Reconstruction in the United States from the war years to 1877 (and beyond), in all its infinite complexity.

In an attempt to do justice to that complexity, we will divide the course into two parts, the first for this fall, with the second beginning again in January. For Part I, there will be nine sessions for $45, from 6 to 7 p.m., Tuesday nights, Sept. 17-Nov 12, in the Lecture Hall of the Tom Reed Academic Building at Co-Lin. CEU’s are available. To register, contact Brendan Chella at 601-446-1103 or brendan.chella@colin.edu

 

James Wiggins is an instructor of history at Copiah-Lincoln Community College.

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