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Common Reading 2023: Excerpt from Make Good the Promises, "Legacies of Violence" by Kidada E. Williams

Excerpt from Make Good the Promises, "Legacies of Violence" — Kidada E. Williams

"Legacies of Violence" is a chapter from Make Good the Promises, a book companion to a Smithsonian exhibit about Reconstruction, that examines how the violence of the Reconstruction era still reverberates into the present.

Discussion Questions

  1. How did your high school history classes talk about Reconstruction? How much of the information in the chapter was new to you or challenged what you thought you knew about Reconstruction?
  2. What could/should be done now to address the failures of Reconstruction? How do we reckon with these "legacies of violence" and how do we move forward?

Class Activity

Explore the online resources from the National Museum of African American History and Culture, including the virtual version of the Make Good the Promises exhibit, their other exhibitions, or their Searchable Museum. Choose a topic, exhibit, or object to do a deep dive on and share what you learn with your peers. Does your subject represent a failure of some sort, and if so, what can be learned from it?

Introduction — Edward Slavishak

In this essay, Kidada Williams argues that recent killings of African Americans by police officers are not isolated incidents of a particularly modern problem. Rather, they are part of a power play that white Americans devised over a hundred fifty years ago to keep themselves on top. Williams shows how southern white supremacists “learned from failure” in the late 1800s. They learned to act like it never happened. They learned to teach their kids that the Civil War had been a glorious attempt by underdogs to hit back at bullies. They learned to keep their boot on the neck of anyone who tried to level the playing field. They learned, in other words, that equal doses of violence and fiction could maintain the status quo.

A century and a half later, Williams shows us that we can learn too—but not from mistakes, because these were not mistakes. White Americans intended the laws that undermined support for African Americans’ rights. They strategized to carry out and explain away the violence. They applauded the legal shenanigans that made voting a white man’s business. None of these things were accidental or inevitable.

As you read, then, ask yourself what Williams wants us to learn from her historical overview. Does it depress you, anger you, or mobilize you? If we can do better than this, then how can studying the past help us get there?

Related Videos

"Reconstruction in America" from Equal Justice Initiative

"Reconstruction: Crash Course Black American History #19" from CrashCourse

"How America's Legacy Of Racial Terror Still Affects Black Wealth | Forbes" from Forbes

"Lynchings and Racial Violence during Reconstruction" from Equal Justice Initiative

Additional Resources

Make Good the Promises exhibit

Check out the online resources for the Smithsonian exhibit that the Make Good the Promises book is based on. Although the physical exhibition is now closed, the virtual exhibit includes an exhibition guide, select objects and storylines from the original exhibit, and text and audio previews of another chapter from the book.

America Is Still Reckoning With the Failures of Reconstruction

This article from Smithsonian Magazine talks more about the Make Good the Promises book and exhibit.

Reconstruction in America: Racial Violence after the Civil War

This report from the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit founded by Bryan Stevenson aimed at combatting mass incarceration and racial and economic injustice, documents the thousands of lynchings that took place during Reconstruction.

Reconstruction Didn't Fail. It Was Overthrown

This excerpt from Reconstruction: A Concise History by Allen C. Guelzo published in Time discusses how political (in)actions led to the end of Reconstruction.

How Reconstruction Still Shapes American Racism

This article in Time by Henry Louis Gates Jr., adapted from his book Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, reflects on the legacies of Reconstruction's manifestations of white supremacy.

About the Author

Kidada E. Williams researches African Americans' experiences of racist violence. At Wayne State University, she teaches courses on African American history, U.S. history and historical research methods. The earliest proponents of what we call African American history intended for their research to reach the broadest possible audience. Williams's embrace of this rich tradition informs her commitment to sharing her expertise as much as her busy schedule permits.


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