Title: A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration
Author: Steven Hahn
Categories: Political History, Slavery, Reconstruction, Redemption, Grassroots Politics, Violence, South
Place: Rural American South
Time Period: 1850s-1920
Steven Hahn examines black political activity during the final years of slavery through the Civil War, Reconstruction, and into the first decades of the twentieth century. He seeks to expand traditional conceptions of big-P "Politics" and encompasses things like kinship networks, fraternal associations, and religious congregations. In doing so he exposes some of the hidden infrastructure that blacks built during slavery that laid the foundation for electoral participation after emancipation.
During slavery, Hahn argues for a more expansive view of political activity by emphasizing different labor practices, religious communalism, and, crucially, a robust network of information circulation that could spread news and rumors. These all served blacks during the Civil War, when they engaged in what Hahn describes as a rebellion by escaping and fleeing to Union lines. In contraband camps and serving as Union troops, blacks also enjoyed an "education" in political mobilization. At the very close of the war, slaves' existing circuits of information and rumor often centered on the idea that the federal government would provide land to former slaves. In the aftermath of the Civil War and the Military Reconstruction Acts of 1867, former slaves were suddenly faced with new opportunities for electoral political involvement. This often took the form of paramilitary organizing (in particular with The Union League). Hahn argues that success came most vividly on the local level, where black officeholding could have the most impact (in the form of magistrates, sheriffs, etc.).
Hahn goes on to describe the depressing centrality of violence to post-war Southern politics. Rather than dismiss white anxieties over black usurpation, he takes them seriously as a way to get at the necessity of paramilitary organization (rifle clubs, the Union League) in the face of white terrorism through the Ku Klux Klan. In the end, Hahn notes how effective white violence was for intimidation and ultimately bringing a close to Reconstruction. During Redemption and afterwards, Hahn focuses on three strands of black political activity: emigration (both exodusters to Kansas and abroad to Liberia), biracial fusion politics (ex. the Readjusters in Virginia), and withdrawal during the 1890s and early 1900s (emphasizes the limitations of these movements). As an epilogue, Hahn points to how previous political infrastructure laid a path for 20th century movements of the Great Migration and separatist Garveyism.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Expansion of "Politics": Kinship networks and associational ties as political activity
- Resilience of black political activity in face of repression and terror
- Importance of local elections, voting, and office-holding for blacks
- Foundations for political action after Emancipation forged during last decades of slavery
- Much of black political action hinges around land - who controls it and accesses it (re-emphasis from politics)
- Centrality of violence to political action
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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