In response to the murder of George Floyd, as well as the murders of other African Americans in recent months, the media, historians, teachers, and others are reviewing the long history of vicious racism in this country and calling for structural changes. The challenge of our time is to look deeply into our institutions and not let this moment of reckoning with our racist attitudes and institutions fade away without meaningful change. No American should have to fear for their life and safety because of the color of their skin.

Paul Horton, acted her and historian at the University of Chicago Lab School (a unionized private school), shared this essay about her history:

Just a teacher-historian sharing history who spent hundreds of hours as a graduate student researching the KKK Reports, the set of published congressional investigations into the KKK and affiliated organizations during Reconstruction.

Yesterday, Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative published a report that estimates that over 2,000 blacks were murdered during Reconstruction for political activities associated with organizing for the party of Lincoln in the American South from 1865-1877. The Democratic Party in the South at this time and later referred to itself as “the party of the white man,” and the KKK was its paramilitary arm during and after Reconstruction, extending into the Civil Rights era.

NAACP founder and chief researcher, W.E.B. Dubois, published a similar estimate of murders of black people in the South during the Jim Crow era. Historians Elizabeth Hale and Phillip Dray and many others have documented Southern ritualized violence within the context of “constructing whiteness” as a unifying identity that was intended create what historian George Frederickson called a”herrenfolk democracy” that united poor, middle class, and wealthy Southern whites behind common white identity. It is important to draw the connection between the construction of Confederate monuments within the context of this racial violence. These monuments were constructed in the early twentieth century as black bodies were being lynched and mutilated in spectacles that often were witnessed by hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of whites of all social classes.

What we are witnessing today has to be seen within this context. During Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era, tens of thousands of black Americans were sent to convict labor camps, most often on trumped up minor offences like loitering or not possessing a work contract. The intent of state officials in building these labor camps was to remove freedman from Southern cities. Those successful blacks who would not leave were subjected to “white riots” that destroyed black middle-class areas of New Orleans and Memphis in 1866; Colfax, Louisiana in response to the legitimate election of a Radical Republican county slate (1873), Wilmington, North Carolina, a white supremacist coup (1898); and Elaine, Arkansas where dozens who farmers were murdered for attempting to form a union (1919). Black areas were torched in East St. Louis (1917) Chicago (1919), Omaha (1919), Washington D.C. (1919). and Tulsa, Oklahoma (1921) in the wake of WWI when black soldiers returning home from a “war to make the world safe for democracy” began to assert their labor and civil rights. The entire town of Rosewood, Florida was torched during the first week of 1923 for similar reasons. The context surrounding the Rosewood massacre was the subject of a feature film directed by John Singleton in 1997. Most of the eyewitnesses to the massacre were murdered, but historians estimate the number killed to range from 27-200.

Massacres of hundreds of blacks also took place during the Civil War when black union soldiers and their officers were routinely murdered after surrendering because the Confederate government had a policy of “no quarter” for the USCT. This is why the phrase “no quarter” used by senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas in a recent NYT OpEd is so offensive to many. One hundred and eighty-two USCT (black) soldiers of the 1st Kansas Union regiment were killed, most after they had surrendered at Poison Spring, Arkansas in 1864. To this day, many in Arkansas refer to the ‘battle of Poison Spring” without mentioning the massacre that took place after black troops laid down their arms. The massacre at Fort Pillow, Tennessee was the bloodiest massacre of surrendered African American soldiers and their officers during the war. The total number of black soldiers killed after they surrendered most historians now believe ranges from two hundred to four hundred. (To learn more about Fort Pillow, see Paul Horton, “A Model for Teaching Secondary History: The Case of Fort Pillow,” The History Teacher, 2000)

Most of us know about the violence of slavery, but few of us outside of the Black community fully understand the level of violence that black people have experienced after “freedom.” Police and vigilante murders of unarmed black men have a long, sordid history in the United States after the Civil War. The Civil Rights Movement did not make this go away. Police departments all over the country must be trained in this long history, use of deadly force must be severely restricted, our public and private prisons, which resemble Reconstruction work camps that are used to profit investors, must be tightly regulated and house only violent offenders.

Rather than simply dismissing calls for “abolition” and “defunding the police,” in light of our renewed attention to the systematic violence committed against black people in this country, we need to enter into a serious dialogue that creates lasting reforms that go beyond getting rid of symbols and statues. These reforms must result in substantial legal changes at all levels of government and a citizen sponsored reconstitution of policing at every level.

If you would like to learn more about the KKK and Reconstruction violence against educators and those, black and white, who stood for racial and civil justice, you can study the documented evidence for yourselves. The following linked article will describe how you can get to the KKK Reports digitally: