Reconstructing America Again
November 17, 2016
By Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II
This article appeared originally in Red Letter Christians.
Early Wednesday morning, after running a controversial campaign that was even endorsed by the KKK, Donald J. Trump thanked his supporters for victory and promised to be a president for all Americans. A shock to almost every pollster and political pundit, his victory has been heralded as an unprecedented political upheaval. But the reactionary wave that swept across America this past Tuesday is not an anomaly in our history. It is, instead, an all too familiar pattern in the long struggle for American reconstruction.
Anyone who watched the election returns come in on television Tuesday night will remember the red band that stretched from my home state of North Carolina south and west across the nation. The former Confederate states, this solid South proved to be a reliable base for Trump. But he joins a long line of white men who have leveraged this base to get to the White House.
Like so many things in America’s racial history, the solid South was born of compromise. Confederate states were readmitted to the Union based on their affirmation of the Reconstruction amendments, which abolished slavery, gave voting rights to African-Americans and guaranteed equal protection under the law. But federal troops were required to guarantee these rights for African-American citizens. Appealing to both racial fear and resentment against occupation, Southern politicians developed the “Mississippi Plan” to take back their country by any means necessary. Through voter suppression, intimidation and violence, they swept the South in 1876.
But they didn’t quite win the White House. Hence the compromise of 1877. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes could be president if his government would promise to remove federal troops from the South. It did not take long for a solid South to pass state laws abridging African-American’s rights to full citizenship.
Yes, the Union won the Civil War. But the compromise of 1877 taught African-Americans that the fight for reconstruction was not done. In the long story of our struggle for freedom, every advance toward a more perfect union has been met with a backlash of resistance.
The same kind of backlash followed the legislative victories of the civil rights movement—what many historians call a “Second Reconstruction.” The Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act and Fair Housing Act were the fruit of decades of struggle, waged by people who knew they might never see victory in their own lifetimes. But the backlash against them wasn’t limited to Southern segregationists. Richard Nixon’s “law and order” campaign of 1968 was an intentional effort to win the solid South by appealing to racial hate and fear without using racist language. His advisor, Kevin Phillips, called it the “Southern Strategy.”
Donald Trump’s unanticipated victory could not have been possible without the election of Barack Obama as America’s first African-American president. Of course, Trump entered national politics by waging a crusade against the possibility of Obama’s citizenship. It proved to be the perfect way to touch the psychic wound of so many Americans who have not faced our legacy of racism. Anyone familiar with the Mississippi Plan of 1876 or the Southern Strategy of 1968 can only be surprised by the ease with which Trump adapted them for the twenty-first century.
Trump’s attacks on immigrants, Muslims, and the LGBTQ community were political ploys based on the fundamental racial fear at the heart of the American experience. When he told white Americans that he was their last chance to make America great again, he was touching a wound passed down since the lost cause religion of the nineteenth century.
America must not waste time asking ourselves how this could have happened. It happened because it is a habit written deep in our public memory. If we are willing to see ourselves as we are and have been, we will also see our potential for prophetic resistance, even in times like these.
When the prophet Samuel cries out to God in the Old Testament, asking why the people have elected to follow a strong man rather than the Lord of justice, God replies: “It is not you they have rejected; they are rejecting me.” Those who have struggled against injustice in this country must not take the results of this election personally. We cannot afford to blame our neighbors or demonize Mr. Trump. We are together inheritors of a legacy that has rejected justice.
But that is not all we are. We are also the heirs of great dissenters who’ve stood for right even when they were a minority of one. When the Jim Crow law of the solid South were upheld by the US Supreme Court in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, only one justice—John Harlan of Kentucky—dissented. But his dissenting opinion laid the legal groundwork upon which Thurgood Marshall built his case over half a century later in Brown v. Board of Education.
When Woodrow Wilson showed Birth of a Nation at the White House a century ago, W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells and the inter-racial NAACP challenged the most powerful man in America to face his racism. When three civil rights workers were brutally murdered in the first days of Freedom Summer, black and white students chose to press on together, challenging Mississippi’s brutal racism. Their mentor, Fannie Lou Hamer taught them by example that we who struggle for freedom do not turn back. When she was nearly beaten to death in a Winona County jail, she came back singing louder and fighting harder than she had before.
After Tuesday’s rejection of justice, which is as American as apple pie, we must apply a moral defibrillator to our own hearts and be even more determined to stand for love, just, and mercy. Less than a majority of Americans elected a mortal, not a god, to be our next President. They did not un-elect the foundational principles of our Constitution, not have they overwhelmed the moral convictions of our faith.
Across lines of division, we can continue to build the moral coalition that is already a majority in this country. Yes, we have some difficult days ahead. But our foreparents were up against more with less. And they taught us that a dying mule always kicks the hardest. Our work continues: we must work together for a Third Reconstruction in America.
About the Author
The Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II is president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, pastor at Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and founder of Repairers of the Breach. He is the author of Forward Together: A Moral Message for the Nation and The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement Is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear. Follow him on Twitter at @RevDrBarber.