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Revolutions and Lasting Change: Part I

Words: Sam Ratner
Pictures: Wikimedia Commons

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.

*Mike Duncan voice* Hello, and welcome to “Revolutions.”

The concept of overthrowing old orders and replacing them with, well, literally anything else is looking better by the day, but the process of doing so is murky and fraught with dangers. This week and next, Critical State takes a deep dive into new research on how revolutions actually function, and what separates them from run-of-the-mill armed uprisings.

In a new article, forthcoming in the journal Comparative Political Science, Megan Stewart and Karin Kitchens try to get at one of the fundamental questions about revolutions: how do they actually institutionalize radical social reform? Put another way, once you decide that things have to change, how can you actually make that change stick?

To find answers, Stewart and Kitchens look at arguably the most revolutionary period in American history: Reconstruction. After the Civil War, the federal government undertook an extended effort in some areas of the south to transfer resources from the slaveholding class to formerly-enslaved Black people. Thaddeus Stevens, one of the leading lawmakers behind Reconstruction policies, called it a “radical revolution” that would make American institutions less racially biased and more egalitarian. The federal government deployed 60,000 troops in the south in 1866, and sent another 25,000 later, to enforce Reconstruction policies and protect the officials, federal and local, who were charged with implementing them.

Black churches, political leaders and community groups used the assets they had organized during Reconstruction to maintain schools, Black-owned businesses, and other structures that allowed them to continue pursuing equitable resource distribution into the 20th century.

The soldiers mostly succeeded where they were deployed, but they were deployed inconsistently. Some areas received substantial, ongoing military support, while in other areas, Reconstruction officials were left undefended. The variation in enforcement allows Stewart and Kitchens to test just how effective the deployments were in institutionalizing a redistribution of power and resources to formerly enslaved people, and how long the new distribution remained in place.

In areas where any federal troops were deployed, Stewart and Kitchens found that Black literacy increased between 1% and 1.5% between 1900 and 1920 — even well after Reconstruction. That may not seem like a huge increase but, as the authors note, that means between 46,000 and 74,000 Black people who would not have acquired literacy had troops not been deployed were able to do so, even long after the soldiers left. Furthermore, each 10% increase in the size of the troop deployment in a given county yielded a further 1% increase in Black literacy and a 1% reduction in the difference between Black and white literacy rates by 1920. In other words, the deployments allowed for institutionalized change in a way that lived on after Reconstruction was cut short.

Of course, while the troop deployments provided the security for institutionalization, it was not the soldiers who were creating the schools, laws and political networks necessary to make those literacy gains. Instead, it was Black southerners themselves who built these institutions and stockpiled the resources necessary to perpetuate them after military support was withdrawn. Black churches, political leaders and community groups used the assets they had organized during Reconstruction to maintain schools, Black-owned businesses, and other structures that allowed them to continue pursuing equitable resource distribution into the 20th century.

However, as Stewart and Kitchens found, the process that made space for Black institutions also generated another institution: organized counterrevolutionary violence. Lynching was rare before the Civil War, but afterward, it became the emblematic form of white supremacist violence. As the gap in power and resources between white and Black southerners shrunk, white resentment grew, and after Reconstruction, the number of white-on-Black lynchings in the south exploded. Looking at county-level data, Stewart and Kitchens find that networks of white violence are also highly correlated to areas where federal troops were deployed. Federal deployments are linked with an increase in white-on-Black lynchings of between 20% and 75%. The lynching numbers also increase depending on the success of Black educational institutionalization in those counties — lynchings in the 1920s were 30% lower in counties with the lowest gains in Black literacy than in the counties with the highest gains.

Stewart and Kitchens are hardly the first to point out that social change can be fostered or scuttled depending on how violence related to the change is managed. But their paper does convincingly demonstrate a case in which security provision allowed the seeds of both revolutionary and counterrevolutionary institutions to germinate. As the Reconstruction era gave way to the Jim Crow era, most of the egalitarian successes of Reconstruction were violently rolled back. Yet, where Black institutions had amassed the resources to be able to survive the backlash, they nurtured communities that would score major successes against Jim Crow just a few generations later.

Sam Ratner


Sam Ratner is a contributing editor at Zitamar News, where he covers southeast African security issues, and a founding editor of Fellow Travelers Blog. He earned his MPA in international security policy from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. He tweets at @samratner.


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