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The Questions That Most Need Asking

“Reconstruction,” by Frederick Douglass, appeared in the December 1866 issue of this magazine. It was the most important article that The Atlantic published in the immediate postwar era. It was also, for its time, unusually concise, coming in at a mere 2,703 words. By contrast, The Atlantic’s 1860 endorsement of Abraham Lincoln, written by James Russell Lowell, had run to 7,331 words, and Lincoln himself was not mentioned until the 1,747th word. (The editorial did succeed, of course. And yes, I’m taking credit on behalf of The Atlantic for Lincoln’s presidency.)

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Douglass published his call for a radical reimagining of the American idea at an ambiguous but promising moment. Already, the infant project of Reconstruction—­of the South, of the lives of newly liberated Black Americans, of the Constitution itself—was stimulating opposition that would, by 1877, prove shattering to the cause of equality. And yet Doug­lass was correct, as his biographer David W. Blight writes in this issue, in understanding that “the United States had been reinvented by war and by new egalitarian impulses rooted in emancipation.” Douglass’s essay, which Blight brilliantly annotates for us, is “full of radical brimstone, cautious hope, and a thoroughly new vision of constitutional authority.”

The Reconstruction period has been a topic for The Atlantic across the centuries. This special issue, edited by our senior editor Vann R. Newkirk II, working alongside our editor-at-large, Cullen Murphy, and our managing editor John Swansburg, is meant to examine the enduring consequences of Reconstruction’s tragic fall at a moment—­yet another moment—when the cause of racial progress faces sustained pressure. The idea for this issue emerged from a conversation I had not long ago with Lonnie G. Bunch III, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Bunch is, among other things, a stupendous builder, a conscientious American patriot, and an impresario of memory. He is also a scholar of the Freedmen’s Bureau archives, and the author of a moving article about the bureau’s work.

Our conversation at first focused on the need to complete the exploration and digitization of the imperishably important archives, but then it ranged more widely. Both of us felt that, in this period of political and social reaction, revisiting the centrality of Reconstruction, and of promises made and broken, would be an apt subject for this magazine. Bunch writes in his article:

Librarians around the nation feel the chilling effects of book bans. Some individuals who seek to occupy the highest office in the land fear the effects of an Advanced Placement class that explores African American history—a history that, as education officials in Florida have maintained, “lacks educational value”; a history that does not deserve to be remembered.

As Newkirk, who has written a fascinating article about the Fisk University choir, noted to me, “If the last seven years in this country have proven anything, it is to show just how un­finished, and fragile, the project of Reconstruction actually is.”

In the interest of memory, we asked our deputy editor Yoni Appelbaum, a historian by trade, to examine The Atlantic’s mixed record on questions of Reconstruction. I would prefer to tell you that Frederick Douglass spoke singularly for this magazine on the subject, but there is also the matter of Woodrow Wilson, a frequent contributor to The Atlantic in the years before he became president. Wilson was a prime contributor to a 1901 series in this magazine focused on Reconstruction. The series, which also featured W. E. B. Du Bois (thank goodness), has too much of a “good people on both sides” air about it. As Appelbaum notes, Wilson’s critique of Reconstruction was appalling. “The negroes were exalted; the states were misgoverned and looted in their name,” Wilson wrote. This went on, he continued, until “the whites who were real citizens got control again.”

Illumination is the point of this issue. We have great scholars, including Peniel E. Joseph, whose article, “The Revolution Never Ended,” focuses on the Black Americans who continued the work of Reconstruction even after federal troops withdrew from the South, and Drew Gilpin Faust, a former president of Harvard and a noted Civil War scholar, who writes about the Secret Six, the men exposed after the war for having funded John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Eric Foner, in many ways the dean of Reconstruction scholarship, writes on James Longstreet, the Confederate general who accepted the Union’s victory and took up the cause of rebuilding the nation.

At the center of this issue, spread across 32 pages, you will find something surprising and glorious: an original play by Anna Deavere Smith, a contributing writer at The Atlantic as well as a playwright, a performer, and an actual genius. I don’t doubt that you will one day see the play, This Ghost of Slavery, on Broadway. When I first started talking with Smith about writing for this issue, she had predictably brilliant ideas for a long exploration of juvenile justice and its roots in the slave system, but we soon realized that an essay couldn’t contain all that she was trying to achieve. So I suggested that she write a play. We recruited our national editor, Scott Stossel, to serve as her dramaturge. Spend time with this play. It will move you. Spend time with this whole issue, in fact: It asks, and answers, the questions that most need to be asked.

This editor’s note appears in the December 2023 print edition with the headline “The Questions That Most Need Asking.”

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