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What Reconstruction teaches us about white nationalism today

Historian Eric Foner on the long tradition of white nationalists clashing with Black people exercising their rights.

Heightened security is seen in front of the Capitol building on the morning of Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Matt McClain/Washington Post via Getty Images

On January 20, Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. Though the tradition of the transfer of power provided many with hope on Wednesday, the inauguration happened under the shadow of a violent insurrection.

Just two weeks before, thousands of Americans, in the shape of a largely white mob, stormed the very building where Biden took his presidential oath. The mob, under the spell of fabrications about the presidential election being stolen — especially in states with high Black populations — sought to “take back the country” through violence. The scene, just one day after Democrats secured control of Congress through the election of a Black senator and a Jewish senator in Georgia, mirrored coup attempts from the Reconstruction era.

Reconstruction, the period following the Civil War, from 1863 to 1877, tried to redress the inequities of slavery by giving rights to Black people through the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. It attempted to rebuild the South’s economy and empower Black people by abolishing slavery, granting them the right to vote, promising equal protections, expanding education and civil rights, and instituting biracial governments, where Black political leaders sat alongside white ones. But since a sector of white America opposed this — vestiges of the Confederacy attempting to stay alive — white mobs took it upon themselves to push back against progress by killing the people who tried to move forward.

The push and pull between Black advancement and white supremacy then mirrors the forces at play today. To put this in context, I talked to one of the world’s foremost experts on Reconstruction, historian Eric Foner, emeritus professor of history at Columbia University, about why America must continue to look back at the Capitol riot on January 6, and to the lessons of the Reconstruction era, to understand how these events speak to a long and ongoing racial friction and hostility.

“What you saw [on January 6] was the clash of two kinds of traditions in this country: The white nationalist tradition and the tradition of interracial democracy. Those are both parts of the American way. The clash between them has gone on for a long time and apparently will continue,” Foner told me.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, touches on the bleak fortitude of white supremacy, the correlation between impeached presidents Andrew Johnson and Donald Trump, and how the results of the Georgia Senate runoffs should give America some hope.

Fabiola Cineas

What parallels do you see between the events that took place on January 6 and the Reconstruction era?

Eric Foner

My thoughts turned to Reconstruction when I saw the mob attacking the Capitol, and particularly because many of the TV commentators were saying this is unprecedented, that this is something new in American history.

It was unprecedented in terms of storming the Capitol itself. But in terms of violent mobs trying to overturn a democratic election, that it was not unprecedented at all. This happened many times in the Reconstruction era and just after that era.

Fabiola Cineas

What are some specific events of the era that can be connected to January 6?

Eric Foner

If you go back to Reconstruction, there are a couple of examples. In the Colfax massacre of 1873 in Louisiana, whites overran the county courthouse, killed a whole bunch of Black militiamen, and basically took over the local government even though Republicans had won. It was a biracial government.

Jump all the way up to 1898 to the Wilmington riot, when a biracial elected government of Wilmington, North Carolina, was ousted in a kind of coup d’état by armed whites. They were driven from the city and a new government took over. In 1874 in New Orleans, which was the capital at the time, a group called the White League — they were pretty explicit about what they stood for — had an uprising where they tried to seize the government of Louisiana. US troops had to come in to put them down.

Blacks folks gathering dead and wounded from the Colfax massacre in Louisiana. Published in Harper’s Weekly on May 10, 1873.
MPI/Getty Images

So, in other words, we’ve seen this before. While we like to talk about ourselves as the world’s oldest democracy, as a democratic culture, there’s also a powerful strand of anti-democratic feeling in the United States, especially when it comes to race and the role of African Americans. For many decades, Black people couldn’t even vote in the South up until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. There’s this distrust of actual democracy, especially if your side doesn’t win. As I say, I think there certainly are parallels to Reconstruction and the overthrow of Reconstruction.

Fabiola Cineas

Why did mobs try to overthrow biracial governments and elections in the South back then?

Eric Foner

To restore white supremacy. It’s as simple as that. In Reconstruction, for the first time in American history, the laws and the Constitution were being written and Black people were recognized as citizens in the United States. They were given — men, anyway — the right to vote and hold office.

By the later part of the 1860s and into the 1870s, there were these biracial governments functioning in the South. This was something that white supremacy found impossible to accept. You’re talking about five to six years after the end of slavery here, and yet now, African Americans are actually exercising significant political power. These uprisings were an attempt to restore white supremacy and they were pretty explicit about it.

Fabiola Cineas

An apparent purpose of the January 6 storming was for these extremists to express anger over supposed voter and election fraud. How does this kind of mission connect to what mobs tried to accomplish during Reconstruction?

Eric Foner

It’s hard to know exactly what the practical purpose of the mob was on January 6. Okay, they stormed the Capitol, but how could doing so actually overturn the election?

In Reconstruction, they just killed or drove out officeholders. With this group, maybe they were planning to kill or drive out Congress and prevent it from actually certifying the electoral votes that made Biden the president-elect. It’s hard to know. I’m not even sure they thought this through logically; they knew they wanted to somehow stand up to the absurd charge that Trump won the vote in a landslide and was somehow deprived of election.

When they got in there, some of them were extremely violent and some of them were just walking around taking selfies, which is not likely to overturn the government. The violence of Reconstruction was far more pervasive than what we saw the other day. Nobody knows how many, but maybe [2,000] or 3,000 African Americans were killed in Reconstruction by the Klan and by all these white supremacist groups committing acts of violence. And many of these killings were not related to elections, necessarily.

Black schoolhouses were burned and teachers assaulted; a Black farmer who got into a dispute with a landlord would be assaulted by the Klan. They were trying to restore white supremacy in all features and aspects of life. But, of course, political power was one very important part of that.

Fabiola Cineas

In the middle of all this, Andrew Johnson, the slaveholding white supremacist who became president after Lincoln was assassinated, got impeached by Congress. Johnson tried to reinstall ex-Confederates throughout the South. Johnson wanted to try and restore the antebellum status quo. Can you talk about the similarities of what we’ve seen with Trump?

Eric Foner

Johnson was the first president to be impeached. One of the articles of impeachment against him was helping to incite the Memphis and New Orleans riots of 1866, where armed whites assaulted Black communities. So a president whipping up hatred and violence is also not new, although Johnson and Trump are sort of way at the bottom of the list of American presidents.

House of Representative managers of the impeachment proceedings and trial of President Andrew Johnson.
Time Life Pictures via Getty Images

I’m sure that Trump knows nothing about Andrew Johnson, historically. But, no doubt, he’s aware that Johnson was impeached. And if you go back, Johnson was a precursor to Trump in some ways. He used crazy, extreme language.

He denounced the Republicans in Congress as murderers. He accused them of plotting the assassination of Lincoln. He didn’t have Facebook or Twitter to spread his views, but in speeches and other things, he used the most extreme kind of lunatic language like Trump. He encouraged people to break the law. He said the Reconstruction laws that were passed by Congress weren’t real laws that need to be obeyed. He seems to have encouraged violence. He absolutely stood up for white supremacy.

Trump launched his political career by claiming that President Obama was not really an American citizen. Johnson, 150 years earlier, vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 because it made Black people citizens. He said Black people should not be citizens, that they’re incapable and intellectually unable to be citizens of the United States.

I’m sure Trump never read Johnson’s veto message, but that same theme is there in Trumpism and in Johnson’s opposition to Reconstruction.

Fabiola Cineas

Last week, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cori Bush invoked Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which states “No Person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress” if they “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof,” to suggest that Congress expel members who encouraged or engaged in the attack on the Capitol.

In December, Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-NJ) claimed that some Republicans shouldn’t be sworn in during the next session because they backed Trump’s effort to overturn the election. Do you see parallels between this and the use of the 14th Amendment to expel ex-Confederates during Reconstruction?

Eric Foner

I think two weeks ago, if you asked anyone what is Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, they would look at you blankly. It empowers Congress to deny a certain group of people the right to hold office at any level — president, Congress, member of a state legislature, dogcatcher, etc. In order for this to apply to you, according to Section 3, you have to have taken an oath to support the Constitution.

So this wouldn’t apply to the average rioter who was there, unless they held some public office in the past or now, or, probably, served in the military. It does apply to those people who took an oath and then violated it by either taking part in or giving aid and comfort to insurrection.

That’s what should have been invoked against Trump. It’s simpler and quicker than impeachment.

Now, I’m not a lawyer or a member of Congress. But those who objected to certifying the electoral vote, I’m not 100 percent sure that in itself disqualifies you. You have a right to object. But those who either took part in or aided and abetted the riot certainly should be denied the right to hold office.

Section 3 was meant to prevent leading ex-Confederates from getting back into office. It was enforced in the late 1860s; the 14th Amendment was not ratified until 1868. So for a few years there, before Reconstruction ended, it was enforced. Local officials in Virginia, in Tennessee, were just kicked out of office because Section 3 of the 14th Amendment. Later on, it was used in 1918 to expel Victor Berger, a member of Congress, who opposed American participation in WWI.

But my point is that it was around during Reconstruction to be used — and I think it was misused in 1918 — and it’s still there. That provision is still in the Constitution. It should be used against people who either took part in or gave aid and comfort to this mob assault.

Fabiola Cineas

It’s apparent that white supremacy has always been triggered by Black enfranchisement and Black empowerment. For example, around the time the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and before the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, the Klan counter-mobilized. Can you talk more about voting during Reconstruction and how specific policies like the Mississippi Plan of 1875 sought to reverse these gains? And what about the period following Reconstruction, particularly the 1890s, when white supremacist governments were installed?

Eric Foner

In Reconstruction, African Americans in significant numbers got the right to vote for the first time in American history. And that’s African American men because women couldn’t vote anywhere at the time. There had been a few African Americans in the North who could vote, but there were hardly any there. They also got the right to hold office.

Sketched group portrait of the first black senator, H.M. Revels of Mississippi (far left), and Black representatives of the US Congress during the Reconstruction era following the American Civil War, circa 1870-1875.
Archive Photos via Getty Images

Reconstruction ends in 1877 and Black people continue to vote in a lot of places. It’s really in the 1890s that Southern states begin taking the rights to vote away from Black people. We’ve been talking about the South, Mississippi — they were the pioneers. They started in 1890 with this, and other states followed.

I mentioned the Wilmington riots before in North Carolina in 1898. Right after that happened, they took the right to vote away from Blacks in North Carolina. But this was allowed; the North acquiesced. The Supreme Court said, we can’t do anything about this, go for it. So it wasn’t just the South — the North was complicit in this violation of democracy.

There is a line between that process and the notion today that somehow the votes of Black people don’t really count the same way or should. After all, remember when Trump’s people were claiming voter fraud, they were looking at Milwaukee in Wisconsin. They were looking at Philadelphia; they were looking at places with a significant Black population. They were not looking at backwoods areas, which are primarily white. No, those voters are fine. But Black voters in these big cities, their votes somehow don’t measure up to the votes of whites.

Fabiola Cineas

The mobs that came after Reconstruction were in favor of Lost Cause ideology, an attempt to rewrite the Civil War as unjust and to delegitimatize Reconstruction. Can you talk about why this kind of thinking is dangerous and how it even persists with the people who called themselves patriots when they stormed the US Capitol?

Eric Foner

This kind of thinking is based on the idea that the real Americans are the white Americans. That’s what white nationalism means. To be a true American, you’ve got to be white. Black people are here but they’re aliens, they’re not really proper Americans, according to white nationalism. That view has been around for a long time, well before the Civil War.

We had 4 million slaves in this country when the Civil War broke out, and they were not part of the body politic at all. They had no rights — legally, constitutionally — and it was a racially based system. There weren’t white people in slavery. So that notion of who is a legitimate American and who isn’t has survived.

It’s ironic that all sorts of interesting things happened on January 6. The riot happened, obviously, but that was also the day that the victory of a Black man and a Jewish man for the Senate in Georgia was announced. That’s pretty amazing.

A Trump supporter holds a Confederate flag outside the Senate chamber.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

And on that same day, the legislature of Mississippi approved a new state flag with a magnolia on it, removing the previous reference to the Confederacy. Meanwhile, you have guys carrying the Confederate flag around the Capitol. What you saw there was the clash of two kinds of traditions in this country: the white nationalist tradition and the tradition of interracial democracy. Those are both parts of the American way. The clash between them has gone on for a long time and apparently will continue.

Fabiola Cineas

Black organizers woke up pretty happy on the morning of January 6 because of the major victories they helped secure in Georgia. Why is what happened in Georgia so significant, and especially in relation to the riot?

Eric Foner

The history of Georgia is deeply embedded with anti-Semitism and racism. Georgia was one of the biggest cotton-producing states before the Civil War. It was one of the biggest slave states in terms of population. It had the Klan during Reconstruction. There was a lot of violence against Black people. It took away the right to vote for Blacks around 1900.

There were the Atlanta riots in 1906, which was mobs attacking and lynching Black people. There was also the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish man in Georgia, in the early 20th century for a crime he didn’t commit. I can go on and on. And I hate to give you just a litany of bad things — there are a lot of good things in Georgia, too!

Stacey Abrams stands between Rev. Raphael Warnock, left, and Jon Ossoff during a campaign rally in Atlanta, Georgia.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Now Georgia has Atlanta, which is a little more forward-looking. But more to the point, it has people like Stacey Abrams and others who understand that you can actually mobilize a lot more voters if you really go out and do it on the basis of racial inclusiveness. The Georgia election is a very positive sign for the progress of this country, for acceptance that we are a multiracial society, for a rejection of this fear of hatred and resentment. Given the current moment, it was certainly a remarkable step forward. It’s possible this will happen in other states as well.

Fabiola Cineas

It’s two weeks since the insurrection. Trump actually left office. We have a new president. How should the history books frame what took place on January 6?

Eric Foner

[Laughs] It’s too soon to tell is my answer to any question like that! I’m a historian, and I think the history books should locate this in one part of the American tradition, which is this white nationalist vision of what our country is. And it’s just a sign of the persistence of that attitude. It’s not the only vision that’s out there.

We have a clash of two visions of America. What is America, anyway? Fortunately, it usually doesn’t come down to violence like this. But when you have a president whipping up this white nationalism, claiming that the vote was stolen from him, claiming he won in a landslide and was fraudulently denied an election, it shows you that there are people who are willing to take this to the next level. And that’s an alarming thing for our country.

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