From Reconstruction to Black Lives Matter 

(Part 1)

In the last 6 weeks, we have witnessed protest actions that have been massive, sustained, multi-racial, and mainly young people. What began in one city, Minneapolis, scaled up in size and across space at astonishing speed. 

The attitude of the protesters wasn’t one and done. Quite the contrary, marchers came back the next day, and then the next, and then the next. The uprising became a flood that refuses to ebb.

No wonder this moment feels unique. And it may well be. But this isn’t the first time that a powerful anti-racist uprising has shaken the country. Two other moments – First Reconstruction (1865-1877) and Second Reconstruction (1955-1968) – come immediately to mind. And a quick glance at each provides some perspective and gives some clues as to why this moment not only could constitute the Third Reconstruction, but also bring the country to the doorstep of Martin Luther King’s “Beloved Community.”  

First Reconstruction

Not long after the guns fell silent in 1865, an experiment in interracial democracy and equality – the First Reconstruction – began. Its mission was to redress the inequities and legacy of slavery and solve the problems arising from the readmission to the Union of the 11 states that had seceded.

As a first step the Republican-controlled Congress passed three Constitutional amendments. The 13th Amendment (ratified 1865) abolished slavery, even as it, less obviously, laid the ground for mass incarceration. The 14th (1868) provided equal protection under the law and birthright citizenship. And the 15th (1870) extended the right to vote to all adult males in the North and South. In the midst of this flurry of legislation, the first Civil Rights Act was also enacted in 1866.  Together these amendments and bills reshaped the relations between the states and the federal government as well as extended democratic rights to people of African descent in the North and South.

In the meantime, Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau (formally known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands) to assist the formally enslaved transitioning to a new life in a region, ravaged by war and two and a half centuries of slavery. 

At the heart of the Reconstruction process was the purposeful actions of the newly free African Americans along with their white (Republican) allies to create a biracial governments in the South. These newly constituted governments pushed an agenda of radical reforms, including the founding of public schools for Black and white children. While they weren’t without problems, which their critics exaggerated, these problems pale in comparison to what they accomplished and the promise that they held for the future.

Despite Reconstruction’s undeniable progress, including the election of Black representatives to the Congress for the first time, efforts to undermine it were present from the start. By 1873, many white Southerners were calling for the return of white supremacy – Redemption, they called it – and violence targeting Black people was on the rise. Meanwhile, an economic downturn was exacerbating racial tensions. At the federal level, a series of Supreme Court decisions limited the scope of Reconstruction-era laws and federal support for the Reconstruction Amendments.

But the crippling blow to Reconstruction came later, in 1877, when federal troops were withdrawn from the southern states as part of the Hayes-Tilden compromise. Once this happened, the opponents of Reconstruction who had been biding their time, but not their ambition to restore the old order went on a rampage to overthrow this experiment in interracial democracy and restore white supremacy. At the top of this counterrevolution stood the former slave owners and by their side and doing their dirty work was a hardscrabble gang of other white people of lesser station and rank. Fed since childhood on the poison of racism, the promise of a small share of the plunder, and other privileges of whiteness, they became the shock troops of counterrevolution.

Drowned in a sea of blood

Slavery wasn’t restored, but the chance of a democratic and egalitarian future for the South was drowned in a sea of violence and blood. In its place, a coercive and racialized mode of super-exploitation and governance arose. Its economic base was tenant sharecropping, dependent Black (and white) labor, and convict leasing in an economy in which cotton was still king.

Strict segregation, the evisceration of the political rights and representation, and the systematic use of terror defined its political and social structures. It didn’t exactly fit the classical (and too rigid) definition of a fascist state — terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary sections of finance capital — as I learned it in the communist movement. But a dictatorship it was. And fascist-like for sure. Its storm troopers wore white robes and conducted night raids. Black women were raped and Black men killed. Houses were burned and children terrorized. The spectacle of public hangings became a staple of Southern life.

The barons of Wall Street weren’t exactly in the driver’s seat (although financial institutions and manipulators were involved) as the communist schema suggested, but the Jim Crow South was much closer to a fascist-like regime than anything we have seen since then. (Of course, that might change if Trump were to win reelection in November.)

This lurch backward from the dawn of freedom provoked W. E. B. Du Bois to write, “. . . the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”

Lending an essential hand to this “lurch backward,” according to Henry Louis Gates in his masterful study, “Stony the Road: Reconstruction,  White Supremacy, and the rise of Jim Crow,” were respectable men of cloth and pen, minstrel and movie makers (D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation”), and judges and scientists. Each of them white and respected in polite society trafficked in the caricature and dehumanization of Black people in order to normalize and naturalize the new racialized, hierarchical, social arrangements. Everybody was once again in their proper place, especially the formerly enslaved. An upturned world was set right.

And yet, as Steven Hahn has shown in his impressive historical study “A Nation under Our Feet”, this “lurch backward” to dictatorial rule met resistance at every step. So much so that it took more than two decades to fully institutionalize in practice and law this new mode of racial exploitation, segregation, and oppression. Once embedded, however, it proved durable, although it was never able to completely suppress resistance, in both old and new forms, in the decades that followed. Not least the Great Migration to the North and West. Nor were the racists in high and low places able to prevent the flourishing of a distinct African American culture and the building of institutions that gave spiritual, aesthetic, moral, economic, and political uplift and agency to a racially exploited and abused people at a time when the lights of freedom and equality grew faint. 

One can only wonder what the South and the entire country might look like had the federal troops remained in the South, the reconstruction governments been given the resources and space to do their work, and if broad scale and radical land redistribution occurred. 

A missed opportunity

But that wasn’t to be. An opportunity was missed. The arc of freedom bent backwards. And the South quickly mutated into a region of hyper segregation and racist oppression, a profitable sink for corporations searching for low wages and union free labor, and a counterweight against progressive and radical politics on the national level.

And it wasn’t until the close of World War II and the changes it wrought – the rise of national independence movements, the expansion the socialist world, the expectation that full citizenship rights would be granted to African Americans returning from the battlefield or laboring on the home front, and a U.S. ruling class, worried that the atrocity that was Jim Crow, might compromise their ascent to the apex of global power and the leader of the “free world” – that some cracks began to appear in this racist edifice of inhumanity and greed.

But not enough to bring it down. That would have to await, but not for long. What began in Montgomery, Alabama, on a seemingly small scale in 1955, and counted in its leadership a young, prophetic African American minister, mushroomed into a powerful and transformative movement – a Second Reconstruction – that tore down the deeply rooted structures of legal segregation and systematic discrimination in the Old Confederacy, changed the hearts and minds of millions, and powered the passage of landmark civil and voting rights legislation in the Congress. 

Practicing nonviolent mass action, this movement “for the ages” captured the moral conscience of the country and the attention of the political class, while speaking truth to power and looking straight into the face of massive racist violence. Much like Frederick Douglass a century earlier, its leaders, especially Rev. Martin Luther King, combined a liberating vision – derived from scripture, the country’s founding documents, and the lived experience of Black people – with strategic acumen, tactical adroitness, expansive politics, and a genuine patriotism.

 The scale and moral authority of this movement were such that President Lyndon Johnson felt compelled to address the nation on this matter. One would have to go back to Lincoln and ahead to Obama to find such oratory.

“Rarely are we met with a challenge,” said Johnson, “not to our growth or abundance, or our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved nation. The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, and should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation.”

“There is no Negro problem,” he continued. “There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.”

Johnson ended his extraordinary speech by repeating the iconic phrase of Dr. King and the civil rights movement, “We shall overcome.”

This speech was a credit to Johnson’s willingness to change in the face of changing circumstances. But, in the first place, it was an acknowledgement of the transforming power and moral authority of the civil rights movement. Indeed, without King and the courageous army of civil rights activists, the Second Reconstruction – the bringing down of the Walls of Jericho in the South – would have been no more than an idle wish.

Gave impulse

But the legacy of the Civil Rights movement didn’t end here. It also gave an impulse to the anti-racist struggle and Black Power movement across the country and in the urban centers of the North and West that exploded in rebellion against racist oppression, deep poverty, and police repression in the second half of the 1960s.

It triggered as well a “rights revolution,” challenged national priorities, inspired new social movements, and gave space for a rebirth of the radical imagination. Meanwhile, it dimmed the lights on McCarthyism and the stultifying conformity and stasis of the 1950s.

Finally, the civil rights movement resonates today and bequeaths to our common posterity the greatest revolutionary democrat of the 20th century, Martin Luther King. He too “belongs to the ages.”

But these achievements, as enormous as they were, were still only a down payment on the promise of freedom, only the first stage in the struggle for full freedom and equality. But as it turned out, the transition to the next stage of struggle proved difficult in the face of a new conjuncture and resistance. The struggle for equality didn’t go into hibernation. In fact, victories were won in the decades that followed, none more impressive than the election of the country’s first African American President, Barack Obama. But the transformation of the grid of structural racism and the enactment of full blooded anti-racist policies in every sphere of life would have to await another popular and sustained anti-racist uprising, a Third Reconstruction. 

But that discussion is for the next blog post.