Religion, Race, and Reconstruction: The Public School in the Politics of the 1870s

Article excerpt

Religion, Race, and Reconstruction: The Public School in the Politics of the 1870s. By Ward M. McAfee. Religion and American Public Life. (Albany: State University of New York Press, c. 1998. Pp. x, 317. Paper, $21.95, ISBN 0-7914-3848-1; cloth, $34.95, ISBN 0-7914-3847-3.)

Ward McAfee argues in Religion, Race, and Reconstruction that Reconstruction turned sour in 1874 because a premature Republican crusade for school integration legislation provoked voters to elect a Democratic majority to the House of Representatives. The author acknowledges that Senator Charles Sumner's argument that segregated schools "perpetuated racial-caste consciousness" was "flawless" (p. 125). But Sumner failed to work first for "a transformation in American attitudes," and, accordingly, his stridently righteous "mixed-schools crusade terminated the racial progress of Reconstruction and instead inaugurated the long period of reaction that followed" (p. 126). The senator from Massachusetts courted this "disaster" with his uncompromising challenge of white public opinion against school integration, a nationwide sentiment that McAfee calls "an insurmountable stone wall" (pp. 127, 159).

Behind this prodigious indictment seems to lie a now-disproved psychological assumption that reformers must always transform public attitudes before government can move toward greater legal equity or can make any headway toward altering structures or changing behavior. It is notable that the supposed "stone wall" of nationwide attitudes did not prevent most northern states from prohibiting school segregation by 1880. Regarding the termination of racial progress, McAfee directs no comparable indictment against southern white Democratic politicians who intentionally incited termination, partly by stridently reinforcing and heightening the "stone wall." He usefully presents the Democrats' rhetorical appeal and he carefully labels it racist, but McAfee chooses to treat racism's alleged insurmountability as an almost natural given of the Reconstruction era, rather than analyzing or judging the ingenious and effective southern white Democratic strategy to build the "wall" higher and higher by stirring sexual and status fears. …