Henry Louis Gates, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you back on our show. Part of the reason why you wanted to do this book is that Reconstruction and Redemption, the period that rolled back the gains of Reconstruction, seem particularly relevant to you now. Why?
HENRY LOUIS GATES: Reconstruction was a period of 12 years of maximum black freedom followed by an "all-right" rollback. What's that sound like? What's that remind you of right now?
GATES: Dyllan McGee and I - my partner - had a list of three black history series that we wanted to do for PBS - one was on the black church, one was on the Great Migration, and one was on Reconstruction and Redemption, the official name of the rollback to reconstruction. And we had decided to start with the Great Migration, and then Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.
And I realized that what we were seeing, what we were witnessing, was Reconstruction redux - the period of black optimism and black hope, when we thought that - you know, even for a time, scholars fantasized that we were at the end of race and racism. You remember that, at the beginning of Barack Obama's presidency? All of that was followed by an "alt-right" rollback and the rise of white supremacy, and that's exactly what happened in the period immediately following the Civil War, between 1865 and 1877, when black people experienced more freedom and more rights than at any other time in American history.
Eighty percent of all the eligible black men in the former Confederate states registered to vote, and in 1868, 500,000 cast their votes overwhelmingly for Ulysses S. Grant. And the irony is Grant only won the popular election by just over 300,000 votes. So historians said, quite accurately, that black men actually elected a white man president of the United States - Ulysses S. Grant. This is three years after the end of slavery. And in South Carolina, which was a majority black state, they actually had a majority of black members of the South Carolina House of Representatives.
GROSS: And the South wouldn't stand for it (laughter).
GATES: No, the South wouldn't stand for it. In fact...
GROSS: That's where there was a rollback, yeah.