Reconstruction's Lessons

Main Article Content

Susan Carle


In the current moment in the legal struggle for racial equality in the United States, the nation seems at risk of repeating its history. The Roberts Court has failed to fulfill its charge under the Reconstruction amendments to vigorously promote and enforce civil rights protections, and the other branches of government have proved ineffectual or unwilling to step into the breach. The racist far right is rising and the national electorate appears unable to organize in favor of racial justice priorities. In recognition of these partial analogies between conditions then and now, this Article mines the history of Reconstruction and its aftermath for lessons pertinent to the racial justice struggle today. It asks what lessons racial justice activists and legal scholars might glean from that history to help them grow their tally of gains and shrink their tally of losses despite today’s less than ideal legal and political conditions. What the history of Reconstruction teaches is that legal prescription and doctrinal manipulation alone will not bring about greater racial equality; having learned that lesson from Reconstruction’s history, today’s racial justice activists and scholars should direct their efforts towards exploring what new approaches might be effective despite today’s less than optimal legal and political conditions.

Author Biography

Susan Carle, Washington College of Law, American University

Professor of Law, American University Washington College of Law (WCL). I wrote a first draft of this article while a Visiting Professor of Law at Washington and Lee University School of Law (W&L) and thank W&L for that opportunity and research support resources. I also thank WCL for continuing support as my home base. Research assistants Catherine Blalock (WCL 2024), Justin Jarrett (W&L 2023), Sabrina Matlock (W&L 2022), John Olorin (WCL 2022), and Lillian Spell (W&L 2023), provided excellent research assistance, and the students in my History of Civil Rights Lawyering seminar at W&L provided fresh inspiration. This scholarship could not have been carried out without the expert assistance of WCL Law Library Director Adeen Postar and Acting Director of the W&L Law Library Franklin Runge. I benefited greatly from discussion with John Harrison and excellent editing from Walter Armstrong III. I also gained much from presenting earlier versions of this article at the Duke Law School Colloquium on Civil Rights Enforcement, including from the many helpful comments and questions by students and Professors Maggie Lemos and Darrell Miller; the University of Minnesota Law School’s 40th Anniversary Symposium of Journal of Inequality; and the W&L Faculty Workshop. I especially appreciated the collegiality of W&L Professor Emeritus Samuel Calhoun, who read the manuscript with care, pointed out errors and generously plied me with additional sources and discussion. All mistakes remain my own.

Article Details

Reconstruction, race, law, Reconstruction Amendments, Thirteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Fifteenth Amendment, slavery, racial equality, Roberts Court
How to Cite
Carle, S. (2023). Reconstruction’s Lessons. Columbia Journal of Race and Law, 13(1), 734–789.