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America: 'Forever Free,' but Not Yet Whole

In the period after the Civil War, former slaves were made promises of equality and citizenship by the federal government. Historian Eric Foner analyzes the fate of those promises in Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction.

41:24

Other segments from the episode on January 9, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 9, 2006: Interview with Eric Foner; Review of Marin Alsop's four new recordings.

Transcript

DATE January 9, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Eric Foner on Reconstruction and his book "Forever Free"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

`America has yet to come to terms with the impact of slavery on its history,'
writes historian Eric Foner. His new book, "Forever Free," looks at the
period of emancipation and Reconstruction, when the American government
promised freed slaves citizenship and equality. The promise of equality was
ended after Reconstruction, when Southern states passed laws that mandated
segregation and limited the right to vote. Eric Foner is the author of
several books about the Civil War and Reconstruction. He's a professor of
history at Columbia University.

Reconstruction has such a bad image in some history books. It's the period of
scalawags and carpetbaggers. How does your view of Reconstruction compare
with the negative view that a lot of people were brought up on in their
history books and in their history classes?

Professor ERIC FONER (Columbia University): Well, Terry, I learned that
myself when I was in high school in my history book, that this was, my teacher
told me--this was back in the 1950s--that Reconstruction was the lowest point
in all of American history. It was a period of corruption and misgovernment.
And why was it a period of corruption? Because ignorant black people had
suddenly been thrust into positions of political authority for which they were
just incapable of exercising. That view that blacks were ignorant, childlike
or manipulated by these carpetbaggers who came from the North, scalawags who
were white Southerners who joined up with the Republican Party and allied
with the former slaves, the view that this was a period of corruption and
misgovernment originated during the time itself, in the propaganda of
opponents of Reconstruction, and then was written into the history books for a
long, long part of the 20th century. No reputable historian today believes
anything like that. I think today we see it in a much more positive light
and we're much more impressed with the struggles of African-Americans to gain
equality in this country, which really--you know, this is a critical moment in
that struggle.

But you're right. The image of Reconstruction as a period of misgovernment
and corruption was fixed in the popular mind not only by historians but in
very, very popular films like "Birth of a Nation" way back at the beginning
of the 20th century, "Gone with the Wind," in best-sellers like "The Tragic
Era" by Claude Bowers, a great best-seller of the late 1920s. But more
important, maybe, is that this image of Reconstruction was a political image
as well. It underpinned the Jim Crow system of the South, which lasted well
into the 1960s, as you know. The disenfranchisement of black voters, taking
away the right to vote from blacks, was justified by the alleged horrors of
Reconstruction. The worse you could paint Reconstruction to be, the more you
could justify just eliminating blacks altogether from American democracy.

GROSS: Could we just clarify, what years are we talking about when we talk
about Reconstruction?

Prof. FONER: Right. Reconstruction is usually dated as 1865, when the Civil
War ends, to 1877, when the last federal troops are removed from the South
or, strictly speaking, from political participation in the South. But
actually, in my book and other writings, we now really begin Reconstruction
during the Civil War, because efforts to remake Southern society really begin
even when the Union army occupies parts of the South during the Civil War. So
it begins somewhere in the early 1860s, and then it doesn't just end in 1877.
It goes--in some places these rights that blacks had achieved are still
enjoyed into the 1890s. So it's an amorphous time frame, but basically we're
talking about the period after the American Civil War, or another way of
putting it is, we're talking about the historical process by which the country
brings itself together after the Civil War and also tries to come to terms
with the consequences of the abolition of slavery.

GROSS: Well, let's talk about part of the process that began during the Civil
War, and I'm thinking of the 40 acres and a mule, what we've come to think of
40 acres and a mule, which was part of General Sherman's Special Field Order
#15. Would you put this in context for us? What led to this proclamation?

Prof. FONER: Right. You know, 40 acres and a mule is one of the few things
that most people have heard of from the Reconstruction period, maybe because
it's the name of Spike Lee's film company or something like that...

GROSS: Doesn't hurt, mm-hmm.

Prof. FONER: Right. This was a slogan widely disseminated during
Reconstruction. As you say, it originated in this order that General Sherman
issued, William T. Sherman, in January 1865, after he had occupied the city
of Savannah, and he met with a group of black ministers there and basically
said to them, `Look, your people are now free. What do you need to be really
free people?' And they basically said, `We need land.' You can't be a
genuinely free person in the United States in an agricultural society without
owning land. Otherwise you're going to be dependent on other people. You
won't be truly free.

By the way, Thomas Jefferson had said pretty much the same thing, you know, 60
years earlier, but, of course, he was only talking about whites, not blacks.
And in response to that, Sherman said, `OK. There's all this land along the
coast of South Carolina and Georgia. The planters have fled. There's a lot
of blacks there. I'm going to divide this land into 40-acre plots for black
families.' And in the next few months, several thousand black families, maybe
40,000 or 50,000 people all together, were settled on what was called Sherman
land. They got their 40 acres, and the army also gave them mules. The army
had an enormous number of mules carrying stuff around. And this sort of
symbolized the hope and belief of the former slaves that they would get land,
that this would be part of their freedom, would be access to some kind of
economic independence.

But, of course, it didn't happen. President Andrew Johnson, who came into
power--you know, came into office as soon as Abraham Lincoln was assassinated,
Johnson was a racist Southerner and he very quickly ordered all that land
given back to the former owners, and he sort of stopped--right at the
beginning of Reconstruction he stopped this process of redistributing land.
So the 40 acres and a mule...

GROSS: So they were freed slaves that were already living on these parcels of
land...

Prof. FONER: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...that were thrown off of it.

Prof. FONER: Yes. One of the tragic things that happens in that period is
toward the end of 1865, the very same Union army that had distributed land to
some of these former slaves now comes back and tells them, `Look, you got to
get off the land now. President Johnson has restored it to the former owners.
You can stick around if you want, but you have to acknowledge the former
owners own the land and you have to sign a labor contract to work as a laborer
on the land, but it's not your land anymore.' And people who refused to
accept that were evicted from the land by the Union army, and this, of course,
led to a tremendous sense of betrayal.

You know, in the 1930s, many, many years after this, the WPA, one of the New
Deal, you know, projects, interviewed former slaves, and "The Slave
Narratives" are widely available now--and one of the things that a lot of
these very elderly, then, people still remembered was the sense of betrayal
after the Civil War, and they said, you know, `We were promised land by the
government, and then they took it away from us.' And that lingered long after
the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is historian Eric Foner. His new
book is called, "Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction."

Well, the end of slavery didn't mean equal rights for freed slaves, so there
was a big debate in the country about what the rights of African-Americans in
the South should be, and what did Lincoln want, before he was--assassination?
When he was still president, what were his plans?

Prof. FONER: Well, Lincoln was shot, of course, right when the Civil War was
ending, and he never really laid out a fully worked-out plan for
Reconstruction. He had a number of plans operating at the same time in
different parts of the South. But one of the most interesting things about
Lincoln and certainly, I think, the key to his greatness was his capacity for
growth, for moving toward a more and more egalitarian set of views regarding
black people.

You know, before the Civil War, Lincoln, like most white Northerners, had
opposed blacks voting, had opposed giving them civil rights. In fact, he
favored colonizing them, freeing the slaves and sending them out of the
country. He couldn't imagine a biracial, you know, American society. And he
was like many, many whites at that time. By the end of the Civil War, Lincoln
had moved very far in the direction of what we would call equality, not
fully--he was not an abolitionist, he was not, you know, as radical as the
radical Republicans in Congress--but in his very last speech, right before he
was assassinated, Lincoln for the first time spoke of giving the right to vote
in the South to some black men.

Of course, women didn't vote anywhere at this time. And he singled out those
who were what he called the `very intelligent.' What he meant by that was the
free Negroes from before the war who had education, but also the black
soldiers. Two hundred thousand black men had fought in the Union army and
navy during the Civil War, and Lincoln and many other people came to feel that
by fighting for the Union, they had staked a claim to citizenship. Their
service put the question of black citizenship on the national agenda, and
Lincoln said, you know, `We ought to give these guys the right to vote,
because they have earned it by fighting in the Union army.'

GROSS: Well, Congress passed a civil rights act that President Andrew
Johnson vetoed, but there was--he tried to veto it, but the Congress passed
it--they had enough votes to pass it anyway. So what did this bill give to
freed slaves in the South?

Prof. FONER: The Civil Rights Bill of 1866, which is actually still on the
books today over a century later, is one of the most critical laws ever passed
by Congress. As you said, it was vetoed by Johnson, but then with two-thirds
of the Congress, they repassed it. In fact, it was the first significant
piece of legislation ever passed over the veto of a president. And this bill
did several key things. First of all, it declared that black people were
citizens of the United State. Now you might say, well, obviously they're
citizens. They're born here, whatever. But the law of the land at that time
was that no black person could be a citizen. That was the Dred Scott decision
of 1857 of the Supreme Court, which was still the law of the land. The
Supreme Court had ruled that only a white person could be a citizen of the
United States. So this law created black citizenship, and in fact, it said
that anybody born in the United States is a citizen of the United States. And
so it applied not only to African-Americans, but to people from Asia or
anywhere else. Immigrants born here, they automatically become citizens.

But more than that, it then created this--for the first time in the law this
principle of equality among citizens regardless of race, in other words, that
all these citizens were to enjoy the same legal rights. Now it didn't apply
to the right to vote, which states could regulate, but all sorts of other
things--I mean, access to court, testifying, signing contracts, enjoying the
fruits of your labor. This law really is the origin in our laws of the
principle of civil rights, which today we take for granted, in other words,
that all people are to enjoy the same legal rights regardless of race.

But that principle didn't exist before the Civil War. There was no state in
the Union, North or South, that gave African-Americans what we would consider
full legal equality. And so the civil rights law was a tremendously important
redefinition of what race relations were supposed to be in the United States.

GROSS: How did President Johnson argue against it?

Prof. FONER: Johnson said first of all that it's up to the states to
determine what the rights of individuals are; the Congress should not tell
states how to treat their various citizens. And in a way, that was the
traditional view. Before the Civil War, your basic rights came from the
states. But the Civil War had so empowered the national government and had
developed this sense of nationalism and identification with the federal
government in the North, that people now said--like Charles Sumner, the great
senator from Massachusetts said, `Look, the federal government has freed the
slaves. Now it must become the custodian of their freedom.' In other words,
it has to protect the rights of the people who have become free.

Johnson also was just a racist. He said, you know, `Black people don't
understand what it is to be a citizen in this country.' Basically he just
said black people were inferior. They can't enjoy the same basic legal rights
of citizenship of whites. And so the two appeals of Johnson, to states'
rights and to racism, in a sense laid down the basic arguments against black
justice which would be repeated over and over again all through the late 19th
and even well into the 20th century. I mean, you can see Johnson's arguments
in the arguments against the Brown vs. Board of Education decision or against
the Voting Rights Act of 1965, you know. He laid down the anti-civil-rights
arguments which get repeated over and over again through, you know, much of
the rest of our history.

GROSS: My guest is Eric Foner. His new book is called "Forever Free: The
Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is historian Eric Foner. His new book, "Forever Free,"
examines the period of emancipation and Reconstruction. When we left off, we
were talking about the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and how President Andrew
Johnson argued against it.

Now Congress also passed the Reconstruction Act in 1867 over Andrew Johnson's
veto. What did that act do?

Prof. FONER: Well, the Reconstruction Act went further than the Civil Rights
Act, because it gave blacks in the South the right to vote, black men. The
Civil Rights Act hadn't dealt with voting. Johnson had set up governments in
the South right after the Civil War, but they were completely for whites.
Blacks couldn't vote, blacks couldn't hold office, blacks couldn't serve on
juries, they couldn't serve in militias, police forces, etc. These
governments passed laws which were the so-called black codes, which were meant
to force the former slaves back to work on the plantations in a situation
rather similar to slavery, and the oppression of these former slaves by the
Johnson government eventually led Northern Republicans to say, `Look, you
know, what's the point of the Civil War? We have abolished slavery but now
the South is trying to put it back in place.' And after a very bitter, long
political crisis, Congress said, `Look, we're going to get rid of these
Johnson governments and we're going to put new governments into place in the
South based on universal male suffrage. We're going to let blacks and whites
vote at the same time, and then we'll have genuine democracy in the South.'

So for the first time in American history, a significant number of black men
were now allowed to vote, and they did so and they--and a significant number
will eventually come and hold office, and you had this first experiment in
genuine interracial democracy in the South. This is the period of what we
call Radical Reconstruction, which--with new governments coming into play in
the Southern states.

GROSS: And were black men running for office at this time?

Prof. FONER: Absolutely. Black men served in office throughout the
Reconstruction period, and some did well after Reconstruction. My
estimate--there's no exact number, but--is that somewhere 1,500 and 2,000
black men served in some kind of elected public office during the
Reconstruction period. I'm talking about anything from justice of the peace,
you know, school board official, all the way up to sheriff and then member of
the state legislature. Sixteen served in the House of Representatives. There
were two black senators during that period, both from Mississippi, Hiram
Revels and Blanche K. Bruce.

I mean, it's interesting. In the entire history of the United States, I
think, there have been five black members of the United States Senate, five in
the entire history of the United States. One of them serves today, Barack
Obama from Illinois. Two of those five served just during this little period
of Reconstruction. So it shows you the shift in power that took place in the
South as black men now exercised the right to vote.

GROSS: Well, did black men outnumber white men in a lot of places in the
South?

Prof. FONER: Well, in many local areas, they did. I think the only--in
South Carolina as a whole, blacks were about 60 percent of the population, and
in several Southern states they were about 50 percent--Mississippi,
Louisiana, Alabama. Remem--but in local areas, remember the slave plantation
system had concentrated the black population in certain areas, the most
fertile area where these big plantations existed, and in those areas many
counties had significant black majorities. Then there were other parts of the
South with large white majorities; in other words, the two races were not
evenly distributed throughout the South. So in these so-called black belt
counties, you had black officials running the school board, black sheriffs,
black tax assessors and this was an incredible, you know, shift in power at
the local level in the South, which was quite alarming to the old ruling elite
in the South.

GROSS: You know we talked about some of the laws that were passed, the
Reconstruction Act, the Civil Rights Act, that were passed during
Reconstruction. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution was also ratified
during Reconstruction. This was in July of 1868. How did that change the
Constitution?

Prof. FONER: Right. The 14th Amendment--and you know, when you think about
why Reconstruction is important, the 14th Amendment is one of the reasons. It
really is the most important change in the Constitution since the Bill of
Rights. The 14th Amendment put this principle of birthright citizenship into
the Constitution. Anybody born in the United States is a citizen, and it put
this principle of equal protection of the laws into the Constitution. And
that idea of equality, which hadn't existed in the Constitution before,
equality of citizens, is why the 14th Amendment today is still being
litigated. Every Supreme Court session has cases arising out of the 14th
Amendment. When it made the Constitution a document to which Americans who
are aggrieved, who feel that they are not getting their rights, who feel that
they are being treated unequally, can appeal to now, and they do and they go
to court all the time.

And it doesn't only apply to blacks. In fact, it doesn't even say blacks. It
says all American citizens must enjoy equal protection of the law. So it made
the Constitution a document for equality among Americans, which it had not
been. The word `equality' doesn't exist in the original Constitution.

GROSS: And how did this amendment change the balance of state and federal
power when it came to the rights of citizens?

Prof. FONER: That's a very good question, because the 14th Amendment ends
with a clause which says, `Congress shall enforce this amendment with
appropriate legislation'; in other words, it made the federal government the
arbiter of the rights of citizens. It shifted power from the states to the
national government. Now the federal government can override state actions
which interfere with the rights of American citizens.

Now, of course, for a long, long period after this, the Southern states
deprived African-Americans of most of their basic rights and the federal
government did nothing about it. But the 14th Amendment remained, as Charles
Sumner said, `a sleeping giant' in the Constitution and eventually, in the
civil rights movement, the mass movement and the government would eventually
rediscover the 14th Amendment and the principle of federal intervention to
protect the rights of citizens.

GROSS: Eric Foner is the author of the new book "Forever Free" and is a
professor of history at Columbia University. We'll talk more about
Reconstruction and its legacy in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, the end of Reconstruction and the start of Jim Crow. We
continue our discussion with historian Eric Foner. And Lloyd Schwartz reviews
new CDs by Marin Alsop and considers the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's
controversial decision to name her their new music director.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with historian Eric Foner. His new
book is about the period of Emancipation and Reconstruction. It's called
"Forever Free." He describes Reconstruction as a period when equality for
African-Americans briefly flowered.

You've painted a pretty positive picture of the legislation that was passed
leading the nation toward real equality and equality for African-Americans.
But Reconstruction ends and then the South starts to--Southern states start to
bring in--to introduce legislation in their states that limit voting rights,
that--you know, Jim Crow laws that divide the country, divide the South into
white and black schools and fountains and places. You know, segregation
becomes the law of the land in the South. What happened? Why does all the
direction toward equality suddenly end and then the South manages to turn
things back to segregation?

Prof. FONER: Well, the retreat, you might say, or the abandonment of
Reconstruction is a long process. It takes place over the last, you know,
quarter, let's say, of the 19th century. We say 1877 is the end of
Reconstruction, but actually the imposition of a new system of white supremacy
doesn't just then happen in 1877. In some places, blacks can vote well into
the 1880s and '90s. Segregation laws are passed in some places but not in
others. It's not until a generation later, the 1890s, that you get the full
imposition of what we think of as a Jim Crow system of racial segregation and
taking the right to vote away, and of course, lynching becomes very prominent
in the 1890s.

Why does this happen? There are a number of reasons. One is, the North
retreats itself from the ideal of equality and begins to accept, you might
say, the white Southern view of racial superiority of whites. This is a
period when social Darwinism becomes more important in American thought, you
know, the notion that those at the top--you know, survival of the fittest, and
those at the top of society are there because they're the superior ones, and
those at the bottom--it's just--nature has put them there, and nobody can
change that. The 1890s it appeared when the United States becomes an overseas
imperial power. You know, we take over the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba,
and the white man's burden. You know, Rudyard Kipling said to the US, `Take
up the white man's burden.' The race becomes a very important element of
public policy, and in that context, the subordination of blacks in the South
is widely accepted in the North as just the natural order of things. So
there's a long process of retreat in the North and, of course, in the South a
very pervasive violence which--you know, the Ku Klux Klan and groups like that
which become more and more effective in neutralizing the rights which the
federal government has guaranteed to blacks.

GROSS: Yeah. How does the Ku Klux Klan come into being, and how does that
relate to this period?

Prof. FONER: Well, the Klan begins in early Reconstruction, 1866, '67. It
spreads throughout the South pretty quickly. This is another reason why
Reconstruction is important for us to think about, because, you know, to use a
modern term, which didn't really exist at that time, the Klan is the most
striking example of home-grown American terrorism.

This is our terrorist history, not from abroad, not Islamic fundamentalists.
These were good Christian people, at least in their own self-image, but they
murdered, they rode at night, they beat people, they whipped them, they
destroyed property, they attacked innocent civilians. And their purpose was
to deprive African-Americans of their rights, both the right to vote, the
right to access to land, the right to education, and they were very effective,
unfortunately. They--these local governments were not able to put down this
kind of violence.

On occasion the federal government did intervene. President Grant, in 1871,
sent troops into the South and really dealt the Klan a very strong blow. But
then later in the 1870s violence again rears its head, and the federal
government by then is not so willing to intervene. So unfortunately, the Klan
is an example of how legitimate governments can actually be overthrown by
violent, you know, opposition, even in American history. We often don't think
of that happening in our own country, but it did happen during Reconstruction.

GROSS: Well, what are some of the laws that Southern states passed to limit
and take away some of the rights that Reconstruction legislation had given
African-Americans?

Prof. FONER: Well, by the 1890s, most Southern states are passing
laws--well, first of all, disenfranchisement laws, that is, laws to eliminate
black voting. Now you couldn't just say only whites can vote because the 15th
Amendment to the Constitution had been passed during Reconstruction, which
said states can't discriminate on the basis of race in voting. So these laws
were supposedly non-racial, so they'd say you had to pay a poll tax to vote.
That applies to white and black, but a lot of whites were excused from it.
You had to have a--be literate. You had to be able to understand the state
constitution to the satisfaction of the registrar. Now a black PhD could walk
up and they'd ask him a question and they'd say, `Well, you don't understand
the state constitution, so you can't vote.' So these laws, basically, by
1900, more or less eliminated black voting in most of the South.

Then you had these segregation laws, and of course the Supreme Court in 1896
in Plessy vs. Ferguson upheld segregation as compatible with the 14th
Amendment. The 14th Amendment says all citizens must get equal treatment.
The court said, well, you know, if it's separate, but equal that's OK, because
then it's equal. But of course the facilities, whether it's the schools or
the public hospitals or the trains or the whatever, facilities were set up as
segregated were never equal. All the public money was funneled into the white
institutions. Black education and other facilities were just, you know, very
much neglected by the state governments. So that was another way of taking
away, of rescinding this idea of equality.

Then of course there was economic discrimination. The--you know, most blacks
by this point were simply--because of the failure of land reform during
Reconstruction were consigned to working on plantations and often in debt, you
know, unable to get ahead and so you had a very segmented economic system with
blacks primarily at the bottom in the South.

So all of these things come together to create a new system of white
supremacy. It's not the same thing as slavery. People have mobility, they
can marry, they can't be bought and sold and it's not equivalent to slavery.
But it's certainly not any notion of equality as had been envisioned during
Reconstruction.

GROSS: When we talk about Reconstruction I think it's the South that we're
talking about, but a lot of freed slaves from the Civil War went to the North.
So during the period of Reconstruction in the South, what are some of the
things that were happening in the North in terms of civil rights issues, in
terms of finding work and homes for the recently freed slaves who had traveled
to the North?

Prof. FONER: Well, of course, Reconstruction is a national phenomenon,
although primarily in the South. Actually, Reconstruction is one of the few
times in American history, until the very, very recent time, that a number of
blacks moved from the North to the South, feeling that there were more options
available to them there. The significant migration of blacks from the South
to the North doesn't really begin until after Reconstruction, in the 1880s and
'90s, and then accelerating in the 20th century.

But Reconstruction had a big--you know, there was a small black population in
the North. The Reconstruction laws, most of them applied to the entire
country. The Civil Rights Law of 1866 invalidated many Northern laws which
discriminated against blacks. The 14th Amendment, the principle of equality
applied in the North as well as the South. The 15th Amendment gave the right
to vote to blacks in the North who hadn't enjoyed it, basically, before then.
So there was a small civil rights movement, you might say, in the North as
well. And African-Americans who lived there gained new rights because of
Reconstruction as well as those in the South. So it really should be looked
at on a national scale even though the primary focus of debate and controversy
was the, you know, former Confederate states.

GROSS: I didn't realize that a lot of African-Americans moved from the North
to the South during Reconstruction.

Prof. FONER: Well, if you look at the black leaders, the black officials of
Reconstruction, a good number of them had been born in the North, because this
was the first--they had no option--they had no opportunity to get elected to
office in the North, but sudden--but there was now a need for educated,
talented leaders in the South. And so not a not insignificant number of these
people who got elected to office in the South were actually what some called
black carpetbaggers, that is, blacks who moved to the South during
Reconstruction in order to play a role in the uplifting of their race.

GROSS: My guest is historian Eric Foner. His new book is called, "Forever
Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is historian Eric Foner. His new book, "Forever Free," is
about the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War.

Are there any specific issues that we face today that you think we can't
really understand unless we understand Reconstruction and the period where the
South passed the Jim Crow laws and other laws limiting civil rights after
Reconstruction?

Prof. FONER: Well, I think we need to--you know, we still have a fairly
serious racial divide in this country. Obviously we're not living in the 19th
century. First of all, the racial configuration is entirely different today.
Hispanics outnumber blacks now for the first time. We can't any longer think
of, you know, American society as just black or white. There are many other
groups as well. But nonetheless, if you take the black population in any
index that you want, whether it's life expectancy, health, housing, wealth,
income, education, there is still a significant gap between blacks and whites.
Now of course there's a significant black middle class today. But still,
blacks are much more predominantly in poverty than white populations.
They--and you know, and on and on and on. And I think that's not just because
of Reconstruction and its failure, you know. The roots of this go back to
slavery and they also go back less far. They're the result of discriminatory
policies in the 20th century almost all the way up to the present.

But nonetheless, Reconstruction is that moment at which the country for the
first time tried to address this question of equality. It didn't succeed, and
because it didn't succeed, it made necessary another struggle a hundred years
later, the civil rights revolution, which was called at the time the second
Reconstruction. A hundred years later, the country then again had to try to
face up to the agenda of the first Reconstruction. In a way it shows you how
radical the demands of the first Reconstruction were that it took a hundred
years for the country to finally try to implement fully these basic demands
for equal citizenship and the right to vote.

GROSS: Now you point out in your book that although we think of the United
States as, you know, the land of the free, the land of freedom, that freedom
has never been really defined in our country. What do you mean by that?

Prof. FONER: I think that freedom has many meanings. It's not that it
hasn't been defined, it's been defined in many different ways. And its
meaning has changed over time many times in our history. Freedom is, of
course, the sort of central word in our political vocabulary and you certainly
can just turn on the TV and hear our president any time, and all you'll hear
today, you know, nowadays, is about freedom. But the meaning of freedom has
changed many times in our history, and I think African-Americans have a very
different view of what freedom is than most white people, and that's because
of different historical experiences. I think this is a gross--an
oversimplification which you could find many exceptions to, but still I think
a lot of truth in it. Most white people in this country think freedom is
something they have and that somebody often is trying to take away from them.
Most black people in this country think that freedom is something they are
aspiring to achieve. It's a process. It's something to be fully gained in
the future. And that is a basic difference which affects their views on many,
many aspects of our society, whether it's the law, the criminal justice
system, the economic system, etc.

And you know, so the Civil War and Reconstruction is a critical moment in the
evolution of American ideas of freedom, but it was a period in which freedom
was hotly contested and which different groups of people had very different
ideas about what freedom really ought to entail.

GROSS: I want to quote something that you recently wrote in The Nation about
Hurricane Katrina. You wrote, "The only bright spot in this man-made disaster
has been the wave of public outrage at the administration's abject failure to
provide aid to the most vulnerable. It's hard to think of a time other than
at the height of the civil rights movement when the plight of poor black
Southerners so deeply stirred the conscience of the nation." Do you think the
conscience of the nation is still stirred?

Prof. FONER: Well, I wrote that when we were seeing on television these
horrifying pictures of people being abandoned by their own government and
left, you know, bereft in the midst of a disaster and of course large numbers
of them were poor African-Americans. And maybe I was a little too optimistic.
I think little has really come of that in terms of public policy. But I think
in terms of a recognition that there is this problem of poverty in our country
and that it is tied to race--it's not equivalent to race; there's a lot of
poor white people also. I think there is more public awareness of that still
because of what happened in Hurricane Katrina.

Given the political configuration of the Congress, the president--you know,
it's not surprising that instead of doing anything about poverty, the latest
budget just says, `Well, we got to pay for Reconstruction so we're going to
make the poor pay for it.' You know, they cut Medicaid, they cut student
loans. They cut many things which aid poor people. But I think the
recognition--you know, poverty has always been in existence in American
society. When Michael Harrington wrote "The Other America," which helped to
focus attention on poverty in the early 1960s, you know, it's not like poverty
suddenly popped out of nowhere. But we have a way--we who aren't poor have a
way of forgetting about it, putting it into one little corner of our mind, and
sometimes it forces its way into the public consciousness and that's what
seems to have happened. And maybe that will still be there and maybe it will,
you know, lead to a more humane set of public policies eventually.

GROSS: Eric Foner, thank you very much for talking with us.

Prof. FONER: I'm--always my pleasure to talk to you, Terry.

GROSS: Eric Foner is the author of the new book "Forever Free" and is a
professor of history at Columbia University. You can find an excerpt of
"Forever Free" on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

Going to play you some music by pianist Erwin Helfer, who our jazz critic
Kevin Whitehead thinks is quite good. From his new CD, "Careless Love," this
is "On the Sunny Side of the Street."

(Soundbite of "On the Sunny Side of the Street," by Erwin Helfer)

GROSS: Coming up, classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews new CDs by
conductor Marin Alsop, the new music director of the Baltimore Symphony
Orchestra. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Four new classical albums conducted by Marin Alsop are
out
TERRY GROSS, host:

The American conductor Marin Alsop made headlines last year when controversy
swirled around her latest orchestra appointment. Our classical music critic,
Lloyd Schwartz, doesn't want her ability overlooked and reviews four recent
recordings that he says show off her talent as a major player in the world of
classical music.

(Soundbite of Brahms' First Symphony)

LLOYD SCHWARTZ reporting:

The ominous opening of Brahms' First Symphony might be a fitting soundtrack
for some of the dark clouds that hung over Marin Alsop's career during the
past year. Last summer the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced that the
American conductor was going to be their new music director, making her the
first woman to run a major American symphony orchestra. But some of the
Baltimore players wanted to try out other conductors before a final decision
was reached. The naysayers were disregarded, but not before they made their
dissatisfaction public. Not a good beginning for a collaboration. Shortly
after this controversy, Alsop was awarded a prestigious genius grant from the
MacArthur Foundation and the Baltimore brouhaha seemed to evaporate.

I'm glad, because I've admired the power and lean, clean musicality of her
performances. In the past year alone, Naxos Records has released four new
CDs, two Brahms discs with the magnificent London Symphony Orchestra, a disc
of Kurt Weill's two symphonies with Alsop's current orchestra, the Bournemouth
Symphony, and a disc devoted to concert music by Alsop's mentor, Leonard
Bernstein. I didn't think the world needed more recordings of Brahms'
symphonies. There are only four, and every major and minor conductor has
recorded them. Yet listening to Alsop, I'm glad these exist. She brings both
the heroic complexly dramatic first, and the sunnier, more relaxed second,
vividly to life. Alsop doesn't confuse leanness with thinness. Both works
get compelling, surprisingly fresh performances. It's as if Alsop herself is
discovering these overfamiliar works for the first time.

(Soundbite of Brahms symphony)

SCHWARTZ: Alsop has been a strong advocate of 20 century music. Kurt Weill's
concert music isn't as well known as his theater music, but his Second
Symphony, completed in Paris in 1934 after he had to leave Berlin, unlike the
Brahms symphonies, isn't played as often as it should be. It swings between
Weill's dark mixture of smoochy melody and edgy irony.

(Soundbite of Weill's Second Symphony)

SCHWARTZ: Weill's early First Symphony, from 1921, isn't as individual or
polished a work as the second and completely disappeared until 1956. Alsop
leads it with conviction. Her new Bernstein disc includes three lively,
tuneful pieces composed between 1946 and 1980.

These recordings, and maybe even the controversy, suggest that Alsop is a
significant new voice in classical music. It's sounds as if Baltimore
audiences are in for a treat.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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