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1968 Isn’t The Only Parallel For This Political Moment

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tags: racism, Reconstruction, African American history



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Reconstruction: The federal government fails to protect black lives

After the American Civil War ended slavery in 1865, there was no road map for what Southern society would look like, but white Americans quickly adoped two major changes that harmed formerly enslaved people. First, Southern states passed laws restricting black citizens’ freedoms and essentially preserving the abuses of slavery. Second, violence against freed people living in those areas changed form but very much continued, and included the destruction of homes and churches, and sexual violence.

Particularly relevant to the current moment: Then-President Andrew Johnson allowed all this to happen. He failed to extend federal protection to the victims of the violence that Southern whites were engaging in, and, through his liberal use of pardons and lax loyalty requirements, he even allowed former Confederate leaders to find important roles in new state governments. These individuals, once in power, enacted oppressive measures. As historian Annette Gordon-Reed describes in her biography of Johnson, simple things like hunting and fishing became criminal activities for many black Americans, meaning they were increasingly dependent on their employers for their livelihoods.

Johnson’s decision to allow both state and non-state violence against southern blacks deeply shaped American racial politics. The laws states adopted in this period ultimately created the status quo that the civils rights movement of the 1960s pushed back against.

[Related: Trump’s Use Of Tear Gas To Break Up A Protest Undermined Three Core Values Of American Democracy]

But this historical period is also a pivotal one in understanding race relations in America today as it highlights the lasting repercussions of morally bankrupts presidential judgment. As my colleague Perry Bacon and I wrote a few days ago, the events of the last few days — and years — suggest that Trump is not interested in using federal power to help those protesting racial injustice, and is, at best, indifferent to those goals. Experts have compared Johnson to Trump for years. History shows us that when federal leaders ignore racial injustice and violence — and certainly when they embody and enshrine it — that injustice and violence continues unabated, even if its form changes.

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