IN THE YEARS immediately following the Civil War it looked like the enfranchisement of former slaves and their descendants might actually happen. The 13th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution were ratified in 1868 and 1869 extending the full rights of citizenship — including the right to vote — to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” This included former slaves; but not, it should be noted, women.
Passing these amendments was in part a response to the “Black Codes” enacted by White southern legislatures that, for all intents and purposes, sought to continue slavery by other means immediately after the Civil War.
Initially the 13th and 14th Amendments had good effect. The State of Mississippi sent the first two African-Americans to the United States Senate — Blanche K. Bruce and Hiram Revels. During Reconstruction, 226 Black Mississippians held public offices in that state. While other former Confederate States did not come close to those levels, there were still African-Americans who moved into positions of political power in them.
The reaction of many southern Whites was severe. Such gains could not be tolerated. At first, northern troops were dispatched to oversee the enforcement of the enfranchisement of Blacks. But, beginning with the latter part of the Andrew Johnson administration and culminating with President Rutherford B. Hayes — elected in 1876 — the federal government, for all intents and purposes, withdrew its support for enforcing the 13th and 14th Amendments. This left the southern states to enact their own laws when it came to the former slaves and their descendants and enact them they did.
The result was nearly another century of racial apartheid and Jim Crow laws in the south. And if these laws were not enough, there were the terror tactics of the Ku Klux Klan and widespread lynching. One of the major demographic outcomes of all this was “The Great Migration” of southern Blacks to northern cities in the early to mid twentieth century. This migration is well chronicled in Isabel Wilkerson’s outstanding book “The Warmth of Other Suns”.
It was the novelist William Faulkner, himself a Mississippian, who famously observed, “The past is not dead. Actually, it is not even the past.”
I think on Faulkner’s words while looking at today’s social-political-racial-cultural, etc. climate. Indeed, the past is not past. It is right here with us right now.
Consider the climate to which I just referred in light of the past 50+ years. We saw the civil rights movement break the back of many of the crude Jim Crow laws in the South. Voting rights were expanded for racial minorities. An African-American was twice elected President of the United States. We’ve seen the empowerment of women in ways not previously known in our country’s history. We’ve seen the legalization of same-sex marriage and LBGTQ persons finding their voices. A member of the current president’s cabinet is an openly gay man with a husband and two kids.
What we have also seen is a reaction to these gains that is analogous to those that White southerners had to the initial gains of Reconstruction. The parties to this reaction found a champion in Donald Trump. “Make America Great Again” is really code language for “make America the way it was before all the stuff of the past 50 years happened.”
Here’s an historical irony. It was the newly formed Republican Party—the one that made Lincoln President--that sought to enforce the short-lived gains of the Reconstruction Era.
It was the Democrat Party that reversed those gains and kept a form of racial apartheid in place for nearly a century in the south. Now the roles are reversed. The Republican Party, with a few exceptions, has become prisoner to the MAGA mentality; with the Democrats — by and large — seeking to preserve and build on the past half-century of progress.
Thomas B. Edsall, a writer for The New York Times, observes: “The activist, anti-democratic wing of the Republican Party, committed to avoiding at any cost a political system dominated by an Election Day majority of racial and ethnic minorities, women, and social and cultural liberals, has adopted an aggressive strategy to preserve the political power of White people, especially heteronormative White Christians.”
In a very real sense, we are in the midst of another civil war. The social and political commentator, Charles Blow, notes: “The civil war I see is not the kind that would leave hundreds of thousands of young men dead in combat…but rather this new war will be fought in courts, statehouses, and ballot boxes…”
To Blow’s words I would add that the stakes in this civil war are on a par with those of the last one. Will we continue to expand the workings of democratic rule, or will we revert to a largely White-dominated authoritarianism?
I’m old enough to recall an old civil rights song that came out of the labor movement: “Which side are you on…which side are you on?” It’s time to sing it again.