A New Racial Reckoning: Peniel E. Joseph Details a Third Reconstruction

Similar to the Reconstruction era after the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, the Third Reconstruction continues the legacy of the struggle for full rights and dignity for Black Americans.

By Duncan R. Jamieson

The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century, by Peniel E. Joseph. Basic Books, 2022. 288p, 9781541600744 $27.00, 9781541600768 $17.99

book cover of "The Third Reconstruction"

In 1619, twenty Africans were sold in Jamestown, Virginia Colony, initiating the system of chattel slavery that stripped the Africans—considered property rather than human beings—of any rights and would persist for more than two centuries. Over time, as the movement to end chattel slavery gained momentum, southern slave holders felt their way of life threatened, prompting their attempt to leave the United States and create their own government, the Confederate States of America, which tore the nation asunder in 1861. When General Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, the Civil War was effectively over, signifying a victory for the North, the end of slavery, and the preservation of the Union. 

Over the century and a half that followed, however, two competing histories (one actual, the other alleged) have vied for the American public’s attention: that of the Reconstructionists who support extending dignity and human rights to all Americans, and that of the Redemptionists who labor to restore the pre-Civil War southern way of life. Those among the latter group accept “the Lost Cause, an ideology arguing that Black people were forever unready for citizenship” (p. 153). Although diametrically opposed, these ideologies are not mutually exclusive; the issue is which one is ascendant. The Declaration of Independence enshrines the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans. There is no asterisk or footnote limiting these rights to whites alone, regardless of the reader’s own personal beliefs or persuasion. And yet, Redempionists’ so-called history centers on whether Black Americans are excluded from the Declaration’s promise. 

The Third Reconstruction, a penetrating compilation of history, memoir, and cultural criticism by Peniel E. Joseph (Univ. of Texas, Austin), delves into this fraught history. American history texts typically define the era of Reconstruction (1865–77) as the time when the federal government attempted to provide rights to formerly enslaved individuals while restoring the Confederate states to their place in the Union. This set the stage for the two opposing viewpoints of American society. The Reconstructionists, led by the Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens from Pennsylvania, urged the federal government to guarantee social and political equality for Black people. Unfortunately, this ended in 1877 when the United States Army withdrew and the southern states were “redeemed,” meaning the Radical Republicans had been ousted (p. 139). Joseph extends the First Reconstruction to the end of the century when the Supreme Court legitimized de jure segregation with its decision in the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) case enshrining the doctrine of separate but equal. The Redemptionists (typically also known as Redeemers) wanted to restore the antebellum South’s way of life, stripping Black people of all civil and political rights.

Given that standard history, as it is usually taught, is dominated by men, Joseph goes a long way to make sure that these and other women are recognized for their contributions to civil rights, from the nineteenth century to today.

It is important to note that both sides pushed their agendas simultaneously. When Reconstructionists were in control, the Ku Klux Klan carried out horrific and gruesome lynchings. Alternatively, when the Redemptionists held the upper hand, Ida B. Wells traveled throughout the South to report on lynchings. From there Joseph moves onto what he defines as the Second Reconstruction, the modern civil rights era beginning with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), which overturned Plessy by recognizing that separate is inherently unequal, and ending with the 1968 assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This reviewer might have pushed the starting date back to President Harry Truman’s 1947 report on civil rights, To Secure These Rights, and added to the ending the Kerner Commission Report (1967) which posited that the United States was “moving toward two societies, one [B]lack, one white—separate and unequal.” 

For the titular Third Reconstruction, Joseph cites the election of President Barack Obama, to which this reviewer would add the 2012 killing of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin as a seminal event. Trayvon’s murder by George Zimmerman and Zimmerman’s subsequent trial, in which the jury found him not guilty, precipitated the Black Lives Matter movement, begun by activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullars, and Ayọ Tomoeti (formerly known as Opal Tometi). Given that standard history, as it is usually taught, is dominated by men, Joseph goes a long way to make sure that these and other women are recognized for their contributions to civil rights, from the nineteenth century to today. The list of women is long, each playing a significant role in advancing the work of Reconstruction.

Although the First and Second Reconstructions failed to achieve the goal of human rights for Black Americans, Joseph is optimistic that the Third Reconstruction will result in success, though it may take generations to achieve. What ties these three movements together is the Reconstructionists’ use of “multiple strategies in their efforts to forge a multiracial democracy” (p. 16). Conversely, the “Redemptionists sought to reinscribe slavery’s power relations between Blacks and whites through racial terror, through Black Codes that disenfranchised Black voters, and by ending federal protection for Black citizenship” (pp. 17–18). The brilliance of this book is Joseph’s ability to seamlessly unite these three Reconstructions, challenging the generally accepted belief that there is little connecting the periods when Reconstructionists were ascendant. While it is obvious that Joseph wholeheartedly supports and advocates Reconstruction over Redemption, this is a thoughtful, balanced portrayal of the opposing ideologies.

Though he might be overly optimistic (or this reviewer might be too pessimistic), it is true that the national belief in American exceptionalism “forces us to confront moral and political truths we have been collectively reluctant to acknowledge”

p. 224

For this reviewer, another major strength of this book is Joseph’s ability to challenge widely held beliefs about American history and the people who shaped it. Though he might be overly optimistic (or this reviewer might be too pessimistic), it is true that the national belief in American exceptionalism “forces us to confront moral and political truths we have been collectively reluctant to acknowledge” (p. 224). More specifically, while few if any would dispute King’s positive leadership and his philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience, the general public often overlooks the positive roles played by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. Generally, both are viewed as aggressively militant, violent in the extreme. In the case of Malcolm, the popular perception does not consider the understanding he gained from his pilgrimage to Mecca, where he realized the way forward was working with white people rather than demonizing them. Additionally, history tends to overlook the food pantries and day care centers the Panthers operated, instead focusing on photographs of militant, gun-toting young Black men.

The movement also included Angela Davis, the famed academic and activist who has been active in the movements for prison reform, Black liberation, and civil rights. In the 1970s she was perhaps most widely known for her connection to the armed takeover of the Marin County Courthouse in 1970, during which four people were killed. Placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted fugitive list following the incident, she was subsequently pursued by law enforcement and arrested. However, this episode did not define Davis or her legacy. Acquitted of all charges in 1972, she went on to have an outstanding academic career, and, as “one of the leading figures of the Black Power era,” she has “set the stage for the second and third generations of reconstructionists to reimagine American society” (p. 30).

Another important milestone in the ongoing struggle for Reconstruction, Joseph offers a nuanced analysis of Barack Obama’s eight years as president. Although a huge step forward, those years do not point to a post-racial United States, but rather, mark “the symbolic site of the enduring struggle between reconstructionists and redemptionists” (p. 62).

In Black Reconstruction (1935), “[W. E. B.] Du Bois coined the term ‘abolition democracy’ to describe what seemed to promise a second American founding” (p. 15). While yet to be achieved, books like The Third Reconstruction offer a means to eliminate the gulf separating Reconstructionists from Redemptionists and to finally enshrine the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers.
Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Racial Justice
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences – History, Geography & Area Studies – North America


Duncan R. Jamieson is professor of history at Ashland University. He has a PhD in American intellectual history from Michigan State University.