Author Interview: Dr. Peniel E. Joseph on the Third Reconstruction and Hope for a Multiracial Democracy

By Blake Maddux

“Our two earlier periods of national Reconstruction, in the aftermath of racial slavery and the suffocating anti-Black violence of Jim Crow segregation, have in a sense formed two tributaries that have led to our current moment of Reconstruction.”

If Dr. Peniel E. Joseph’s numerous positions at the University of Texas at Austin are any indication, then his hands are certainly in no danger of becoming the proverbial devil’s playthings.

In addition to teaching courses on topics such as the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, and the Obama presidency as a professor of history, he also teaches at the university’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, where he is an associate dean; holds the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values; and serves as the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, which he initially established at Tufts University during his 2009-15 tenure there.

The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century is the most recent of Joseph’s eight books, which include several histories of Black Power, a biography of Stokely Carmichael, and dual study of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which I interviewed him about for the Arts Fuse in 2020.

In The Third Reconstruction, Joseph divides the post–Civil War struggle for multiracial democracy into three eras of key importance. He bookends the First Reconstruction with the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the November 1898 “white supremacist coup” in Wilmington, North Carolina. The Second Reconstruction began with the May 17, 1954, Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and ended with the April 4, 1968, assassination of Dr. King. The November 4, 2008, election of Barack Obama ushered in the Third Reconstruction, which continues to this day with the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Joseph writes in the introduction, “Our two earlier periods of national Reconstruction, in the aftermath of racial slavery and the suffocating anti-Black violence of Jim Crow segregation, have in a sense formed two tributaries that have led to our current moment of Reconstruction.”

Locking horns in each of these eras are those for whom Joseph uses the terms reconstructionists, who “fervently believed in a vision of multiracial democracy,” and redemptionists, who “sought to reinscribe slavery’s power relations between Blacks and whites.”

“The January 6, 2021, Capitol riot offered demonstrable proof that the clash between reconstruction and redemption is continuing in the twenty-first century,” Joseph asserts in the conclusion. “America’s Third Reconstruction is simply the latest chapter in a long struggle pitting multiracial democracy again the forces of white supremacy.”

Joseph generously answered some questions about the book for me via Google Chat.

(The Third Reconstruction is devoted in part to Joseph’s mother, Germaine LaCroix Joseph, who sadly died on March 31, 2023.)

The Arts Fuse: What was it about the murder of George Floyd that led you to make his name the first two words of the book?

Peniel Joseph: I think when that happened in May of 2020, and we were all sort of at home during the pandemic, it sort of opened up the floodgates to protest. I think in a lot of ways, George Floyd became this actually concrete living symbol of so many other experiences, including — and I write about it in the book — both Black men and women. George Floyd’s murder sort of encapsulated decades of police brutality, disenfranchisement, and violence against Black people. And I think for me, it made me really sad, but it made me contemplative, too. It made me think about my own childhood and my own past. That’s why he starts the book.

AF: Are “redemptionists” and “reconstructionists” as you employ them, your own?

PJ: These are definitely historical words. Within the period of Reconstruction, sometimes people divide it into reconstructionist versus redemptionist periods. But the way in which I deploy them here, I don’t think has previously been used as a motif for understanding both that era but also all the eras that are subsequent. The way I use reconstructionist is as a supporter of multiracial democracy really irrespective of race. Thaddeus Stevens is a very modern white man, by which I mean he’s an antiracist. He’s a social justice advocate who believes in Black citizenship and dignity in the 19th century even more than Abraham Lincoln. So you have reconstructionists who are white, but of course you have Black reconstructionists, too. These supporters of multiracial democracy think of American democracy as very expansive, so it includes queer folks, folks who are Jewish and Muslim, and women.

Redemptionists are advocates of the Lost Cause and white supremacy. And I make sure to understand that redemptionists can also be of any color. Redemptionists are not all white, they’re not all male. They really use the Lost Cause to justify their politics of violence and exclusion, and you can continue to see it even up until today in Florida and in my home state of Texas. Those are all redemptionist visions, including calling Black history Critical Race Theory and the voter suppression since 2013.

And when we think about reconstruction and redemption, race plays a pivotal role, but it’s intersectional with class, gender, sexuality, national origin. Right now, redemptionists — including Trump, Ron DeSantis, and the Supreme Court — are anti-trans and anti-queer people.

Historian Peniel Joseph. Photo: Kelvin Ma

AF: Who would you say were among the most visible redemptionists of the Second Reconstruction, which included the Civil Rights Movement?

PJ: I’d say in the Second Reconstruction, the redemptionists were the White Citizens Councils, George Wallace, and Richard Nixon, who was a very mainstream redemptionist by the Second Reconstruction. He was not a rabid white supremacist, but he absolutely takes their votes in 1968 and 1972. Initially, Nixon politically supports affirmative action, but he really clamps down on it after the 1972 election because he’s not facing reelection.

AF: You write that Black Lives Matter is “the largest social protest movement in American history.” What is the significance of the fact that the phrase was coined by two Black women?

PJ: I’ve called [Nikole Hannah-Jones’s] 1619 Project the most impactful Black literary, intellectual, popular culture project about American history really ever conceived. It’s impacted millions of people around the world. I think the fact that Black women introduced it is connected to the history of radical Black feminism going back to the 19th century. I call Black women “co-architects of reimagining American democracy.” They’ve been very expansive by virtue of the way that they’ve been marginalized. Both The 1619 Project and Black Lives Matter are radically inclusive visions. They’re not just obsessed with their own group or excluding other groups. They’re trying to intertwine and interweave. With The 1619 Project, you get Native American history, Latinx history, and white history. The book is a love letter to the United States. It’s not a “hate America” thing. It really the opposite of what a lot of critics say.

AF: Your treatment of America’s actual first Black president is far from completely flattering. What was Barack Obama’s greatest shortcoming and strongest attribute in that historic capacity?

PJ: I have huge admiration for him. Obama offers an optimistic vision of American democracy. I think he was the first president to make American exceptionalism — which makes the argument that America is a constantly perfecting union — inclusive of Black people. His election speaks to the lie of redemptionism and becomes a victory for reconstructionists. As president, he really does try to call upon the nation to a kind of civic nationalism that can heal racial wounds.

As for the negative, I think he’s a mainstream reconstructionist. He doesn’t understand the depth and breadth of racial inequality. He tries to tell a story of ourselves where we’re a place where all things are possible that is an unearned valediction. In eight years, he hardly ever talks about race. He did not embrace Black Lives Matter. I think that he made a mistake in misunderstanding the depth and breadth of white supremacy.

There are aspects of our history that he didn’t get and that as president he could paper over. Black Lives Matter, as radical reconstructionists, understood that the only way forward was to talk about the past.

AF: Andrew Johnson was the worst possible person to carry on the work and legacy of Abraham Lincoln. Was Donald Trump the worst possible successor to the first Black president of the United States?

PJ: Oh yeah, absolutely. Yes. Donald Trump’s succession really mirrors that of Andrew Johnson. They both served one term and they both come after watershed presidencies. But Trump was really the worst thing that could have happened because Trump was able to fan the flames of preexisting racial fears and anxieties and violence and antidemocratic norms. So he was really the worst person who could’ve followed Obama.

AF: Based on the redemptionist viewpoint of his past, is it surprising that Joe Biden was the first person to be on a winning ticket with a Black man and a Black woman?

PJ: It is in a way, yeah, because Joe Biden really evolves, during the 21st century especially. When Biden comes into office, he’s coming in on the tail end of the Second Reconstruction, where redemptionist forces really play a large role in the Democratic and the Republican parties of constraining the impact of the Second Reconstruction. So they’re going to put brakes on racial integration in public schools and the workplace and on expansive notions of democracy. And Biden rolls with that. At the time, crime waves weren’t solved by investing in communities to allow them to flourish, but by building massive, massive prisons. Biden is a huge architect of that because he’s the author of the ’94 crime bill and supported the ’96 welfare reform. By the time Obama comes with the multiracial coalition, in large part due to certain generational shifts, the rise of Gen X and millennials, he changes alongside of that. And that is why I say he is a redemptionist who becomes a reconstructionist.

AF: As a King biographer and former Boston resident, what is your impression of The Embrace (click for Mark Favermann’s Arts Fuse review in the February Short Fuses column)?

PJ: You know I haven’t seen it live, but I’m a big fan of Hank Willis Thomas. I think it’s extraordinary. You know, when it comes to art, it doesn’t have to be literal. It can be more abstract. So I understand what The Embrace is about. I’m a supporter. I think we need to have access to art that’s abstract so we can teach that to our kids. Part of it is more an act of public education.

Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to the Arts Fuse, the Somerville Times, and the Beverly Citizen. He has also written for DigBoston, the ARTery, Lynn Happens, the Providence Journal, The Onion’s A.V. Club, and the Columbus Dispatch. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife and five-year-old twins — Elliot Samuel and Xander Jackson — in Salem, MA.

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