Book review of I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction by Kidada Williams


Even at the distance of the 21st century, the events of the Civil War and Reconstruction remain a national pivot point, a moment at which a new future emerged into view. W.E.B. Du Bois called Reconstruction “the finest effort to achieve democracy for the working millions which this world had ever seen.” It was indeed an epic event like the Reformation and the French Revolution. But notwithstanding its ambition — or perhaps because of it — the era has been universally judged a “failure” by Du Bois and generations of historians from the early 20th century to the present. But that appraisal amounts to a mystifying generalization for a political project so radical, it was virtually utopian in scale.

In “I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction,” Kidada E. Williams takes aim at “the ‘failure’ narrative of Reconstruction.” What she offers instead is an account of the era as a merciless “war on freedom,” waged on newly freed Black people by White people intent on denying their aspirations to personal security and meaningful equality. Reconstruction did not fail, she insists; it was overthrown by violence.

Williams offers a horrifyingly detailed picture of the ways Black people were attacked, often in their own homes, in acts of depraved violence, by people they knew, in a campaign of terror that started under slavery and acquired a new aspect with emancipation. The brutality took on an organized paramilitary form in the attacks by the Ku Klux Klan after 1867, when Black men earned the right to vote and hold office. It’s impossible to reliably calculate the number of people murdered — the Black politician Robert Smalls put the figure at 53,000 African Americans. To date the U.S. government has offered no estimate. What is clear, Williams insists, is that there were too many to count and that “the successive violence [White Southerners] used, rejecting newly freed peoples’ rights to any rights, was genocidal-like in nature.” She concludes: “Black Reconstruction didn’t ‘fail,’ as so many are taught. White southerners overthrew it, and the rest of the nation let them.”

What is most powerful here is not the forensic analysis of the violence, though it is devastating, but the way Williams conveys the experience of the victims. As in her excellent first book, “They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence From Emancipation to World War I” (2012), Williams, a historian at Wayne State University, centers the story on first-person accounts by Black survivors, the people who lived to give witness. Drawing primarily on testimonies offered in an investigation of the Ku Klux Klan by Congress in 1871, and on narratives of formerly enslaved people gathered by the Works Project Administration in the 1930s, she offers a riveting picture of the hopefulness and energy of freed people as they began their lives after slavery. She captures the strides they made toward family security and independence, even prosperity, in the first five years of freedom, and then the tsunami of violence that came at them as unrepentant enslavers turned into bitter defeated Confederates.

Williams draws on contemporary theory and comparative literature on war and conflict zones, torture, genocide, trauma and recovery, and reparations movements to illuminate the “multilayered nature of the injuries victims endured” and the intergenerational loss in health, wealth, skill and confidence they suffered. She emphasizes the material wealth that was destroyed when people were driven off their homesteads, leaving behind crops, work animals, tools, all painfully earned. She includes a chart calculating the estimated losses. She also makes sure we understand the aftermath — the corporeal, psychological and moral injuries that marked survivors. Quoting the neuropsychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, she notes: “The body keeps score.” But so does the mind, she observes, describing white-supremacist strikes as “traumatic injuries, trapping some victims in existential crisis” unable “to live fully in the world.”

Williams is surely correct about the overthrow of Reconstruction and the role of white-supremacist violence in it. But there are a number of other dynamics that would have to be fleshed out to sustain the argument and that remain just beyond her framework. For instance, the author points to the complicity of “the rest of the nation” in the overthrow of Reconstruction and talks in very general terms of the role of “white Northerners.” But the tight focus on racial violence in the South means she doesn’t tackle that part of the story. As a result, “White northerners” remain a shadowy, undefined force in the book, and the larger national terrain on which white-supremacist violence unfolded also stays outside the frame. Williams is right to insist that White southerners did not act alone, and, although understandably not her main concern here, these other factors also are important to any argument about how Reconstruction was overthrown.

I Saw Death Coming” is an unflinching and deeply compassionate account of what Black people accomplished, lost and fought for in resisting the war on freedom. It is about what it meant not just to live through, but live with, the violence and its traumatic effects on individuals, families and communities. This is what will stay with you when you put down this book. As will the question of what is owed to survivors and their descendants, as the author put it: what “Americans who claim to believe in liberty owe them today.”

Stephanie McCurry is the R. Gordon Hoxie professor of history at Columbia University and the author of “Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South.” She is currently writing a book on Reconstruction.

A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction

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