The Legacies of Reconstruction


So many of the issues at the heart of the Reconstruction era are also central to the entire sweep of American history, and many are still being debated today. Centered on The Legacies of Reconstruction, Part Six of Facing History's video series about the Reconstruction, and enhanced with activities and readings, this lesson will help to illuminate the echoes of Reconstruction throughout history. By watching the video and reading and analyzing primary source documents, students will reflect on the idea of democracy as a continuous process rather than a fixed achievement. They will also consider how they can best participate in the ongoing work of strengthening our democracy, and what responsibilities and opportunities they have for creating a better society.

This lesson is part of Facing History's work on the Reconstruction era, and part of a series of video-based web lessons. Use this lesson at the end of a unit about Reconstruction to engage students in a conversation about America’s ongoing struggle for a stronger democracy. In addition to the suggestions below, see Lesson 16 in The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy for additional resources and background information about the legacies of Reconstruction.



  1. Reflect and Discuss

    Before examining the legacies of the Reconstruction era, it is important to introduce students to the idea of democracy as an ongoing process. Ask students to reflect in their journals on the following quotation from federal judge William H. Hastie:

    Democracy is becoming rather than being. It can easily be lost, but never is fully won. Its essence is eternal struggle.

    Students might respond to the following question as they write:

    • What do you think Hastie means when he says that democracy’s essence is eternal struggle?

    After they have spent a few minutes recording their thoughts, use the Think, Pair, Share teaching strategy to help students share their thoughts with each other.

  2. Watch

    Show the video The Legacies of Reconstruction. Before showing the video, share the following questions with students to guide their note taking:

    • According to the historians in this video, what is the relationship between the history of the Reconstruction era and the contemporary United States?
    • What were some of the key successes of Reconstruction?  What were some of the important limitations to the progress made during this era?
    • According to historian Eric Foner, what did W.E.B. Du Bois mean when he described Reconstruction as a “splendid failure”?
    • What was the relationship between the Reconstruction era and the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century?
    • Why do historians refer to Reconstruction as an “unfinished revolution”?
    • According to the historians in this video, how might this history influence the choices we make and the actions we take today?


  3. Read

    Build on the discussion of the video by analyzing the speech We Need to Talk About an Injustice by Bryan Stevenson (Handout 16.2 in The Reconstruction Era). 

    Race in US History

    We Need to Talk About an Injustice

    Read an excerpt from lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s inspiring TED Talk about the need to talk and teach about history to overcome injustice.

    After your class reads this speech together, ask students to reflect in their journals about how Stevenson would respond to the following question posed by George Lipsitz in the video:

    How are you going to write the new chapter [of this history], not in your notebooks, but in society as men and women with responsibility and opportunity?

  4. Reflect and Discuss

    Prompt students to spend a few more minutes reflecting in their journals about how they would respond to George Lipsitz’s question.

    What responsibilities do you have for helping create a better society?  What opportunities?

    The Learn to Listen, Listen to Learn teaching strategy provides a structure for students to listen deeply and provide thoughtful responses to each other’s thinking in response to these journal prompts.

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Looking for more lessons and primary source documents to teach the Reconstruction era? Get our complete unit on this important history, available in print, ebook, and free PDF.

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