The Two Reconstructions
The Struggle for Black Enfranchisement
The Reconstruction era marked a huge political leap for African Americans, who rapidly went from the status of slaves to voters and officeholders. Yet this hard-won progress lasted only a few decades. Ultimately a "second reconstruction"—associated with the civil rights movement and the Voting Rights Act—became necessary.
How did the first reconstruction fail so utterly, setting the stage for the complete disenfranchisement of Southern black voters, and why did the second succeed? These are among the questions Richard M. Valelly answers in this fascinating history. The fate of black enfranchisement, he argues, has been closely intertwined with the strengths and constraints of our political institutions. Valelly shows how effective biracial coalitions have been the key to success and incisively traces how and why political parties and the national courts either rewarded or discouraged the formation of coalitions.
Revamping our understanding of American race relations, The Two Reconstructions brilliantly explains a puzzle that lies at the heart of America’s development as a political democracy.
“Richard M. Valelly’s magisterial work The Two Reconstructions will stand for a long time as the definitive political analysis of racial suppression and redemption in American democracy. . . . Valelly [compares] the two reconstructions in every dimension—the coalition politics on which they rested, the role of courts, the dynamics of Southern white resistance, and the legislative and judicial means for securing democracy. Many of the instruments of the second reconstruction, such as federal registrars, were echoes of the aborted first one. Likewise, the subterfuges devised by white supremacists to destroy black suffrage in the late 19th century were often the same ones still deployed, or redeployed, a century later. . . . With the [Voting Rights Act] up for renewal in 2007, Valelly shows how more conservative courts and new tactics of vote dilution or suppression again put full democracy at risk. ‘As a country, we still have important business to do.’”