The third Reconstruction Era

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN | 3/7/2016, 11:21 a.m.
Many of us have been thrilled by the video of 106-year-old mentor and school volunteer Mrs. Virginia McLaurin visiting the ...

(George Curry Media) – Many of us have been thrilled by the video of 106-year-old mentor and school volunteer Mrs. Virginia McLaurin visiting the White House during a Black History Month celebration to meet – and dance with – the president and Mrs. Obama. Her joy in being there and fulfilling her dream of meeting the first African American president and first lady was infectious. Born a child of South Carolina sharecroppers in 1909, this was a day she never dreamed would come: “I didn’t think I’d ever live to see a colored president. I am so happy.”

Moments like these give us a chance to appreciate how much change a citizen like McLaurin has seen in her lifetime. When she was born, America was firmly in the grip of Jim Crow, segregation, racial violence and political disenfranchisement that characterized the decades following the initial post-Civil War promise of Reconstruction.

She moved to Washington, D.C., in 1941, in time to see the activism of A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and others urging the federal government to desegregate our armed forces and provide more economic opportunity for African Americans. She saw burgeoning civil rights activities like these surge into a transforming movement across the South, including the 1963 March on Washington, in her new hometown. And she saw the Civil Rights Movement lead to significant changes – enough to allow her to visit president and Mrs. Obama in the White House in 2016.

When we look at arcs of history like this, where are we today?

Many scholars see the Civil Rights Movement as a second Reconstruction Era and a second try at rebuilding our nation into one truly committed to liberty and justice for all. But just as the progress of the first Reconstruction was followed by decades of retrenchment and reversal, many of the formidable threats millions of poor children and families of all races but especially children of color face today are very dangerous steps backwards. Unjust racial profiling and killing of Black boys and men by law enforcement officers enjoined to protect them; mass incarceration of people of color – especially Black males; massive attacks on voting rights, which especially impact the poor, people of color, the elderly, disabled and the young; and re-segregating and substandard schools denying millions of poor Black, Latino and Native American children basic literacy, numeracy and other skills they will need to work in our increasingly competitive globalized economy should be siren calls to wake up and fight back.

Past lessons have led some scholars and observers to believe we may be in a second post-Reconstruction Era, fighting deliberate widespread well-funded regression and backlash against progress made. But Rev. William J. Barber II, the head of North Carolina’s NAACP chapter and a leader in the “Moral Mondays” movement, views this historical moment with optimism but urges vigilance. In his new book with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement, Barber argues that the beginnings of a third Reconstruction are underway – rooted in “fusion politics” that have changed our nation before and can do it again.