We celebrate our history as a march toward justice. The limited franchise of the early Republic was slowly extended to all white men, then after the Civil War, to blacks, and then to women. Citizen movements — abolition, worker rights, populist, women, environmental, civil rights, gay rights — struggle and win, making America better.
But justice and freedom are not inevitable. The march toward justice is not unopposed. Particularly when it comes to race, America’s progress has always been contested, and too often reversed. And a new reaction is what we witness today.
Many of the Founders — even slaveholders like Washington and Jefferson — were haunted by slavery and hoped that it would slowly die out. But as the South became a plantation economy based on slave labor, the practice spread rather than declined. In the end, it took the Civil War, the bloodiest war in American history, to bring an end to slavery.
After the war, the 14th and 15th Amendments were passed; the former guaranteed equal protection under the laws, and the latter outlawed discrimination in voting on the basis of race. The defeated Confederate states were allowed back into the union, but only with what became known as Reconstruction.
Across the South, newly freed slaves, endowed with the right to vote, forged multiracial Lincoln Republican coalitions. Sixteen African-Americans served in Congress, including two in the U.S. Senate, and more than 600 in state legislatures across the South.
Reconstruction governments established the South’s first state-funded public school system, made taxation more equitable, and outlawed racial discrimination in public transportation. They also sought to entice railroads and other industries to help develop a “new South.”
That political revolution spawned increasingly violent opposition from former slaveholders. Terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan targeted local Republican leaders for beatings or assassination. Lynchings grew in number.
Eventually, federal troops cracked down on the extremists, but Southern resistance continued to thwart progress. In 1877, a corrupt political deal returned federal troops to their barracks, and allowed Jefferson Davis Democrats to take control across the South in return for not disputing the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes to the presidency.
By the turn of the century, the South had once more asserted states’ rights, and installed a new, racially segregated system, locking blacks out of schools and public accommodations, disenfranchising black voters, and limiting African-Americans to low-wage jobs. Slavery was still illegal, but racial apartheid took its place. It was enforced by both legal decision — with the Supreme Court ratifying segregation — and by extralegal violence. The civil rights amendments were shorn of their meaning.
It took another 100 years and the civil rights movement to end legal apartheid in the South. Once more, African-Americans joined in multiracial coalition to win political office. Once more a “new South” sought to develop new industries — CNN, automobiles and more.
But reaction set in immediately. As Kennedy-Johnson Democrats became the champions of civil rights, Nixon-Goldwater Republicans provided the home for the former segregationists. Private charter schools were developed to avoid desegregated public schools, and to sap funding from them.
Now we are at the height of that reaction. The civil rights reconstruction is under assault. The Supreme Court has disemboweled the Voting Rights Act, effectively ending prescreening of laws designed to limit the right to vote. Now efforts to constrict the vote — voter ID, closing the polls on Sundays, limiting voting hours and days, gerrymandering districts — are moving in states controlled by Republicans. Our criminal justice system, deeply biased against people of color, has stripped millions of their voting rights. Segregation is still illegal, but our public schools are still largely separate and unequal. African-Americans suffer about twice the unemployment, greater poverty, greater homelessness and more children going hungry.
We cannot watch another 100 years go by before this new reaction is confronted. We cannot allow the reactionary gang of five on the Supreme Court to once more dishonor our laws by elevating states’ rights and trampling on equal rights. In a country that is more and more diverse, equal protection under the laws, and liberty and justice for all, become ever more essential. It’s time to stop celebrating and to start organizing. This new reaction is serious and intent on turning back the civil rights revolution. We must not let it succeed.