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This, Our Second Nadir

IT HAS BEEN WORSE. Let’s not forget “The Nadir,” as the historian Rayford Logan coined it: the period following Reconstruction in which America witnessed the resurgence and bloody normalization of White Power politics. Between the 1870s and the turn of the twentieth century, southern whites took over the political and propaganda apparatus in all eleven states of the former Confederacy. They rewrote state constitutions with the explicit aim of disfranchising black voters. Racial terrorism, once held underground by the presence of federal troops, morphed into pogroms and spectacle lynchings carried out in broad daylight. Under piercing cries that “The South Will Rise Again,” whites, sometimes by the hundreds and even thousands, attacked African Americans and their property. By some estimates, whites killed as many as half a million black people in politically motivated murders. These efforts were so terrifyingly effective that, over just one decade in Louisiana, white officials and vigilantes slashed the number of black registered voters from 130,000 to some 1,300—a decrease of 99 percent.

The Nadir coincided with the Gilded Age, and not by coincidence—a point Walter Johnson makes very clearly in his analysis of racial capitalism. As once-conquered Confederates snatched black people’s legal protections, the courts and Congress elevated corporations to their current status as rights-bearing citizens. In their efforts to secure even modest concessions from capital, white workers abandoned and turned on black comrades, splintering interracial labor movements. “There began to rise in America in 1876,” W. E. B. Du Bois remarked ruefully in Black Reconstruction (1935), “a new capitalism and a new enslavement of labor,” one that bridled “white, yellow, brown and black labor.” Then, as now, capitalism’s malcontents, with their many colors, suffered a shared predicament. Fractured, “a living working class” transferred its “political power from the hands of labor to the hands of capital, where,” Du Bois explained, “it has been concentrated ever since.” In light of the ensuing imperialism, death, and evaporating livelihoods, the professor maintained, “God wept.”

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Boston Review
Winter 2017

Other Articles in this Issue

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But for is always game. A man can be murdered twice
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WALTER JOHNSON ARGUES AGAINST a triumphalist narrative
WHAT LANGUAGE SHOULD WE use when we talk about slavery?
EVERY GREAT HISTORICAL EPOCH in the freedom struggle
OUR IDEA OF RACIAL CAPITALISM, as Walter Johnson explains
WALTER JOHNSON IS UPSET at the state of the historiography
Following W. E. B. Du Bois and Cedric Robinson, Walter
Walter Johnson demonstrates how little liberal humanism
Are we not coming more and more, day by day, to making
And I point to the list of the names of the missing
Births of a Nation: Surveying Trumpland with Cedric
Symptomatic of being a slave is to forget you’re a
In addition to the work of our contributors, the editors
Dwayne Betts is a poet, memoirist, and teacher. His