In the wake of the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era emerged as a time of radical change in the 19th century United States. Dr. Peniel Joseph brings this conversation into the 20th and 21st centuries as we discuss his most recent book, The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century.
- Peniel E. JosephBarbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values & Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, LBJ School of Public Affairs, and Professor in the Department of History, UT-Austin
- Alina ScottPhD Candidate in the History Department at the University of Texas at Austin
[00:00:00] Alina Scott: This is 15 Minute History, a podcast for educators, students, and anyone interested in history, featuring the minds and voices of the University of Texas at Austin.
Welcome to 15 Minute History. I’m your host, Alina Scott, a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at UT Austin. Today we are joined by Dr. Peniel Joseph. Dr. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values. Founding Director of the Center for Study of Race and Democracy, Associate Dean for Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, Public Policy and International Affairs Program Board Chair, and Distinguished Service Professor of History, At the University of Texas at Austin, an internationally recognized scholar, activist, and author and editor of seven award winning books.
Most recently, The Third Reconstruction, American Struggle for Racial Justice in the 21st Century, winner of the 2023 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. Additionally, in 2022, he was named the grand prize winner of the 2022 Hamilton Book Award. The University of Texas at Austin’s highest research honor for his book, The Sword and the Shield, The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
He is a frequent national commentator on issues of race, civil rights, and democracy, a fellow of the Society of American Historians, and contributing writer for CNN. com. He lives in Austin, Texas, and I am so excited to welcome Dr. Joseph to the show today. Welcome.
[00:01:45] Peniel Joseph: Thank you for having me, Alina.
[00:01:47] Alina Scott: Dr. Joseph, the first book of yours that I read was Stokely, A Life, and I remember thinking so clearly how accessible a read it was and how engaging it was.
Mind you, I was a first year grad student and I was drowning in historical monographs, And it was so refreshing to read because you seemed so aware of Both who your readers are and who your readers could be. And you didn’t want to. isolate anybody from engaging with your work, and that was so clear on every single page.
And I had a similar experience reading Third Reconstruction, and as someone who does a lot of public facing work, I really value this, this attribute of your work. So I wanted to talk about that, as well as a few other choices you made, just to kick things off in writing your book. The first question that I have is, this is a book that is so grounded in historical theory, Frameworks and ideas, but it’s also set in the 21st century.
Can you speak to what brought you to this idea and your decision to apply 19th and 20th century themes to the recent past and present moment, but still write a history?
[00:02:57] Peniel Joseph: Oh, absolutely. I think all history is just storytelling and that’s what we are. Like, I think we’re all students of history because each new project, no matter what your expertise.
You learn so many different things and that’s what makes it so exciting. And I think that we have to think of ourselves as storytellers. And imagine if we were in the public square, just sharing this. With other human beings who are intelligent, imagine some of the words we’re saying are also being signed to people.
Other people are learning it through different means, you know, orally written sign language, just so many different ways. And so from that perspective, I think history is really the most gripping of all the disciplines because these events that we’re chronicling actually happened and are connected to larger social movements and institutions and Um, movements for peace and war and transformation that happen on a global scale, but also with the intimacy of the local.
And then with the third reconstruction, this was a, uh, important project for me because I got to speak about black feminism and black feminist thought. And these are things that have been grounded in formally as a historian for 30 years, but then informally through my mother. Jermaine Joseph, who recently passed, and I talk about her in the memoir aspect, and I actually will be working on a full blown memoir as well.
But it’s very, it’s very meaningful for me, the way in which 19th and 20th century history impacts how we think about Black Lives Matter, or climate change, or reproductive justice. Or indigenous rights or, you know, disabled folks or feminism. And so it was great to be able to pivot and talk about Ida B.
Wells and to talk about Francis Harper, to talk about Angela Davis, you know, Ella Baker, Audre Lorde. All these different folks and show us this kind of through line through these three periods of reconstruction. And I was also surprised that, you know, no one had ever done something like that before. And so I wanted in a brief, because the book is maybe 75, 000 words, I wanted in a brief history where you got those three periods and you can understand what reconstructionists, who they are, you know, supporters of multiracial democracy, who redemptionists are.
These advocates of white supremacy and what these narrative wars actually mean for all of us.
[00:05:26] Alina Scott: As a 19th century historian myself, I know that we cannot get enough of Reconstruction. Every year there’s another book about Reconstruction. But what you do a really great job at is not only thinking about the era in itself, but the political themes and events, particularly those surrounding racial reckoning that 19th century.
and the Reconstruction Era and how they can be applied elsewhere. Can you talk a little bit about, like you mentioned, those three Reconstruction Eras, as well as some similarities and differences between
[00:05:57] Peniel Joseph: them? Oh, absolutely. I think that these periods of Reconstruction 1, 1865 to 1890, there I break from the historical regular framework by arguing for a long period of Reconstruction.
And, and that’s really to respect the Black women and men who made that period long and these archipelagos of fugitive democracy. The second reconstruction, in my book, I have the high points is 1954 to 1968. You know, in truth, that second reconstruction period starts Great Depression, World War II era and continues into the seventies and eighties.
So it’s a long second reconstruction. Reason why, and this is what you do as a storyteller, Alina, this is why sometimes you have to, um, Say, Hey, what are the public? The people were going to listen to the album. What do they want? And 54 to 68 is more usable and more teachable for people. That’s why the Brown decision may 17, 1954, all the way to Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, Thursday, April 4th, 1968.
In Memphis, um, you know, sort of just after 6 p. m. Memphis time, that’s really usable for people. By the time you start saying, well, it started during 1930 and something, and this is, you know, Ethiopia, Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, and the Spanish Republic and Langston Hughes, you lose people, you know? So certainly you can write a whole book on sort of a long second reconstruction that uses that period too.
And then the third reconstruction is really 2008 to the present with these four hinge points of Obama’s election, Barack Obama’s election, the rise of BLM 1. 0 in 2013, the rise of MAGA and Donald Trump and really this new, uh, sort of confederate states of America in 2016 and everything that goes with it and then 2020 and Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and sort of this, um, these unfolding juxtapositions of both Real, real racial progress when we think about 25 million people on the streets for BLM, but also backlash January 6, and what you get with the critical race theory hoax, but you also get Amanda Gorman and the first black woman BP, you get Stacey Abrams, you get Tameka Mallory, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, Patrice Cullors, so you really get both and I wanted to, in this book show how Black women have been co architects of these freedom dreams and this Black radical tradition and these democratic frameworks.
But really, it took the third Reconstruction where we can really see the Nicole Hannah Jones and we can really see them. And at the same time, you’re getting the backlash and the voter suppression. And the anti CRT, anti DEI because of this. So I wanted us to see why all the juxtapositions, not aberrations, that we’re experiencing are happening.
And I thought the most useful way to teach that is by showing the other two times that
[00:08:55] Alina Scott: You write, quote, There is the America that we might call Reconstructionist, home to champions of racial democracy. And there is the America that we might call Redemptionist, a country that papers over racial, class, and gender hierarchies.
Through an allegiance to white supremacy, since the nation’s birth, its racial politics have been shaped by an ongoing battle between Reconstruction America and Redemptionist America. Can you elaborate a little bit more on the differences between this Redemptionist and Reconstruction America and how these two themes show up in each of the three Reconstructions that you discuss?
[00:09:33] Peniel Joseph: Yeah, two great states right now would be Florida as a redemptionist state, Texas as a redemptionist state, and maybe California as a reconstructionist state. And the big difference is that one, we’re going to see an embrace, however imperfectly, of multiracial democracy intersectionally. And the other, we’re really going to see a repudiation of ideas of Black citizenship and dignity.
And when you think about the 19th century and the first, that took the form of convict policing. Sharecropping and just brutal murder by the Klan and racial pogroms in Memphis and New Orleans in 1866, Hamburg, um, you know, Mississippi shotgun plan, uh, and really Jim Crow racial segregation and white supremacy.
In the second, it continues with Jim Crow racism and segregation, but what’s interesting about the second reconstruction is that reconstructionists win the narrative war. Redemptionists win in the first. And in the second, Reconstructionists win, and that’s how you’re going to get, not just Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, but that’s how you’re going to get Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton and all these people, because what Reconstructionists do is expand American democracy for everyone.
That’s how you’re going to get the Americans with disabilities. That’s how you’re going to get better treatment for indigenous people. Black citizenship and dignity is always universal, but people step into the doors that Black folks open up and act as if Black people didn’t open them up. That’s what happens, including immigrants, all immigrants in the United States and the notion of birthright citizenship, right?
And so when we Reconstructionist vision.
Is the idea of black lives matter and the fact that you, you got people to finally talk about racism, the 1619 project, you finally got people to talk about equity in the white house and all these different things. And then the backlash, the reconstructionist backlash is the anti wokeness and all the stuff that you’re hearing, right?
And so it continues in our own time, Alina, but it’s really just about a story. Which story are we going to believe? Are we going to believe the redemptionist lie that black people are? Sort of these ignorant, sexually depraved monsters and criminals. Are we going to believe the Reconstructionist story of multiracial democracy with Black women and men really carving out new spaces for all people and shedding, you know, you know, risking their lives and bleeding for
[00:12:08] Alina Scott: democracy?
A few minutes ago, you mentioned these archipelagos of fugitive democracy. Can you talk a little bit about that and, and kind of how that looks in the 19th century context, 20th century context, as well as 21st century context?
[00:12:24] Peniel Joseph: In the 19th century, it’s Wilmington, North Carolina, before the white massacre murders folks in Wilmington, where as late as 1898, we had black folks thriving in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Um, before the racial program in the 20th century, you know, it’s going to be a SNCC student nonviolent coordinating committee, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, carving out spaces in Macomb, Mississippi, carving out spaces in the Mississippi Delta and Alabama and Southwest Georgia and Arkansas in the 20th century, it’s going to be black women and reproductive injustice, um, people like the Audre Lorde’s, But people like Kathy Cohen and Beth Ritchie and Angela Davis and Ruth Gilmore and, you know, Barbara Ransby, I’d say in the 21st century, it’s really BLM and really so many different anti violence and anti racist collectives that have formed around the movement for Black Lives, where you think about the Trans Black Lives Matter march in June of 2020, which I talk about as one of the most democratic moments in American history.
And so it’s people helping each other collectively, people who are straight. Who are queer, who are black, who are Hispanic, who are indigenous, who are white, and really thinking of themselves as building that beloved community in real time at the neighborhood level. Um, and we could see this happening in Tennessee, in Texas, all 50 states, uh, we’ve seen these fugitive democratic archipelagos that really exist.
So that beloved community is always real, even when it’s just being lived discreetly.
[00:14:00] Alina Scott: My final question is a question that I’ve asked most of our guests, but I kind of, I want to phrase it a little differently for you today. In this time where history, social science, critical race theory, and other analytical frameworks are heavily criticized and scrutinized.
What would you like historians, students of history, as well as those whose work is generally outside of the 21st century, or those whose work is in the 21st century, to take away from your book?
[00:14:30] Peniel Joseph: Yeah, I think, you know, I think the biggest thing is just the importance of stories and storytelling. You know, I tell this book through the lens of what I learned from my mother.
You know, I’m the proud son of Haitian immigrants, and I talk about growing up in New York City in the 1980s. Segregated New York, you know, hip hop, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, all these things that influenced me, but I think that I also talk about the way in which I was able to learn from people like Sonia Sanchez and Femi Vaughn and, you know, Robin Kelly and others, and it’s the stories that really matter and then our ability to tell those stories.
So it’s important as historians that we do the rigorous research Archival work and do all the reading, but then we have to be able to disseminate it and tell it in a way that people that moves people. Right? So I would encourage everyone to just really think of themselves once again as sort of storytellers and students.
rather than scholars and professors and all that, you know, so the more stripped down it is, the more you’re going to be able to relate to folks and people are going to listen to the story that you’re telling.
[00:15:37] Alina Scott: Dr. Joseph, thank you so much for being on the show today. Thank you, Alina. I enjoyed it. If you’d like to read more about what we discussed today, Dr.
Joseph’s most recent book is called The Third Reconstruction, America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the 21st Century. As always, make sure to rate and subscribe on Apple Podcasts and follow us on social media at 15MinuteHistory. And listen to more episodes of 15 Minute History wherever you get your podcasts.
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