Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Listen: this has happened before, part two.

History doesn't always advance smoothly towards progress.  Sometimes it's rough.  That doesn't mean you quit.  It means the opposite: never stop resisting.

Again, we turn to history, looking at another time when the nation made dramatic advances -- such as recent advances in healthcare or with the environment -- only to face an angry reaction.  We turn to Reconstruction and "Redemption."

Success in the Civil War brought about a difficult problem: how to deal with the South?  They'd fought for slavery and states' rights and a vision of a class-based agrarian society, and while they'd lost the martial conflict, those cultural differences remained.  It was a moral dilemma: do you restrict the rights of a people to govern themselves through democracy, or do you stand aside and permit a tyrannous majority to oppress an entire race?  Neither option was consistent with the American ideal of self-determination.

Reconstruction was the clumsy, confused, inconsistent, and contentious solution.  President Lincoln and his successors, Johnson and Grant, all tried to find a middle path.  The South had become so addicted to institutionalized oppression that it had lurched into a hopeless war, and so the only apparent remedy was rehabilitation.  The society of the South was sick, and so the North tried to cure it.

It didn't work.  The North set up the Freedman's Bureau to help monitor civil rights and offer assistance to freed slaves; they kept the army deployed throughout much of the region to enforce peace; they built infrastructure and schools; they came down in droves as "carpetbaggers" to spread their ideals; and they denied leading Confederates the vote or the right to run for office.  It was not a smooth process: Johnson in particular clashed repeatedly with Congress, and the KKK and other revanchist elements continually fought to regain control and oppress their enemies.

In the end, a weary country, stressed by division between and within North and South, simply washed their hands of it.

America had gone to war to fight for the good, but it had been hard and unsatisfying.  Progress had been slow and difficult.  Heroes had fallen short in managing to achieve effective change, breaking promises like the proverbial "forty acres and a mule."  And the South was so angry all the time... the White League and the Red Shirts attacked African-Americans who spoke out, terrorized carpet-baggers, and there was frequent talk of armed insurrection (even before the "stolen" election of 1877).

While many kept fighting in government and elsewhere, resurgent Confederate sympathizers led "Redemption" -- the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of the Jim Crow era in the South.  For the next century, African-Americans were denied the vote, consistently abused, and terrorized.  And even after that era ended, three centuries of horror and injustice have remained with us, embedded in culture and institutions.  The work of scholars like Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) and writers like Ta-nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me) illustrates how African-Americans must still regularly struggle against the problems bequeathed to them by America's original sin.

The war against slavery was half-won, and even today we struggle out of the purgatory left by Reconstruction and Redemption.

So then, what can we learn to apply to today's struggles?

This bit of history is grim and reminds us that we continually work towards a more perfect union, first of all.  The Know-Nothings were a flash-in-the-pan, but the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow remains with us still.  But as we continue to do that work, we can also look to prevent another failure.  We can learn from our mistakes, just as we learn from successes.  And the lessons of Reconstruction and Redemption might be manifold, but two will serve us today:

First of all, we should remember that this is important.  Your marching, boycotting, and calling will actually matter.  And should we fall short, that will actually matter, too.  It will all be okay because we work at it.

Secondly, we must resist.  We must resist whenever we can.  Whenever we have the energy or the heart or the words.  Failures will happen.  But they can't stop us.  There's no town hall coming near you?  Call your representative and demand one.  You can't get through?  Call three times a day until you get to deliver your message.  They're ignoring you?  Schedule a town hall without them in a local public building, put up fliers to invite everyone, and inform the press.

Resist and persist.

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