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RECONSTRUCTION America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 <i> by Eric Foner (Perennial Library/Harper & Row: $14.95)</i>

Winner of the 1988 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for history, Eric Foner’s “Reconstruction” is a major re-evaluation of the development of the American South from the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 through the resounding failure of Reconstruction and the legacy of recrimination and racism lasting well into the 20th Century.

“The most radical development of the Reconstruction (was the) massive experiment in inter-racial democracy without precedent in (our) history,” Foner writes.

But in fact Southern whites were determined to keep control over the black labor force on much the same terms as before the Civil War. Black codes were enacted, some prohibiting freedmen from owning or renting property, and establishing wide-ranging vagrancy laws enabling any white citizen to arrest a black person for such crimes as “insulting gestures” or “malicious mischief.” As a black Army veteran said, “If you call this Freedom, what did you call Slavery?”

Even in the North, by 1868 only eight states permitted blacks to vote. And the Supreme Court under Ulysses S. Grant similarly refused to hold up the rights granted to freedmen.

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In Southern elections, conservatives defeated the radical Republicans in Congress and the election of President Rutherford B. Hayes brought the era of the Reconstruction to a formal end.

Writing in these pages, Gary Nash called Foner’s “Reconstruction” “the most comprehensive and convincing account of the effort to build a racially democratic and just society from the fiery ruins of slavery.”


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