Black people in the South were liberated during the Reconstruction era following the Civil War. It was followed by a white backlash and the Jim Crow era, in which most of their newly won rights were taken away.
Then came the civil rights era of the 1960s and 1970s, which the Rev. William J. Barber, leader of the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, calls a second Reconstruction. Another white backlash attacked the gains from that era.
Rev. Mr. Barber says it is time for a third Reconstruction. Like the first two, he said, it requires fusion politics—blacks and whites working together for the common good. The backlash succeeds only when they are divided.
To see what he means, take a look at the Constitution of North Carolina, originally drafted in 1868 and retaining much of its original wording. It is a very progressive document, even by today’s standards.
It states that not all persons created equal and have the right not only to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but to “the enjoyment of the fruits of their own labor.”
It guarantees free public education as a right. It states that beneficent provision for the poor, the unfortunate and the orphan is among the first duties of a civilized and a Christian state. It guarantees all the rights in the U.S. Constitution and eliminates property qualifications for voting.
All these provisions are the result of Reconstruction. North Carolina’s present Constitution was drafted at a constitutional convention immediately following the Civil War. The 133 delegates included 15 newly enfranchised African-Americans and 18 Northern white men (so called carpetbaggers).
It was ratified by a popular vote in which 55 percent voted “yes”. As a result, more African-Americans were elected to public office in North Carolina in the following period than at any time since.
The backlash began almost immediately. A Conservative government, composed of Democrats and former Whigs, won election to state government. As in other Southern states, after white Democrats regained power, they worked to re-establish white supremacy politically and socially.
Paramilitary groups such as the Red Shirts beginning in 1875 worked openly to disrupt black political meetings, intimidate leaders and directly challenge voters in campaigns and elections, especially in the Piedmont area. They sometimes physically attacked black voters and community leaders.
Despite this, and despite the fact that white Democrats retained state power in the 1880s, there were many black-majority districts in which black office-holders in did much business. The number of black office-holders was actually at a peak during this period.
In 1894, an interracial coalition of Republicans and Populists won the governorship and a majority in the state legislature. The Red Shirts began a campaign of intimidation of black voters and appeal to white prejudice. In 1898, in an election characterized by violence, fraud and intimidation of black voters by Red Shirts, white Democrats regained control of the state legislature.
Black people still held public office, owned many businesses and enjoyed voting rights in the seaport of Wilmington, then the state’s largest city, although the mayor and a majority of the city council were white.
Two days after the state election, in what has become known as the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, an organized white mob destroyed the black newspaper and the city’s thriving black business district, killed up to 90 black people and ran the mayor and elected aldermen out of town. They then installed their slate of officers.
The new state government enacted Jim Crow laws, segregating whites and blacks in public transportation and other facilities and poll taxes, literacy tests, lengthier residence requirements and other laws to restrict black voting.
African-Americans were effectively excluded from public office and also from jury service until the civil rights era of the 1960s, which Rev. Barber calls the Second Reconstruction. He now leads an interracial movement he calls the Third Reconstruction.
The successes of the movement to abolish slavery and what Rev. Barber calls the Reconstructions were brought about by white and black people working together.
The attacks on the Reconstructions, he said, were followed by attacks on public education and labor rights, and the same thing is going on now.
I think he is right. African-Americans can’t achieve their civil rights without the support of progressive white people. Progressive white people can’t achieve their goals without the support of African-Americans.
The reason for this is that the goals are not separate. Equal rights for black people entail equal rights for all. There can’t be full employment for African-Americans unless there is full employment for all. Black people can’t be protected from police abuse until all Americans are. You can’t have good schools for poor black people unless every American has access to good schools. Anything else is tokenism.
The first two Reconstructions were limited to the South, and supporters called on the federal government for help. When supporters outside the South lost interest, the Reconstruction movements were deconstructed. I think that if a new fusion movement is to succeed, it has to be a national movement, not a movement limited to one section of the country.
The top video is a 2013 interview with Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II; the bottom video is a report by Democracy Now in 2012.
Moral Mondays: the new fusion politics by the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II for UU World magazine. [Added 10/15/2016]
The Third Reconstruction: Moral Fusion Politics and Working for Justice by the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II for Friends Journal.
A Third Reconstruction? Rev. William Barber Lifts the Trumpet, an interview for Religion Dispatches.
The Third Reconstruction for White Folks by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove for Red Letter Christians.