The Atlantic

When the South Was the Most Progressive Region in America

Groundbreaking elections in the late 1860s gave birth to real, if short-lived, interracial democracy—the likes of which America had never seen.
Source: Library of Congress / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

One hundred and fifty years ago, on January 14, 1868, an extraordinary convention opened in Charleston, South Carolina, the cradle of the Confederacy.

That afternoon, a biracial group of men—most of whom were black and some of whom had recently been enslaved—gathered at the elegant Charleston Club House, which had only recently been the refuge of city elite. They came to redraft South Carolina’s uniquely undemocratic constitution. One of nearly a dozen interracial meetings held in the former Confederacy between late 1867 and 1869, the South Carolina Constitutional Convention was part of a larger Reconstruction-era campaign to rebuild the nation in a more just fashion.

Today, the South is primarily associated with hidebound conservatism. But for a few brief years after the Civil War, this campaign transformed the region into the most progressive place in America—providing a blueprint for a liberal resurgence that may already be under way in the 21st century South.

The antebellum South had long been a conservative bastion, characterized by its dogged commitment to states’ rights,

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