Dr. Martin Luther King on Reconstruction

We recommend reading what Dr. Martin Luther King had to say about Reconstruction as part of his tribute to W. E. B. Du Bois on Feb. 23, 1968. King explains that myths about Reconstruction poisoned “the collective mind of America with racism” and he describes how Du Bois demolished those myths in his vital text, Black Reconstruction in America.

Events of this past year (and past century) offer a stark reminder of the importance of understanding the Reconstruction era. In addition to reading the text below, check out our campaign to #TeachReconstruction. We offer free lessons, a local history mapping project for students, book and film recommendations, articles, and more. 

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In the six years between 1935 and 1941, [W. E. B. Du Bois] produced the monumental 700-page volume on Black Reconstruction in America, and at the same time writing many articles and essays. Black Reconstruction was six years in writing but was 33 years in preparation. . .

To understand why his study of Reconstruction was a monumental achievement, it is necessary to see it in context.

White historians had for a century crudely distorted the Negro’s role in the Reconstruction years. It was a conscious and deliberate manipulation of history and the stakes were high.

The Reconstruction [era] was a period in which Black men had a small measure of freedom of action. If, as white historians tell it, Negroes wallowed in corruption, opportunism, displayed spectacular stupidity, were wanton, evil, and ignorant, their case was made. They would have proved that freedom was dangerous in the hands of inferior beings. One generation after another of Americans were assiduously taught these falsehoods and the collective mind of America became poisoned with racism and stunted with myths.

Dr. Du Bois confronted this powerful structure of historical distortion and dismantled it. He virtually, before anyone else and more than anyone else, demolished the lies about Negroes in their most important and creative period of history. The truths he revealed are not yet the property of all Americans but they have been recorded and arm us for our contemporary battles.

In Black Reconstruction, Dr. Du Bois dealt with the almost universally accepted concept that civilization virtually collapsed in the South during Reconstruction because Negroes had a measure of political power.

Dr. Du Bois marshaled irrefutable evidence that far from collapsing, the Southern economy was recovering in these years. Within five years the cotton crop had been restored and in the succeeding five years had exceeded prewar levels. At the same time other economic activity had ascended so rapidly the rebirth of the South was almost completed.

Rights granted by the 15th Amendment during Reconstruction. Source: Library of Congress

Beyond this he restored to light the most luminous achievement of the Reconstruction — it brought free public education into existence not only for the benefit of the Negro but it opened school doors to the poor whites.

He documented the substantial body of legislation that was socially so useful it was retained into the 20th century even though the Negroes who helped to write it were brutally disenfranchised and driven from political life.

He revealed that far from being the tragic era white historians described, it was the only period in which democracy existed in the South.

This stunning fact was the reason the history books had to lie because to tell the truth would have acknowledged the Negroes’ capacity to govern and fitness to build a finer nation in a creative relationship with poor whites.

Read the full tribute to W. E. B. Du Bois and more speeches and articles by Dr. King in The Radical King from Beacon Press.

Find resources below to teach about Reconstruction including lessons, books, articles, and key dates in history. 

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