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5: Experiments in Self-Defense

The federal government’s legalization of racial violence after the Civil War.


Episode Notes

The collapse of the antebellum Southern legal order left freed people exposed to violence from whites desperately trying to re-establish racial hierarchies. Some black people tried to defend themselves, acquiring weapons and forming militias. How common—and how effective—was that strategy?

In Episode 5 of Reconstruction, Rebecca Onion and Jamelle Bouie explore the legacy of the 1873 Colfax massacre and look at how black Americans responded to violence when they couldn’t rely on the government for defense. They’re joined by Kidada Williams, the author of They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence From Emancipation to World War I.

About the Show

The era of Reconstruction that followed the Civil War was our best chance to build an American democracy grounded in racial equality. Its failure helps explain why race, “states’ rights,” and the legacy of the Confederacy remain central themes in our politics today.

Don’t miss Rebecca and Jamelle’s previous podcast, The History of American Slavery.

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