Eric Foner reviews two new books on the understudied (not anymore, it seems) Colfax Massacre and the end of Reconstruction: Charles Lane’s The Day Freedom Died and LeAnna Keith’s The Colfax Massacre. And he likes both. Whereas I, having just started The Day Freedom Died (I didn’t even know The Colfax Massacre existed), can’t yet offer much insight into their quality. I can, though, say these books come hot enough on the heels of Nick Lemann’s Redemption (reviewed by me here, if you care) to suggest a trend: historians and journalists increasingly are blaming the failure of Reconstruction on white supremacists, as opposed to, say, the scandal-plagued Grant administration or the freed people themselves. This is, I think, very welcome news (more below). But I’m still not sure Foner’s right about this:

The work of historians, however, has largely failed to penetrate popular consciousness. Partly because of the persistence of old misconceptions, Reconstruction remains widely misunderstood. Popular views still owe more to such films as “Birth of a Nation” (which glorified the Klan as the savior of white civilization) and “Gone With the Wind” (which romanticized slavery and the Confederacy) than to modern scholarship.

I agree that “Reconstruction remains widely misunderstood.” But I think that, for people under the age of, um, let’s say, just for the sake of convenience, forty-five, Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation very likely aren’t the reason why. To be fair, though, it may be that Foner is suggesting that the odious view of history evinced by those films lingers, even though the movies themselves may no longer be popular. And if that’s the case, my response would be: sure, that’s likely true enough. But I’d probably follow up by suggesting that if you asked most people about Reconstruction, they’d have no idea where to find it on a map. Ignorance, in other words, is a more important reason that people misunderstand Reconstruction — have no idea what it was, in other words — than familiarity with films that are now three-quarters of a century old or more. Add to that, I suppose, popular distrust of government, fostered by The Club for Growth and its allies, and also the fact that Reconstruction gets overshadowed in most lesson plans by the war itself.

All of which is to say: the more books that detail the bad acts of white supremacists, complicating American notions of terrorism, the better. Still, I remain skeptical that the cultural artifacts that shape my understanding of the way the past used to be understood collectively, or Foner’s understanding of the same issue, now have much impact on popular perceptions of history. Put another way: does anybody, excluding PhD candidates in history or related disciplines, still watch Gone with the Wind or Birth of a Nation? And, more important, do those films still have cultural weight?