American students know very little about Reconstruction

Schools need to be much more honest with American students. If we don’t teach students about the past, we don’t equip them with the tools to be successful in the future. And any history of America is woefully incomplete without a careful examination of post-Civil War reconstruction.

Worryingly, one Illinois middle school teacher stated (in a report reviewing American history educational standards) that reconstruction is “generally the most skipped and summarized” unit in the history curriculum.

Theron Wilkerson, a Mississippi social studies teacher quoted in the same report, went further and said, “Because teachers are often pressured to ‘teach to the test,’ fruitful discussions about black political, cultural and economic autonomy , the potential for radical democratic participation , and the destruction of reconstruction is lost.”

The aforementioned report, released earlier this year by the Zinn Education Project, showed that the elementary and secondary curriculum standards for teaching Reconstruction were inadequate in all 50 states. This is a serious problem.

Reconstruction began after the Civil War and lasted from 1865-1877. The United States had to rebuild and reintegrate formerly breakaway Southern states into the Union while deciding the legal status of formerly enslaved Black Americans.

In an act of bravery against the wishes of then-President Andrew Johnson, members of Congress — led by representatives considered to be the most radical of their day — passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866. It was the first significant piece of legislation in US history a President’s veto. Next, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, which consolidated the idea of ​​birthright citizenship and extended the rights to millions of Black Americans.

Nonetheless, this political revolution led to increasingly violent resistance from white Southerners. As the first black Southern politicians achieved political office and states funded public schools through newly established welfare programs, anti-Reconstructionist and white supremacist groups rallied — including the Ku Klux Klan. They began spreading the myth that Reconstruction was ultimately a plan for black supremacy, and throughout the South they used terror to strike fear into the hearts of black communities.

“Many Americans have long believed the dangerous theory that when the federal government acts to help minorities, it is all part of a covert plan for black supremacism.”

Then, during the contentious 1876 presidential election, the Republican nominee, Governor Rutherford B. Hayes, was forced to negotiate a deal with anti-Reconstruction Southerners to withdraw all federal troops in the South. In return, Hayes got the presidency.

This left the enforcement of Reconstruction policies to state and local governments and opened the door to Jim Crow-era segregation laws that stayed on the books for almost another 100 years. Reconstruction, the American project to reunite our democracy, ultimately remained unfinished. And the failure of the reconstruction is still relevant today.

Many Americans have long believed the dangerous theory that when the federal government acts to help minorities, it is all part of a covert plan for black supremacism. This racist and violent ideology is still being propagated by Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson and was present in the Buffalo shooter’s alleged manifesto.

And if you look back at the January 6 attack on the Capitol – in which an insurgent waved a Confederate flag in the US Capitol for the first time in American history – Eric Foner, one of America’s leading historians, remarked that it reminded him of the “overthrow of Reconstruction, often accompanied or matched, I should say, by violent attacks on elected officials.”

However, there is some hope in the form of a growing movement that recognizes the importance of rebuilding being taught in schools. Two hundred of our nation’s leading historians wrote a letter to American school districts, teachers and parents urging schools to prioritize its inclusion in the curriculum, arguing, “Reconstruction is filled with stories that can help us explore the possibility of a… Seeing a future defined by racial justice. However, the story of this grand experiment in interracial democracy is too often skipped or rushed into curricula and classrooms.”

The Biden administration is taking steps to address this issue. The American history and civics scholarship programs provided by the Department of Education give states the opportunity to fund history programs that “incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse perspectives into teaching and learning.” This directive would encourage teachers like Theron Wilkerson – who could not teach Reconstruction due to strict teaching standards – to do so.

However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, as it is not the responsibility of the Department of Education to implement statewide curricula—it is up to the states and localities to take advantage of those opportunities.

Additionally, lawmakers in at least 42 states have introduced bills targeting the doctrine of “controversial issues” — which can subjectively be read as almost anything, America’s tense history of racial injustice would likely qualify as “controversial” for conservatives fomenting panic “Critical Race Theory”.

Reconstruction is difficult to tell, but as it does so, young Americans are made aware of some of the most difficult truths of the American experience. No nation is morally perfect, so we shouldn’t pretend that our nation has always been perfect.

And it’s not “anti-American” to confront your own history. American students know very little about Reconstruction


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