See the challenges, struggles and triumphs for African Americans in ‘Reconstruction: America After the Civil War’

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. takes you on a two-part, four-hour journey through one of America’s most controversial, yet often misunderstood historical periods.

“Reconstruction: America After the Civil War” airs April 9 and 16 at 8 p.m. on Arizona PBS. The documentary takes a broad view of the Reconstruction era and its aftermath, beginning with the hopeful moment of the Civil War’s conclusion in 1865 through 1915, when the nation was fully entrenched in Jim Crow segregation. In the aftermath of the deadly and destructive Civil War, Congress endeavored to reunite North and South while granting citizenship rights to newly freed African Americans. Millions of former slaves and free black people sought out their rightful place as equal citizens under the law.

“Reconstruction is one of the most important and consequential chapters in American history,” Gates said. “It is also among the most overlooked, misunderstood and misrepresented. Our film will tell the real story of Reconstruction, honoring the struggle of the African Americans who fought their way out of slavery and challenged the nation to live up to the founding ideals of democracy, freedom and equality. But we will also tell the tragic story of the sustained and often violent pushback against Reconstruction’s determination to secure equal rights for black people and the subsequent rise of white supremacy leading to the implementation of Jim Crow segregation. More than 150 years later, this struggle continues.”

The first half of the documentary centers on the pivotal decade following the Civil War rebellion, charting black progress and highlighting the accomplishments of the many political leaders who emerged to usher their communities into this new era of freedom. The second half traces the unraveling of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow segregation in the closing years of the 19th century. It looks at myriad ways in which black people continued to acquire land, build institutions and strengthen communities amidst increasing racial violence and repression. It also explores the flowering of African American art, music, literature and culture as tools of resistance in the struggle against Jim Crow racism.

The documentary features a wide array of historical and sociological experts, along with authors, including:

  • David W. Blight, Ph.D.: professor of American history and director of Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale University
  • Congressman James E. Clyburn: U.S. House of Representatives, South Carolina 6th District
  • Jelani Cobb: staff writer for The New Yorker and The Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism, Columbia University
  • Kimberlé W. Crenshaw: American civil rights advocate and law professor at Columbia Law School
  • Eric Foner, professor of history at Columbia University and author of “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution”
  • Edna Greene Medford: author, and professor of history at Howard University
  • Mitch Landrieu: former mayor of New Orleans
  • Bryan Stevenson: founder and executive director, Equal Justice Initiative nonprofit advocacy group

Part One (April 9 at 8 p.m.)

The aftermath of the Civil War was exhilarating, hopeful and violent. Four million newly freed African Americans faced the future of previously-unknown freedom from the old plantation system, with few rights or protections, and surrounded by a war-weary and intensely resistant white population. President Andrew Johnson’s lenient treatment of former Confederates incited a powerful response among Northerners who were Republicans in Congress, and resulted in a second American revolution in which former slaves and their allies forged freedoms and citizenship. In the first presidential election after the Civil War, African American men voted for the first time in the South to help send Republican war hero Ulysses S. Grant to the White House.

They took charge of their own lives, families and communities. The first black men took seats in the U.S. Congress, in Southern state governments and on juries. Black colleges opened and the South’s first public school systems were organized. Black families began buying land to farm and opened businesses to achieve a measure of independence from their former masters. But the progress did not last long.

Part Two (April 16 at 8 p.m.)

The years 1877-1896 were a transitional period that saw visions of a “New South” set the stage for the rise of Jim Crow and the undermining of Reconstruction’s legal and political legacy. With cotton still king in the South, sharecropping became the dominant economic fate for many black farmers, while convict leasing echoed slavery in new and harrowing ways. In 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Civil Rights Act of 1875, making it legal for business owners to refuse to serve black patrons. In response to being denied access to public spaces, many African Americans created their own businesses and recreational spaces in the segregated South and other parts of the county. These “safe havens” could not protect from the growing onslaught of violence and lynching.

The turn of the 19th century to the 20th is known as the “nadir” of race relations in America, a period in which white supremacy held sway and racial violence spread across the South. Thirty years after the end of the Civil War, North and South had gone a long way toward reconciling under an American identity that cropped out black people and ignored their claims to the rights of citizenship under the Constitution. Reconstruction became a distant memory, and white supremacist propaganda began to change the story of the Civil War and its aftermath, glorifying the fallen heroes of the Confederacy and painting Reconstruction as a tragic mistake.

Popular culture was devastatingly effective in propagating racist tropes. From soap advertisements to minstrel shows, a flood of offensive imagery denied the humanity of African Americans. But even facing both physical and psychological oppression, African Americans found ways to fight back.

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