Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Reconstructing Democracy: Grassroots Black Politics in the Deep South after the Civil War

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Reconstructing Democracy: Grassroots Black Politics in the Deep South after the Civil War

Article excerpt

Reconstructing Democracy: Grassroots Black Politics in the Deep South after the Civil War. By Justin Behrend. (Athens, Ga., and London: University of Georgia Press, 2015. Pp. xiv, 355. Paper, $32.95, ISBN 978-0-8203-5142-1; cloth, $59.95, ISBN 978-0-8203-4033-3.)

The rapid incorporation of newly emancipated people into the political community has been a feature of historiography since the advent of professional history. Writing in the tradition of W. E. B. Du Bois and Eric Foner, Justin Behrend is most interested in the spread of democracy. He seeks to add to this tradition by dismissing the notion that the trajectory of the political struggle was inevitable and by explaining how black Republicanism came to be: "What needs explaining, then, is how most freed people in the American South rejected patron-client relations and instead made the conceptual leap of believing that protection and opportunity could arise from a broad-based community of poor people, linked with a distant and nebulous power in the nation's capital" (p. 4). At the core of his project is understanding how freedpeople developed a "grassroots democracy" (p. 6). While Behrend does not forthrightly say so, the core of his argument is that black people were more interested in constructing a democracy than in pursuing racial solidarity or party politics. Moreover, he suggests that those who opposed them did so largely for antidemocratic reasons. The struggle, then, was about democracy not race.

Using a wide array of federal sources and archival records, Behrend focuses on the Natchez District, four Mississippi counties and two Louisiana parishes with an overwhelmingly black population and large plantations. He documents how the black community developed its civic life by participating in religious, fraternal, and political formations and laid the groundwork for creating a grassroots democracy. The importance of this background is to document that freedpeople drew on their own experiences, not just the Union League and the Republican Party, to generate a political culture. He suggests that community building mattered greatly in producing grassroots democracy. …

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