Historian Eric Foner On The 'Unresolved Legacy Of Reconstruction'
Historian Eric Foner On The 'Unresolved Legacy Of Reconstruction'
After the Civil War, the federal government promised former slaves equality and citizenship. Historian Eric Foner says the failed promises reverberate today. Originally broadcast Jan. 9, 2006.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Protests across the nation demanding justice and policing reforms after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis are now in their second week. Today we listen back to an interview from our archives which examines some of the historical roots of institutionalized racism in our country.
Our guest, Eric Foner, is a professor of history at Columbia University who's been writing about America's complicated racial history for decades. His first book, in 1970, was about the Civil War and the Republican Party. In 2006 (ph), he wrote the book called "Forever Free." It was about the post-Civil War period and the political resistance, particularly from Southern states, to the newly adopted constitutional amendments abolishing slavery and guaranteeing racial equality and voting rights for all Americans.
What Eric Foner wrote then is sadly just as true today. Foner said, quote, "The unresolved legacy of Reconstruction remains a part of our lives. In movements for social justice that have built on the legal and political accomplishments of Reconstruction and in the racial tensions that still plague American society, the momentous events of Reconstruction reverberate in modern day America," unquote.
Terry Gross spoke with Eric Foner in 2006 when "Forever Free: The Story Of Emancipation and Reconstruction" was first published.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: 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?
ERIC FONER: 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?
FONER: 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 timeframe. 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 as 40 acres and a mule, which was part of a General Sherman's Special Field Order No. 15. Would you put this in context for us? What led to this proclamation?
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. But...
GROSS: Doesn't hurt.
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 altogether, were settled on what was called Sherman land. They got their 40 acres, and the army also gave the 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 before the...
GROSS: So there were freed slaves that were already living on these parcels of land that were thrown off of it?
FONER: Absolutely, 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 these 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 assassinated? When he was still president, what were his plans?
FONER: Well, Lincoln was shot, of course, right when the Civil War is 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, sending - 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 - 200,000 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, that 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 he - 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?
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 States. 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 - that 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 are 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 ought 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?
FONER: Johnson said, first of all, that it's up to the states to determine what the rights of individuals are, that 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 are 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 v. Board of Education decision or against the Voting Rights Act of 1965. You know, he laid down the anti-civil arguments which get repeated over and over again through, you know, much of the rest of our history.
BIANCULLI: That was historian Eric Foner speaking with Terry Gross in 2006. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF J.D. ALLEN'S "COTTON")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2006 interview with historian Eric Foner. He has written about America's social and intellectual history since 1970, specializing in the topics of politics and race. When they left off, they were talking about the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and how President Andrew Johnson argued against it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Congress also passed the Reconstruction Act in 1867 over Andrew Johnson's veto. What did that act do?
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, et cetera. 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 governments 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 in 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 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 these southern states.
GROSS: And were black men running for office at this time?
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 between 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. So it shows you the shift in power that took place in the South as black men now exercise the right to vote.
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?
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 they're 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?
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.
BIANCULLI: Historian Eric Foner speaking to Terry Gross in 2006. He's written about history, politics and the fight for racial equality for 50 years now and currently is the DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University. After a break, we'll continue their conversation. And we remember novelist Robb Forman Dew, who died last month at the age of 73. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF WYNTON MARSALIS' "HARRIET TUBMAN")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 2006 interview with historian Eric Foner. He's written extensively about the Civil War and Reconstruction and how those battles over racial equality, battles both literal and political, continue to reverberate in more modern protests of social unrest - for example, in the current national demonstrations following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police earlier this month.
Terry and Eric Foner spoke when his book "Forever Free" had just been published. He described Reconstruction as a period when equality for African Americans flowered briefly.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: 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 limits 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 happens? Why does all this direction toward equality suddenly end and then the South manages to turn things back to segregation?
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 this, as 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 of - 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 that's put them there, and nobody can change that.
The 1890s was a period when the United States becomes a 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 U.S., take up the white man's burden. 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 is 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?
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 fundamentalist. 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. 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?
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. 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 the 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 its 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 government. 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. You know, 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 travelled to the North?
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 times - that a number of blacks moved from the North to the South, feeling that there was more option - there were more options available to them there. The significant migration of blacks from the South to 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 former, you know, Confederate states.
GROSS: I didn't realize that a lot of African Americans moved from the North to the South during Reconstruction.
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 - they had no option - they had no opportunity to get elected to office in the North. But suddenly - but there was now a need for educated, talented leaders in the South. And so 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.
BIANCULLI: Our guest is historian Eric Foner. He spoke with Terry Gross in 2006. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIJAY IYER'S "BLACK AND TAN FANTASY")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2006 interview with historian Eric Foner. He's now the DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University and has written about America's social and intellectual history since 1970, specializing in the topics of politics and race.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: 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?
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 predominately 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. The - you know, the roots of this go back into slavery, and they also go back less far. They are 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: You know, 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?
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 oversimplification, which you can 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, et cetera. 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: Eric Foner, thank you very much for talking with us.
FONER: I'm - always my pleasure to talk to you, Terry.
BIANCULLI: Historian Eric Foner speaking to Terry Gross in 2006. He's written about history, politics and the fight for racial equality for 50 years now and currently is the DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University.
After a break, we remember author Robb Forman Dew, who was known for her intimate novels and writings about family life. She died last month at the age of 73 from heart complications. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.