Associate professor of history Justin Behrend recently published a book titled Reconstructing Democracy: Grassroots Black Politics in the Deep South after the Civil War. Stemming from ongoing research from his dissertation, Behrend has been working on the book for years.
He described it as an effort to understand how a grassroots democracy develops. “I think we have a notion that democracy springs forward from intellectual leaders,” Behrend said. “It is usually traced back to the founding fathers, the Greeks, Alexis de Tocqueville.”
During his research, Behrend explained that he found that former African American slaves developed a very viable system of governance, but it didn’t come from the intellectual tradition––it was developed from the people’s own experiences.
In developing his work, Behrend looked at the Natchez District––a region in the Deep South––and the former slaves who lived there. Behrend noted that he focused on how the political mobilization of these people transformed this region after the Civil War. He noticed that they managed to set up governance despite their disadvantages, something that he said surprised him greatly.
“What happens in a few short years is that they become politically active,” he said.
They vote and they win office.” Behrend emphasized his belief that individuals often pay attention and listen to those who are considered to be marginalized.
“I believe there is great value in learning from those who have gone through slavery,” he said. “I believe they give us real insight on what freedom truly means because they have a better sense of it.”
Reconstructing Democracy focuses on the grassroots democracy that was based on shared governance, working class people and strong egalitarian ethic. Women were highly involved in the political process. According to Behrend, black women were much more involved in political campaigns which suggests a much more egalitarian system.
“When we think today about the great attributes to democracy, you will actually find that this African American grassroots democracy fits more with our ideal democracy––not what the Greeks or the founding fathers defined as democracy,” he said.
Although white militias eventually overthrew grassroots democracy, Behrend explained that his book argues that the violence resulted because there was an organized, functional and efficient form of governance.
“I think Americans like to believe everything is getting better and progressing, but Americans should pay more attention to the anti-democratic––the repressive threats of our society,” he said.
Along with professors of history Tze-ki Hon and Michael Oberg, Behrend will be featured in a history department-sponsored book party this spring to celebrate the professors’ success in publishing their own books.