The Nation Still Needs a New Birth in Liberty

To Reconstruct the Nation

In the December 2023 issue, The Atlantic revisited Reconstruction, America’s most radical experiment.

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I’ve just finished reading “To Reconstruct the Nation” from cover to cover. I found it poignant, inspiring, and a necessary corrective to the 1901 series, which drowned out the sagacious words of Frederick Douglass with those of Woodrow Wilson and the naysayer historians of the Dunning School.

The articles illuminate a side of American history not covered in many contemporary textbooks; they detail the pernicious aftereffects of slavery and the creation of so-called Black Codes. Anna Deavere Smith’s This Ghost of Slavery made a compelling case about the racist roots of America’s juvenile-justice system. Few know the history of how Elizabeth Turner was taken from her mother through legal means, or how the Orphans’ Court favored slavers and often found emancipated Black parents incapable of taking care of their children.

This issue should be read in schools. It’s been more than 161 years since Abraham Lincoln read his Gettysburg Address, but his speech still rings true today. “The nation shall have a new birth of freedom,” Lincoln proclaimed. Today, the struggle to protect our democracy from usurpers and confederates trying to suppress democracy continues a second time.

Rafael Castillo
San Antonio, Texas

I am one of “today’s Reconstructionists” whom Peniel E. Joseph envisions. As we continue to struggle to advance the values that evince the American ideal, I often think about the lessons of Reconstruction. Many working today for racial and economic progress, as I am, encounter the same white fatigue that Ida B. Wells knew firsthand. The ending of affirmative action; the backlash to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts; and a shifting philanthropic landscape leave us without many valuable tools as we grasp for new ways to complete the unfinished work of Reconstruction. I can only imagine how daunting it must have felt for Wells to tell “America a story it needed, but did not want, to hear.” In many ways, we as a country still need to hear that story.

Jennifer Njuguna
West Orange, N.J.

I write in praise of your December 2023 issue. Rarely has there been journalism this insightful, educational, enjoyable, and compelling. How remarkable to learn about Woodrow Wilson’s outrageous views in The Atlantic in 1901, the wonders of the Fisk choir, and the tears in the eyes of Lonnie G. Bunch III. And then to reflect on the waves of progress and patterns of setbacks that have brought us to the current turmoil in this nation. Perhaps future generations may see the Obama and Biden years as having been, to use Yoni Appelbaum’s phrase, an “excess of democracy,” followed by an era when a new Redemptionist narrative held sway.

Frank Vogl
Washington, D.C.

I taught seventh- and eighth-grade history and English for 42 years. It was so poignant to read of Lonnie G. Bunch III’s realization that the very “baker tins” his grandmother used for making the crescent- and heart-shaped cookies of his childhood might have been ones used by his enslaved great-great-grandmother Candis, whom Bunch discovered while searching for ancestors in the National Archives. His article underscores how much America owes to institutions dedicated to the preservation of history. Without the Freedmen’s Bureau’s methodical documentation and the National Archives’ careful curation, Bunch’s thrilling discovery may never have happened.

Perry Degener
Silver Spring, Md.

Reading the December issue, I was especially moved by how written language can almost compete with music. As Vann R. Newkirk II ended his article on the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ tour that saved the university back in 1871, he chose a recent moment in Drew, Mississippi, when the Mississippi Valley State Singers performed “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” in such a way that Newkirk, “in that room, blanketed in Mississippi heat … felt chills.”

I was reminded of the time I heard Bernice Johnson Reagon—a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Singers and, later, the a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock—talk about African American music. When it’s “done right, you can get up on it and walk out!” she said. Language like Newkirk’s goes a long way toward making one eager to hear the singing itself.

Margaret Earley Whitt
Denver, Colo.

Vann R. Newkirk II’s article “The Years of Jubilee” brought me back to when another group of singers came to my private school in 1939, when I was 9. These were the Hampton Singers, from the Hampton Institute, a historically Black college in Hampton, Virginia. Like the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the Hampton Singers were founded to raise money for their institute. The whole school was in attendance, and we sat cross-legged on the floor of the only room big enough to hold us all. I was a new student, and I had never heard the Hamptons before. But the other students were enthusiastically calling out favorites that they remembered. The group sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Deep River.” But the song my classmates called for most eagerly was “Juba,” more of a spoken-word poem, delivered rapidly with the slapping of thighs, hips, chests, and arms. If my memory still holds, it recounted how white people oppressed African Americans: “We grow the corn, / They give us husk. / We bake the bread, / They give us crust.” My classmates and I did not know what oppression was. We just loved the song.

Inviting the Hampton Singers was a sign of how progressive our school was in 1939, compared with many other private schools. And looking back, the school was progressive in other ways; we accepted many Jewish students at a time when other private schools either had a quota or did not accept any. But my school did not have any African American students; they attended the public school in town. As progressive as it was, my school did not dare recruit African American students, lest white parents remove their children. I didn’t meet an African American student until I attended Radcliffe College, where my class of 230 young women had just one African American. Schools and universities have come a long way in the 85 years since 1939. But there is still a long way to go. Perhaps the next step is educating the Supreme Court!

Maida Barton Follini
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

Behind the Cover

In this month’s cover story, “American Cowardice,” Jamie Thompson reports on the case of Scot Peterson, the sheriff’s deputy who in 2018 stood outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School during one of the deadliest school shootings in American history. Why didn’t Peterson act, and what would it take to train police to confront active shooters? For our cover image, we asked the photographer Timothy O’Connell to capture the school from a distance, as it could have initially appeared to a responder. The result is this ominous, arresting image of a site of unspeakable violence.

Bifen Xu, Senior Photo Editor

This article appears in the March 2024 print edition with the headline “The Commons.”

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