Time to Recall a Progressive ‘Truly Great’ First 100 Days

Franklin Roosevelt’s first “Hundred Days” of 1933, in which the newly-elected president and a Democratic-controlled Congress confronted the ravages of the Great Depression by enacting an unprecedented roster of 15 major new laws, have haunted the egomaniacal Donald Trump – and his own first 100 days as president have fascinated the media. While Trump in his own inimical way has been both dismissing the significance of the first 100 days and hyping the greatness of his own presidential performance in the course of those days, journalists and pundits have been keeping scorecards on him. But no consensus has emerged.

Brushing aside the Trump campaign’s apparent ties to Putin’s Russia and the flagrant greed and conflicts of interest of the new president and his family, conservatives have unashamedly celebrated his Cabinet and Supreme Court appointments, executive orders, budget proposals and legislative initiatives. Breathing a sigh of relief that the Affordable Care Act survives, liberals have anxiously mocked Trump for his reversals, betrayals and immediate failures. And recognizing the destruction already wrought and further promised, progressives woefully agonize about what he is doing to the nation.

Unfortunately, few have taken the time to recall what FDR and his New Dealers actually accomplished in their legendary “Hundred Days.” But we who are determined to resist, and fight back against, Trump’s and the right’s assaults on the public good – their war against the public programs that enable life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; the public agencies and regulations that protect the environment and secure the rights of citizens as consumers, workers and voters; the public schools that empower generations; the public media, history and the arts that enrich our lives; and the public parks and spaces that allow us to refresh ourselves – should do so. We should do so not only because Trump and his comrades have directly targeted FDR’s legacy for destruction, but also to remind us all how a progressive President and people launched a revolution and started making America truly greater. The Resistance needs to develop a memory of how past generations confronted reactionary threats to American democracy.

In the early 1930s, Americans had reason to wonder and worry about the future of American democracy. The Great Depression was destroying the economy and overwhelming public life and resources. But as much as Americans suffered, they did not suffer passively. Bearing the Stars and Stripes, Midwestern farmers were mobilizing and taking the law into their own hands to halt foreclosures and block shipments of produce to markets. Organizing themselves in Unemployed Leagues, jobless workers were marching and demanding state and federal action to provide relief and jobs. And in 1932, 20,000 World War I veterans, many joined by their families, had made their way by every conveyance possible to Washington DC to petition Congress to immediately distribute the “Veterans’ Bonus” payments they were not supposed to receive until 1945. Sheriffs and their deputies fought farmers; police and hired thugs attacked workers; and General Douglas MacArthur led fully armed troops against the Bonus Marchers’ DC encampments – not to mention, southwestern state governments were repatriating both Mexicans and Mexican-Americans back across the border.

With unemployment, homelessness and hunger increasing, and unrest spreading, President Herbert Hoover seemed incapable of addressing the crisis. Echoing the fears and desperation of the upper-classes, Vanity Fair editorialized in its June 1932 issue, “Appoint a dictator!”

Though no less elite, Democratic politician Franklin Roosevelt, the son of Hudson Valley gentry, had a different view of things. He knew American history, and what he knew had led him to believe that to save democracy Americans had to do what they had done in the past – enhance it! He did not fear Americans’ democratic impulses. In fact, he told students at Milton Academy in 1926, he feared what might happen if they were too long thwarted.

As governor of New York (1929-1933), Roosevelt responded to the Depression by initiating a series of public programs and works projects to develop power resources, provide jobs and improve the lives of working people. But he fully appreciated that the crisis required concerted national action. At the Democrats’ Jefferson Day Dinner of 1930, he decried the accelerating “concentration of economic power.” And he told a friend: “There is no question in my mind that that it is time for the country to become radical for a generation.”

Campaigning for the presidency in 1932, FDR promised “bold, persistent experimentation” and plans that “put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” Recognizing the need to create “work and security,” citing the imperative of a “more equitable distribution of the national income” and insisting that “economic laws are not made by nature [but] by human beings,” he “pledged” a “New Deal” that would include overseeing financial transactions; developing public-works projects; rehabilitating the nation’s lands and forests; easing the burdens of debt-ridden farmers and homeowners; raising workers’ purchasing power; and establishing a system of “old age insurance.” The point of government, he was to say, following Lincoln, “is to do for a community of people what they need to have done but cannot do at all or cannot do so well for themselves in their separate and individual capacities.”

In contrast to candidate Trump, FDR did not seek to exploit popular fears. Rather, he sought to remind Americans who they were and to engage their persistent hopes, aspirations and energies for the labors and struggles ahead. And he spoke not just of policies and programs, but also of America’s historic promise and how they might redeem and secure it anew. In a major campaign speech in San Francisco that September he proposed an “economic declaration of rights, an economic constitutional order” to renew the nation’s original “social contract” and, in the words of the Declaration, guarantee “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Hoover portrayed Roosevelt as a radical. And he was essentially right. As FDR saw it, not simply the Depression, but the very political and economic order that had engendered it threatened American democratic life. “Democracy is not a static thing,” FDR would say, “it is an everlasting march.” Americans wanted action, were ready to march, and gave Roosevelt a landslide victory that November.

Taking office on March 4, 1933, with the Depression worsening and banks collapsing around the country, Roosevelt told Americans “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He then set his “Brains Trust” and “New Dealers” to work drawing up plans and bills and called for a Special Session of Congress to legislatively address the crisis.

Roosevelt brought a remarkable team to DC. It included Frances Perkins as secretary of labor, the first woman ever to hold a cabinet-level appointment; Harold Ickes as interior secretary and director of the soon-to-be-created Public Works Administration (PWA); and, of course, Eleanor Roosevelt as first lady. Notably, Perkins agreed to serve on the condition that FDR pursue the enactment of Social Security (which he would do in 1935); Ickes, a progressive Republican who had led the NAACP in Chicago and had strong ties to Native American peoples, would initiate the desegregation of his department; and ER herself would break the mold of presidential wives not only through her many speeches and writings, but also by ardently advocating the causes of women, labor, blacks and the young. FDR included many a traditional “WASP” figure in his cabinet, but he quickly transformed official Washington by actively enlisting progressive Catholics, Jews and African-Americans to create, initiate and manage the policies and programs of the New Deal. Plus, his administration soon moved to end the repatriation of Mexicans.

When historians refer to Roosevelt’s “Hundred Days” they mean the 100 days of the 1933 special congressional session during which FDR and the Democratic-controlled Congress began to attack the Depression, relieve the needs of the poor and empower working people. After enacting the Emergency Banking Relief Act, which subjected banks to public account and regulation and instituted federal deposit insurance, they rapidly proceeded to pass laws creating: the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), to provide jobs and improve the national environment; the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), to regulate farm production and raise farmers’ incomes; the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), to provide jobs and basic necessities to the unemployed; the Tennessee Valley Authority Act (TVA) to develop an impoverished region of the South; policies to regulate securities transactions (which led to the 1934 Securities and Exchange Act setting up the Securities and Exchange Commission); the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation to refinance mortgages on homes threatened with foreclosure; the “Glass-Steagall Act,” to separate commercial banking from the riskier investment banking; the National Recovery Administration (NRA), to revive and regulate industrial activity, raise workers’ wages, and reduce class conflict; and the Public Works Administration (PWA) to fund major public works projects and create jobs.

Through those acts and “alphabet soup” agencies, the Roosevelt Administration initiated the labors of relief, recovery, reconstruction and reform known as the New Deal. The Depression would persist, and some of the original New Deal experiments would falter and fail – in fact, clauses of the Industrial Recovery and Agriculture Acts would be declared unconstitutional in 1935 and 1936. Nevertheless, Roosevelt and the American people would move forward determinedly, pushing each other further than either expected to go.

The NRA was supposed to boost economic activity and employment in a democratic fashion by not only giving corporate executives, workers and consumers representation on the boards that were to issue the codes regulating production, prices and wages, but also by guaranteeing workers “the right to organize and bargain collectively,” abolishing child labor, and setting both a minimum wage and a maximum numbers of weekly work hours (35-40). FDR himself projected even more progressive possibilities when he said, on signing the National Industrial Recovery Act into law: “no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.” However, as much as the economy and workers’ lives improved, the NRA failed to produce the desired results. Corporate bosses – at the expense of small business interests and consumers – continually called the shots in writing the codes and repeatedly resisted workers’ efforts to organize. Still, workers would not be deterred. They would go on to fight for their rights and compel FDR to support the enactment of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, under which the federal government would directly back workers’ pursuit of “industrial democracy.”

The New Dealers had more success improving the state of agriculture – but not for all farmers. Instituting a system in which farmers voluntarily reduced their planted acreage and limited their production of basic commodities in return for government-guaranteed prices and subsidies (paid for by taxes on food processors), the AAA raised both agricultural prices and incomes. However, while Midwestern family farmers saw real gains, many thousands of southern tenants and sharecroppers, black and white, saw no benefits when large landowners refused to share government payments with them. Worse, when those landowners reduced their cultivated acreage, their renters and croppers were shoved off the land and into the ranks of the jobless and homeless.

Nevertheless, based on the achievements of the “Hundred Days,” FDR and his fellow citizens launched a democratic revolution – a revolution in which they would harness the powers of government and subject banks and corporations to public account and regulation, direct the federal government to address the needs of the poor young and old, empower workers to organize labor unions, expand the nation’s public infrastructure and improve the environment, and enhance educational opportunities and cultivate the arts – a revolution that truly enhanced American freedom, equality and democracy.

What we did once we can do again. Yes, it was a time of crisis, a crisis that demanded and licensed radical action. But given the right’s control of all three branches of government, what do you think we will soon be facing? Our turn to launch a democratic revolution approaches.

— source billmoyers.com by Harvey J. Kaye

Ex-Facebook exec don’t believe what they tell you about ads

For two years I was charged with turning Facebook data into money, by any legal means. If you browse the internet or buy items in physical stores, and then see ads related to those purchases on Facebook, blame me. I helped create the first versions of that, way back in 2012.

The ethics of Facebook’s micro-targeted advertising was thrust into the spotlight this week by a report out of Australia. The article, based on a leaked presentation, said that Facebook was able to identify teenagers at their most vulnerable, including when they feel “insecure”, “worthless”, “defeated” and “stressed”.

Facebook claimed the report was misleading, assuring the public that the company does not “offer tools to target people based on their emotional state”. If the intention of Facebook’s public relations spin is to give the impression that such targeting is not even possible on their platform, I’m here to tell you I believe they’re lying through their teeth.

Just as Mark Zuckerberg was being disingenuous (to put it mildly) when, in the wake of Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, he expressed doubt that Facebook could have flipped the presidential election.

Facebook deploys a political advertising sales team, specialized by political party, and charged with convincing deep-pocketed politicians that they do have the kind of influence needed to alter the outcome of elections.

I was at Facebook in 2012, during the previous presidential race. The fact that Facebook could easily throw the election by selectively showing a Get Out the Vote reminder in certain counties of a swing state, for example, was a running joke.

Converting Facebook data into money is harder than it sounds, mostly because the vast bulk of your user data is worthless. Turns out your blotto-drunk party pics and flirty co-worker messages have no commercial value whatsoever.

But occasionally, if used very cleverly, with lots of machine-learning iteration and systematic trial-and-error, the canny marketer can find just the right admixture of age, geography, time of day, and music or film tastes that demarcate a demographic winner of an audience. The “clickthrough rate”, to use the advertiser’s parlance, doesn’t lie.

Without seeing the leaked documents, which were reportedly based around a pitch Facebook made to a bank, it is impossible to know precisely what the platform was offering advertisers. There’s nothing in the trade I know of that targets ads at emotions. But Facebook has and does offer “psychometric”-type targeting, where the goal is to define a subset of the marketing audience that an advertiser thinks is particularly susceptible to their message.

And knowing the Facebook sales playbook, I cannot imagine the company would have concocted such a pitch about teenage emotions without the final hook: “and this is how you execute this on the Facebook ads platform”. Why else would they be making the pitch?

The question is not whether this can be done. It is whether Facebook should apply a moral filter to these decisions. Let’s assume Facebook does target ads at depressed teens. My reaction? So what. Sometimes data behaves unethically.

I’ll illustrate with an anecdote from my Facebook days. Someone on the data science team had cooked up a new tool that recommended Facebook Pages users should like. And what did this tool start spitting out? Every ethnic stereotype you can imagine. We killed the tool when it recommended then president Obama if a user had “liked” rapper Jay Z. While that was a statistical fact – people who liked Jay Z were more likely to like Obama – it was one of the statistical truths Facebook couldn’t be seen espousing.

I disagreed. Jay Z is a millionaire music tycoon, so what if we associate him with the president? In our current world, there’s a long list of Truths That Cannot Be Stated Publicly, even though there’s plenty of data suggesting their correctness, and this was one of them.

African Americans living in postal codes with depressed incomes likely do respond disproportionately to ads for usurious “payday” loans. Hispanics between the ages of 18 and 25 probably do engage with ads singing the charms and advantages of military service.

Why should those examples of targeting be viewed as any less ethical than, say, ads selling $100 Lululemon yoga pants targeting thirtysomething women in affluent postal codes like San Francisco’s Marina district?

The hard reality is that Facebook will never try to limit such use of their data unless the public uproar reaches such a crescendo as to be un-mutable. Which is what happened with Trump and the “fake news” accusation: even the implacable Zuck had to give in and introduce some anti-fake news technology. But they’ll slip that trap as soon as they can. And why shouldn’t they? At least in the case of ads, the data and the clickthrough rates are on their side.

— source theguardian.com by Antonio Garcia-Martinez

Stop calling God by other names when you really want to call God capitalism

Rev. Traci Blackmon: “I happen to know that the people of Kentucky will suffer if this healthcare bill passes. You may be OK. Your friends may be OK. But the people who put you in office will suffer because of this bill. It is time to stop calling God by other names when you really want to call God capitalism.”

11 interfaith leaders, including the North Carolina NAACP president, Reverend William Barber, were arrested outside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office protesting the latest version of the Republican healthcare plan.

“Woody breast” could bite the chicken business

The poultry industry has a fowl problem: an emerging phenomenon called “woody breast.” While it’s not harmful to humans, the condition causes chicken breasts to be tougher because of hard or woody fibers that lace the meat. As much as 10 percent of boneless and skinless breast meat may show signs of woody breast, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Even though it’s harmless to humans, diners aren’t exactly pleased when they’re served up a plate of woody chicken. In one study, a consumer panel described the affected meat as “tough,” “chewy” and “doesn’t feel right in the mouth.”

Breeding for bigger, faster-growing chickens could be tied to the emergence of woody breast, The Journal noted, citing food scientist Massimiliano Petracci. While it’s unappetizing to diners, the emergence of woody breast could spell financial problems for chicken producers such as Perdue Farms.

— source cbsnews.com

5,800 square km section of Larsen C finally broke away

A one trillion tonne iceberg – one of the biggest ever recorded – has calved away from the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica. The calving occurred sometime between Monday 10th July and Wednesday 12th July 2017, when a 5,800 square km section of Larsen C finally broke away. The iceberg, which is likely to be named A68, weighs more than a trillion tonnes. Its volume is twice that of Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes. The calving of this iceberg leaves the Larsen C Ice Shelf reduced in area by more than 12%, and the landscape of the Antarctic Peninsula changed forever.

How Big the Larsen C Iceberg Is

— source projectmidas.org, climatecentral.org

NAACP Renews Demands for Police Reform

Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The family of Alton Sterling, the African-American father of five who was killed by police in 2016—the family called Wednesday for the state’s attorney general to bring criminal charges against his killers. The call came after the Justice Department declined to bring federal charges against officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake. Sterling family lawyer Chris Stewart said the U.S. Attorney’s Office provided new details about the killing, including how officer Salamoni shot Sterling six times.

In a statement, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry promised a thorough investigation into whether to charge officers Lake and Salamoni. Alton Sterling’s aunt, Sandra Sterling, said she was devastated after learning new details about how her nephew was killed.

Alton Sterling’s killing on July 5th, 2016, sparked nationwide protests against police brutality.

Cornell William Brooks talking:

We’re calling for the attorney general of the state of Louisiana to conduct a thorough investigation and to vigorously pursue charges against these police officers. The fact that Mr. Salamoni put a gun to Alton Sterling’s head, referred to him with a slur, cursed him, if you will, those actions suggest his propensity to use violence, and those actions also put into context any actions by Mr. Sterling. This whole encounter, from beginning to end, was less than a few minutes. So, in other words, from the time Mr. Sterling was confronted by these police officers, having a gun put to his head and being shot less than 30 seconds after he was pinned to the ground, took place in a matter of minutes. This is not standard operating procedure. This is not standard community policing.

And so, we’re asking that the attorney general conduct a thorough investigation, that he consider the full range of the officers’ conduct during the encounter, but also the kind of officer he was and is. This happens with a brutal regularity, as you know quite well. Between 950 and a thousand people lose their lives at the hands of the police every year. A young black man is 21 times more likely to lose his at hands of the police than his white counterpart. This occurs with a brutal normalcy that we cannot countenance, we cannot put up with. And so, yes, the state investigation should continue, because the state standard, as opposed to the federal standard, is broader and lower, therefore not easy to meet, but easier to meet than the federal standard that the Department of Justice declined to pursue charges under.

– the only people arrested in this case, in the death of Alton Sterling, were two men. One was Abdullah Muflahi. He owned the Triple S convenient store. They took his video, because, of course, he had video at the store, surveillance video. And the other person was Chris LeDay, who works at a military base here in Georgia, saw video from bystanders, posted it online. Before he knew it, at the military base, he was handcuffed.

Three in the chest, three in—three bullets in the chest, three in the back. And what’s so frightening here is that these investigations, state and federal, are being conducted in an atmosphere of dangerous silence and dangerous presumption, dangerous silence in the sense that this—this code of blue prevents people from coming forward. It inhibits a free and frank discussion and testimony with respect to what’s happened in so many instances, but also a code of dangerous presumption. Namely, the conduct of officers is presumed to be reasonable, assumed to be reasonable, in the face of godawful facts.

The fact this man lost his life in a matter of moments—in a matter of moments—after being accosted by a police officer, spoken to in the most vile way, with a gun pointed to his head, this says everything, not only about the value or lack of value of Alton Sterling’s life, but the value of black lives across the country and the lack of humanity that black lives are accorded in this country. And I would say that that extends to the lives of others—members of the Muslim community, LGBTQ community, folks who are Latino. But we’ve got rogue policing going on. And we, in fact, have far too many prosecutors, far too many police chiefs, and certainly an attorney general who does not appreciate the breadth and the reality of this.

– 15-year-old Jordan Edwards in Texas. He was killed on Saturday in the Dallas suburb of Balch Springs by police officer Roy Oliver, who shot the black teen in the head while he was in a car leaving a party. Oliver was fired Tuesday.

What’s happening is you have a funeral—I should say, you have a family that requested that marches and demonstrations not be done until after the funeral. They are grappling with most incomprehensible grief. And yet you have a larger community, beyond the family, also grieving. Schoolmates are grieving. We conducted a prayer vigil with the family’s attorney present, an interfaith coalition—imams, a rabbi, Christian clergy—present, and millenials. And we conducted this prayer vigil to train young people in civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action, but also to pray for the family and pray for the community.

What we know is this: Where we have seen young black and brown lives taken at will and at whim of the police, in case after case after case across this country, it is only because of public pressure that these cases get any attention and any pretense of investigation, anywhere in the country. So we have to keep the pressure up. We have to continue to make these cases and these names known.

What we notice in the community, obviously, is the fact that people are grieving. But beyond that, we also notice that family—we notice that community members are demanding that we not go through this same cycle of lives lost, hashtags created, police offering explanations that don’t explain, and investigations don’t lead to anywhere, or charges that don’t lead to convictions. We’ve got to break this ugly and vicious do-loop.

And so what the NAACP has done is that we went to this prayer vigil, but we are also talking about considering pursuing an independent investigation, hiring our own investigators, looking into this matter ourselves. This has been done before. It is an option. It is a way of bringing evidence forward. In Ferguson, we worked with the prosecutors to encourage people to come forward. But perhaps we need to conduct our own investigation to get people to come forward, to get them to speak about what happened here.

The point being here, Amy, is that we cannot continue doing business as usual, when business as usual is resulting in the death and destruction of black lives all across this country. And the fact of the matter is, in the last century, the NAACP brought an end to lynching. This lynching by those in blue with gold badges can be brought to an end in this century, if we, as a country, decide to do so.

Now, this decision to do so has to begin at the top. And that means our attorney general acknowledging—the Department of Justice acknowledging—the reality of this. You cannot add a blessing and a benediction to bad policing by saying you’re not going to use consent decrees, by saying you’re going to open up, re-examine consent decrees that have been agreed upon by the previous administration. You cannot say that consent decrees and holding police officers accountable leads to crime, as opposed to to decreasing crime and making both police officers and communities safer. This we know.

This is a moment in our democracy where we have got to not only call for reform, but demand reform. And that means not only lawyers in the courts pursuing charges, pursuing prosecution of bad police officers, but also means activists in the streets engaging in serious civil disobedience, serious disruption of business as usual and literally bringing this system of police misconduct and brutality to a grinding halt. It has to happen.
____

Cornell William Brooks
president and CEO of the NAACP.

— source democracynow.org

Most Americans Don’t Know How Civil War Ended

People deal with political trauma in different ways. After the 2016 election, yuppies who once scoffed at preppers found themselves stockpiling canned goods. Barack Obama went kitesurfing. Hillary Clinton hiked in the woods. Hundreds of thousands of people began meeting in small groups—”for the first time in my life,” many told reporters—to organize a resistance. Some people bought bourbon, some people bought dogs, and I found myself reading about Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

In the years before the Civil War, Higginson, the abolitionist scion of a powerful Boston Brahmin family, had run for Congress, dabbled as a Unitarian minister, bankrolled John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, and even sustained a sword wound to his face while breaking into a Massachusetts jail to rescue a fugitive slave. He prayed for a great cleansing war to rid the nation of slavery and when it came, he cheerfully enlisted. Then, in the fall of 1862, Higginson embarked on one of the most radical projects in American history.

Placed in command of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the Union’s first all-black regiment, Higginson found himself at the epicenter of a social revolution. Under his eye, former slaves seized abandoned plantations, divided up the land and livestock, and built new civic institutions rooted in the idea of racial equality. The so-called Port Royal Experiment turned South Carolina’s low country into an incubator of black social and political culture—the tip of the spear of Reconstruction.

Higginson believed in the transformational nature of his work, but one evening in 1863, he peered with stunning clarity into the future. “Revolutions may go backwards,” he fretted in a diary entry that ought to be carved in granite, “and the habit of injustice seems so deeply impressed upon the whites that it is hard to believe in the possibility of anything better.”

I began reading about Reconstruction last winter, at a moment when eight frustrating years of progress, compromise, and apathy were culminating in a ferocious resurgence of white nationalism. It felt as if something was missing from what I’d learned about American history—and evidently I was not alone.

“I’m reading a ton of history books about Reconstruction,” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes told the New York Times in March. “In fact, it’s basically all of what I’m reading.” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie live-blogged his reading of W.E.B. Du Bois’ “vital” doorstop of a study, Black Reconstruction, and drew a direct line between President Donald Trump’s nativist campaign and the Redemption movements of the 1870s, wherein racist whites seized power in the South through unabashedly supremacist campaigns and large-scale voter suppression, effectively putting an end to Reconstruction.

Long neglected by the historical-industrial complex, Reconstruction is inching toward the respect it deserves. A revisionist biography of Ulysses S. Grant cracked the bestseller list last fall and sales of Columbia University historian Eric Foner’s 30-year-old urtext, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, have ticked up steadily. Ava DuVernay’s 13th traced the rise of mass incarceration to its roots as a slavery substitute after the war. The Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali couldn’t save Free State of Jones, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Amazon are developing a movie about a Klan-hunting Army unit in South Carolina. Next year marks the sesquicentennial of the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson—a delusional, power-hungry, self-appointed savior of the white working class whose attempt to circumvent traditional party politics ended in personal and political ruin. Don’t knock yourself out trying to find a parallel.

The quality that made Reconstruction an afterthought in classrooms and political memory is also what makes it so essential right now. It’s “basically the story of a successful terrorist campaign & it’s hard to know what to do with that,” Hayes tweeted. The arc of the moral universe didn’t bend to fit the goals of Reconstruction. It broke, and we’re still picking up the pieces.

No scholar has captured the promise of Reconstruction and the ferocity of its destruction as clearly and consistently as Foner. The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, who hosted his own Reconstruction book club a few years back, called America’s Unfinished Revolution “my Bible” on the subject. So, on a weekday afternoon in April, I made a pilgrimage to New York City’s Upper West Side to talk to Foner about his boomlet of popularity.

Foner’s office is a shrine to the era. Its “history tchotchke section” includes an Andrew Johnson Pez dispenser lingering threateningly amid bobblehead dolls of Thaddeus Stevens, Abraham Lincoln, and Salmon P. Chase. On his bookshelf, a bust of Du Bois props up a copy of The Third Reconstruction, the Reverend William Barber’s 2016 manifesto about his North Carolina “Moral Mondays” movement.

Reconstruction, as Foner points out, tends to come back into vogue during times of political transition. “People get very excited when they discover that there was this moment when actual radical change seemed possible,” he says. “I think that’s great! I think it’s inspirational, actually, which is one of the reasons that I’m so interested in it. It shows you that ordinary people in very difficult circumstances can actually take dramatic action to change society for the better.”

“Of course, it’s overthrown,” he adds.

Before Foner and his contemporaries took a crack at it, the Reconstruction story had been shaped by successive generations of historians who gave Southern propaganda a gloss of historical authority. These scribes villainized the black politicians and the “Radical Republican” lawmakers who pushed Reconstruction-era reforms through Congress. “Carpetbaggers,” as the Northerners who moved south to work in politics and business were portrayed, became known as corrupt bandits rather than as the dedicated idealists that many were. In this version of the narrative, Southern whites were the victims, and the Redemption (an exercise in Frank Luntz-ian branding if ever there was one) had an almost purifying effect.

Foner, like Du Bois before him, discovered a profoundly different story. Corruption was hardly novel in the 1870s. But the state and local Reconstruction governments that took root in the South were far more equal and democratic than anything that had existed in the United States before, and for a long time since. Black communities were, for the first time, governed by black leaders. Hundreds of former slaves took government jobs; they were elected sheriffs, served in Congress, and ran local party organizations called Union Leagues. There were more black officeholders in the South in 1870 than there were in 1970. Newspapers flourished. The idea of who and what government was for changed dramatically.

This new Southern society did not collapse from within. It was violently overthrown by the Democrats—the original pro-slavery party. Black Republican voters were massacred, and their lawmakers were assassinated. The federal government intervened for a time, but the North’s appetite for resistance eventually faded, and that was the end of that.

One event in particular sums up both the reality of Redemption and the way its memory has been warped. In 1873, after the Democrats lost the Louisiana governor’s race, a group of white paramilitaries that would later be known as the White League set out to seize local offices by force. They killed an estimated 150 black citizens during a rampage in the town of Colfax. The state placed a plaque at the site in 1950. The “Colfax Riot,” it explains, “marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”

Change comes slowly. In April, protected by police snipers, city workers in bulletproof vests removed a divisive New Orleans monument to the 1874 Battle of Liberty Place, in which 3,500 White League members—still sore about that 1872 election—seized control of the Capitol for three days. “United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers,” read the offending plaque, “but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.”

Foner’s battle with the Southern historians is largely over (advantage: Foner), but Reconstruction still struggles for respect. One reason, he says, is that it’s overshadowed by the Civil War. And then there’s the tricky matter of national identity. Borrowing an argument from one of his peers, Foner recalls William Dean Howell’s criticism of The House of Mirth, a play adapted from Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel: “What the American public always wants in the theater is a tragedy with a happy ending.”

“Reconstruction doesn’t have a happy ending,” Foner says. “It’s hard to assimilate into an onward and upward vision of America that says things have been getting better and better all the time. Reconstruction doesn’t fit the upward trajectory.”

No, it’s more as though American history were Groundhog Day, and we’ll keep repeating the cycles of Reconstruction and Redemption until we can figure out how to live together. But for all of Foner’s willingness to see the era’s contemporary echoes, he blanches at the idea that we should view regression as inevitable. “People who lived through Reconstruction did not know Redemption was coming,” he says. “They were operating on the basis that this was happening, that this was gonna be permanent, that these rights were going to be there, and thinking about what to do with them. You can’t make Reconstruction purely a question of failure, and you can’t make it purely a question of why did it fail.”

It is indeed worth considering what survived: Colleges, churches, and other civil institutions born in that utopian moment are still going strong. The 13th Amendment was never seriously challenged. The 14th Amendment—150 years young in 2018—is a cornerstone of modern politics. The Department of Justice, formed as a mechanism to combat Southern white terrorism, would some 90 years later become the vehicle by which the “Second Reconstruction” was enforced, and (Jeff Sessions notwithstanding) it may well be the vehicle to drag America out of its latest Redemption.


Billy Hathorn/Wikipedia Commons

Before we part ways, Foner tells me how Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s story ends. In 2000, before Bill Clinton left office, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt read Foner’s book and gave him a call. Babbitt considered it a travesty that the National Park Service had dozens of sites focused on the Civil War but none dedicated to Reconstruction. Babbitt wanted Foner’s input on where to start. The professor didn’t hesitate: Beaufort, South Carolina—home of Higginson and the Port Royal Experiment.

The Park Service seemed amenable—that is, until a group called the Sons of Confederate Veterans pushed back, condemning the government’s effort to “ignore the corruption and cruelty, which victimized so many South Carolinians.” The Redeemers, once more, appeared to have the last word. But the idea made a comeback toward the end of the Obama administration, and the Park Service tapped a pair of historians to recommend how best to incorporate Reconstruction into the monument list.

The project took on a sense of urgency after the election. Who knew what the future held under a budget-slashing admirer of Andrew Jackson? So in December, Foner and the Park Service’s consulting historians penned a New York Times op-ed asking the agency to get a move on. The city of Beaufort chimed in, too, and Obama signed off on the Port Royal monument with just eight days left in his term.

On the eve of Trump’s inauguration, it was a fitting memorial to progress. Perhaps it should be a warning, too.

— source motherjones.com by Tim Murphy