So many of the debates at the heart of the Reconstruction era are also central to the entire sweep of American history, and many are still being debated today, including these key questions:
- What does it mean to be free?
- What is equality, and how can it be achieved?
- What is the role of laws and government in creating a more just and equal society?
- Who can be a citizen, and to what rights are citizens entitled?
- Who is entitled to vote?
- What is the proper relationship between the federal government, state governments, and individuals?
- How can democratic societies best respond to violence and extremism in their midst?
These questions contain some of the fundamental issues and problems of a democracy.
In the twenty-first century, more than 150 years after the beginning of the Reconstruction era, Americans continue to debate the extent to which our society lives up to its ideals of freedom and equality. The principle of equality was enshrined in the Constitution for the first time through the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. Yet, like the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment itself, the true meaning of equality has been a source of debate and conflict in American society ever since.
This lesson offers teachers and students the opportunity to explore the ways in which debates over freedom and equality are continuing to take place in contemporary society. Students explore an excerpt from an essay by the scholar Eddie S. Glaude, who draws from the history of Reconstruction and the twentieth-century civil rights movement, to call for a “new American founding.” They use Glaude Jr.’s call for a moral reckoning to think about the unresolved issues our nation faces today and how those issues are connected to the history of Reconstruction.
This lesson will then prompt teachers and students to review some of the nineteenth-century debates about freedom and equality that they learned about in this unit and consider the ways that these debates are still alive today. Teachers might provide students with some of the resources suggested in this lesson as a springboard into a deeper research project about one or more of the ongoing debates about the meaning of freedom and equality.
For some students, there is a potential risk in discovering that questions about equality and justice at the core of the Reconstruction era are still at the center of contemporary political debates in the United States: their emotional reactions to some realities of American society and their own place in it can lead them to feel disempowered. It is therefore important to emphasize how this unit has been grounded in an examination of democracy as an ongoing process. As former federal judge William Hastie said, democracy can “easily be lost, but never is fully won. Its essence is eternal struggle.” The goal of studying Reconstruction and assessing the state of our nation today in relation to its goals is not to dishearten students but rather to illuminate for them the continuous need for constructive participation and engagement to maintain and strengthen our democracy.