We Are Witnessing the Birth Pangs of a Third Reconstruction
On election night I felt a great sadness for America — not a Democratic or Republican sadness, but a sadness for the heart and soul of the nation. It is impossible to react to the election of Donald Trump with anything less than moral outrage. Trump is, as David Remnick wrote for The New Yorker, “vulgarity unbounded,” and his election has not only struck fear in the hearts of the vulnerable but also given rise to hundreds of documented cases of harassment and intimidation.
Trump ran his campaign sensing the feeling of dispossession and anxiety among millions of voters — white voters, in the main. And many of those voters — not all, but many — followed Trump because he was willing to trumpet their fury and affirm their sense, deeply rooted in this nation’s history of race and class, that a new world had conspired against their interests. Trump offered no answers to their fears. He merely said, “You are right to be afraid and very afraid. Obama is the bogeyman of coming diversity that will undo the world you grew up knowing, and I alone can save you.”
While we do, indeed, face a dire situation, this is not new. Trumpism is as American as apple pie. There could be no Donald Trump without America’s first black president. Brother Van Jones got it right on election night: we experienced a “whitelash.” And we must be clear: every stride toward freedom in U.S. history has been met with this same backlash.
We faced it during Reconstruction, in the shadow of slavery and amid the wreckage of the Civil War. African Americans joined hands with whites in the North and in the South who were willing to see one another as allies. Within four years after the end of the Civil War, white and black alliances controlled every state house in the South. Together, they elected new leaders. Almost all of the southern legislatures were controlled by either a predominantly black alliance or a strong interracial fusion coalition. They hammered out new constitutions from a deeply moral perspective.
These fusion coalitions 150 years ago also built the first public schools and in state constitutions gave all persons a constitutional right to public education — something that to this day has not been done in the federal constitution. In the state constitution of North Carolina they stated that “beneficent provision for the poor, the unfortunate, and the orphan is one of the first duties of a civilized and a Christian state.” They included labor rights and the right to “enjoyment of the fruit of your own labor” in 1868, long before the Knights of Labor came south with their first southern campaign. They knew then — black and white together — from a moral fusion perspective, that labor without living wages is just a different form of slavery. They expanded access to the ballot and wrote a new fairness into criminal justice.
But in four years, the experiment of the First Reconstruction faced powerful and immoral opposition. And we must understand that opposition then to understand America right now.
Many former Confederates saw black citizenship and interracial alliances — fusion coalitions — as inherently illegitimate. They organized the Ku Klux Klan to terrorize white fusionists whom they viewed as race traitors. They attacked black leaders.
We can’t make sense of what’s happening in front of us because, somehow, we’ve failed to see that this has been happening all along.
Conservatives began to wail against taxes. The cry about cutting taxes was an effort to end the First Reconstruction by keeping the state governments unable to fulfill the promises of the post-slavery economy and to lift up the former slaves. They wanted to keep the fusion coalition from expanding opportunity and enlarging democracy and supporting public education.
Why were they doing all of this — rolling back voting rights, taking away criminal justice reform, and undoing equal protection under law? They said they wanted to “take back America.” They said “we came to redeem America.” Look at that word “redeem” — they used moral messages for immoral activity. And by the turn of the century, all of the gains of the First Reconstruction had been overturned.
This same pattern of progress and backlash repeated itself during America’s Second Reconstruction — what we often remember as “the Civil Rights movement.” But we’ve glossed over this history too often. So we’re shocked by Donald Trump. We can’t make sense of what’s happening in front of us because, somehow, we’ve failed to see that this has been happening all along.
But inside this long, sad tale about America lies a roadmap for today. We must begin to think in terms of a Third Reconstruction. I believe the turmoil we are witnessing around us today is in fact the birth pangs of a Third Reconstruction.
The demographics are changing in the South and in the country. We know that if you just register 30 percent of the unregistered black voters in the South and you get them to vote along with progressive whites and Latinos, the South is no longer solid. We saw that with the breaking through of President Obama in 2008. It wasn’t about President Obama; it was the expanded electorate that broke through in North Carolina and Florida and Virginia. That was the first sign of an idea whose time has come.
When Obama broke through in North Carolina in 2008, we witnessed firsthand the whitelash that America is reeling from right now. Some folks are saying we’ll have to wait and see what a Trump administration decides to do. But we’ve already seen it in North Carolina. The blueprint for what it looks like to “take back America” in the 21st century was laid out in the extremist makeover of North Carolina’s government during the 2013 legislative session. What’s the policy agenda of Make America Great Again? I can tell you because we’ve seen it:
Give tax breaks to corporations and to the wealthy, attack public education, deny people access to health care, attack immigrants, attack the LGBTQ community in the name of “religious liberty,” strip environmental protections, and, finally, make it easier to get a gun than it is to vote.
But just as there’s been a Moral Movement in every era to raise a moral dissent against extremism, we’ve seen in North Carolina what a 21st century Moral Fusion Movement can look like. According to Public Policy Polling’s analysis, “Moral Mondays” laid the groundwork for the only successful resistance to the “Trump-effect” on down ballot races in the 2016 election. As such, PPP Director Tom Jensen argues, this movement offers lessons for resistance to a Trump administration.
What have we learned?
First, we must recognize the need for indigenously led, state-based, state-government focused, deeply moral, deeply constitutional, anti-racist, anti-poverty, pro-justice, pro-labor, and transformative movement building. There’s no shortcut around this. We must build a movement from the bottom up. We must build relationships at the state level because that’s where most of the extremism of the current-day deconstructionists are happening. They see the possibility of a Third Reconstruction, which is why they’re working so hard this time to strangle it in its cradle — and we must know that. We have to recognize that helicopter leadership by so-called national leaders will not sustain a moral movement. What you need are local movements. The nation never changes from Washington, D.C. down. History teaches that it changes from Selma up, from Birmingham up, from Greensboro up.
Secondly, we need to use moral language, like the devotees of the First and Second Reconstructions. Moral language can re-frame and critique public policy regardless of who’s in power. A moral movement claims higher ground than merely a partisan debate, something that’s bigger than left versus right, conservative versus liberal. We have to begin to re-frame the conversation not to talk about left policies and right policies, but let’s talk about violence. And as people who run for office, are you on the side of violence?
Why did we allow extremists to say “welfare” is a bad word when welfare is found in the Constitution? It’s right there: “promoting the general welfare.” Why do we still use language like “left” and “right” when it comes from the 17th Century, the French Revolution, when the Right wanted the Monarchy and the Left didn’t. Why do we allow them to put us in boxes? And why, for God’s sake, do we call people “Right” who we think are so wrong?
Moral language gives you new metaphors. You can say, I’m against this policy not because it’s a conservative policy or a liberal policy, I’m against this policy because it’s constitutionally inconsistent, it’s morally indefensible, and it’s economically insane.
And then we have to challenge the moral hypocrisy of the so-called Religious Right, which we should not even say because they are so wrong. They are engaging in a form of theological heresy. The greatest sin in the Bible is the sin of idolatry. The second greatest sin that has ever existed whenever people worshiped themselves was injustice toward other people. There are more than 2,000 scriptures in the Bible that deal with the issue of injustice toward women, the stranger, the poor, the sick, the hurting, and the unacceptable. You might have three about homosexuality, and not one of them trumps this scripture: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
We can’t succumb to those who bought Christianity. Nor can we yield the moral high ground because we’re angry with them. Deep religious and moral values have been the backbone of every great progressive movement; prophetic imagination must come before we see political implementation. When the social gospel looked at children dying from child labor and people dying without labor rights and people in slums and poverty and not having a minimum wage and they asked, “What would Jesus do?”
There would have been no labor movement without a social gospel underpinning. There would have been no abolition movement without William Lloyd Garrison and other people of deep faith. Without strong voices from the social gospel movement, there may have never been a New Deal. There would have been no Civil Rights Movement without the moral framework underneath the Civil Rights Movement. There would not have been a critique on poverty and unchecked capitalism, labor rights, healthcare, criminal justice reform, climate change, and raising the minimum wage, without a moral premise underneath it. Moral framing allows us to change the language.
Finally, we must insist on connecting economic issues with our racial history. Too many people are too easily blaming the rise of Trump on Democrats forgetting the “white working class.” Yes, Trump appealed to real economic fears among working people. But he lost every income bracket below $48,000 and won every group above it, blowing the dog whistles of race to divide poor and working people. Any resistance to Trump that doesn’t address his divide-and-conquer tactics from Wisconsin to Ohio to North Carolina and Alabama cannot offer a real political alternative.
We need a moral movement to revive the heart of American democracy and build a Third Reconstruction for our time. This work is not easy, and it will not be completed quickly. But we know what is required to move forward together.
I’ve traveled to 22 states this year to train local leadership in moral fusion organizing and conduct Moral Revival services. This network of state-based moral coalitions will host a National Watch Night Service on December 31st, with the event in Washington, D.C., livestreamed to local gatherings across the nation. As formerly enslaved people were invited to enlist in a struggle for freedom on January 1st, 1863, we will invite all people of conscience to enlist in a Moral Revival Poor People’s Campaign throughout 2017 and 2018.
We face some difficult days ahead, but don’t let anybody tell you America hasn’t seen worse. Our foremothers and fathers faced far greater odds with far fewer resources. It’s our time now. Arm in arm, we’re moving forward together, not one step back.
Rev. William J. Barber, II is chief architect of Moral Mondays, founder of Repairers of the Breach, and author of The Third Reconstruction (Beacon Press).