The GOP's Assault on Democracy Demands a Third Reconstruction
Voter suppression threatens the American experiment as we know it. History tells us that hope rests on our ability to mobilize the masses.
Rev. Liz Theoharis
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.com.
West Virginia, a state first established in defiance of slavery, has recently become ground zero in the fight for voting rights. In an early June op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin vowed to maintain the Senate filibuster, while opposing the For the People Act, a bill to expand voting rights. Last week, after mounting pressure and a leaked Zoom recording with billionaire donors, he showed potential willingness to move on the filibuster and proposed a “compromise” on voting rights. Nonetheless, his claim that the filibuster had been critical to protecting the “rights of Democrats in the past” and his pushback on important voting-rights protections requires scrutiny.
After all, the modern use of the filibuster first emerged in the 1920s and 1930s as a response to civil rights and anti-lynching legislation. In 1949, senator and southern Democrat Richard Russell, then a chief defender of the filibuster, unabashedly explained that “nobody mentions any other legislation in connection with it.”
Manchin’s apathy toward democracy actively harms millions of West Virginians in a state where 40% of the population is poor or low-income and voter turn-out rates remain dismally low. Indeed, that filibuster potentially stands directly in the way of billions of dollars in infrastructure and job-development funding that would buoy the Mountaineer State, as well as many other states across the country. At the same time, the protection and expansion of voting rights would benefit poor and low-income West Virginians significantly.
The debate on protecting voting rights and on the filibuster in Congress is only part of an assault on democracy underway nationally. Halfway through 2021, the very Republican extremists who continue to cry wolf about a “stolen” presidential election have introduced close to 400 voter suppression bills in 48 states (including West Virginia), 20 of which have already been signed into law. As journalist Ari Berman recently tweeted all too accurately, this wave of reactionary legislation is the “greatest assault on voting rights since the end of Reconstruction in the late 1870s.”
When history circles back on itself like this, it’s worth paying attention, especially since the years following the Civil War represented the most significant wave of democracy this country had ever seen. For almost a decade during that First Reconstruction, formerly enslaved men and women forged fragile but powerful political coalitions with poor whites across the South, leading state governments to advance the rights of dispossessed millions, while securing key federal legislation and constitutional amendments that would forever change the country.
The racist and violent backlash to Reconstruction was more than a reaction to the enfranchisement of former slaves and the empowerment of propertyless whites. It was a response to the threat a multiracial democracy from below posed to the still all-too-powerful remnants of the southern Slavocracy and the barons of Wall Street some thousand miles to the north. Today, the stirrings of a similarly transformative era are palpable and the growing antidemocratic counterattack suggests that the modern equivalent of those Slavocrats and the billionaire barons of this moment feel it, too.
As inequality and poverty continue to deepen, poll after poll shows that the majority of Americans favors commonsense policies like universal healthcare, wage increases, affordable housing, and voting rights. And from the multiracial Black Lives Matter uprisings last summer, which pulled in tens of millions of Americans, to the historic electorate that voted in the Biden-Harris administration, it may soon be increasingly clear that this majority is willing to act to make its needs and demands the order of the day.
In the wake of that First Reconstruction and what might be called the Second Reconstruction of the Civil Rights era from the 1940s to 1970s, we may now be in the early days of a Third Reconstruction. Still, no one should ignore another reality as well: those who would stop such a moment still wield enormous power and will continue to use every imaginable tool of division and subterfuge, from suppressing the vote and maintaining the filibuster to limiting wages and supporting highly militarized police forces.
The first two Reconstructions have much to teach us about the possibilities and dangers that abound today.
A Tale of Two Reconstructions
The First Reconstruction emerged in the bloody wake of the Civil War and 250 years of slavery. For roughly eight years, 1865-1877, formerly enslaved people were joined by poor white southern farmers who saw that they shared certain political aspirations and economic interests. Within just a few years, such cross-racial alliances controlled state houses in the South, passing some of the most progressive education, civil rights, and labor laws in this country’s history.
In several states, new constitutions granted the right to public education (to this day, still not federally enshrined). Such fusion coalitions, often led by the formerly enslaved, knew that their freedom depended on a vibrant democracy, so they expanded access to the ballot. At the federal level, these new Southern governments in conjunction with their Northern counterparts, helped advance the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, later known as the Reconstruction amendments.
For too brief a time, there was a historic redistribution of political and economic power that offered a glimpse of what true democracy could look like on American soil. But from the start, such a program faced enormous opposition. Not surprisingly, many former Confederates saw Black citizenship, as well as any kind of interracial working-class alliance, as inherently illegitimate. As a result, old slave-holding politicians fought the use of taxes to support public education, especially for Black children, while working ceaselessly to suppress the Black vote.
In the process, violence and terror quickly came into use. It was within the crucible of Reconstruction that the Ku Klux Klan first took shape, with the goal of terrorizing Black and white leaders alike. White-led mob violence and outright race massacres in both the North and South shook this budding interracial democracy to the core and, after the federal government abandoned the effort, white extremists across the South wrested back power. In place of Reconstruction, they formulated a Jim Crow system that would again codify a strict racial hierarchy and stand until the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were passed deep into the next century.
That Second Reconstruction began quietly in the 1940s, gaining steam and strength in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, it’s better known than the first, though its currents are more complex than the conventional narrative suggests. For much of the first half of the twentieth century, community leaders and political organizers, Black and white, in the North and the South, continued to fight for the civil and economic rights that had briefly flourished after the Civil War. Through the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II, Black leaders in particular focused on establishing an expansive vision of human rights amid the squalor of deeply entrenched inequality.
At the same time, using everything from race-baiting to anti-communism, the federal government worked diligently to suppress the very idea that political and civil rights might in any way be linked with economic rights (as physical and sexual violence continued to be directed at Blacks). In 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education the Supreme Court declared that segregation in education was unconstitutional, a ruling that helped fuel grassroots efforts to challenge its legitimacy in all public and private institutions. Following that ruling, the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 would prove a catalyst for the continued growth of Black freedom struggles. Soon enough, a massive reconstruction movement arose across the country demanding justice and equality.
That Second Reconstruction ushered in the end of legal segregation and Jim Crow. In its place, major democratic reforms were implemented; voting rights expanded; and, in some Southern states, Black politicians were elected to office for the first time in a century. As with the First Reconstruction, the impact of such breakthroughs were felt not just in the South nor in relation to a narrow set of issues, but by poor and dispossessed people nationwide. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson launched his War on Poverty, creating significant new federal programs of social uplift. Sadly enough, however, by the late 1960s, as ever more government funding and attention was squandered on an increasingly disastrous war in Vietnam, government action still failed to meet the needs of millions of Americans and some of the new anti-poverty programs, starved for funds, began to falter.
Recognizing that this reconstruction moment might be lost, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others called for the launch of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. Combining the energies of the Black freedom, antiwar, welfare rights, and farm worker movements, the Poor People’s Campaign made plans to camp out on the Washington Mall until its demands for social justice were met. That encampment, called Resurrection City, was constructed in the late spring of 1968, just months after King’s assassination. Only six weeks later, it would be razed by the police, a sign of the times amid a growing wave of racist and anti-poor actions that had already begun to sweep the nation.
This counterattack on the Second Reconstruction to come would be encoded in politics as the Southern Strategy – a conscious effort by extremist elites in the Republican Party to win back power across the South by rebuilding a regressive form of cross-class white solidarity. Having grasped American history, including the rise and fall of the First Reconstruction era, they knew that controlling the South was key to controlling the country. Using a new vocabulary of racist dog-whistles, they set out to undermine the gains of the previous decade, while rolling back the rights of the poor and people of color. In many ways, half a century later, the United States is still living through the fallout from that moment.
The Stirrings of a Third Reconstruction
In 2013, 17 people were arrested outside the General Assembly building in Raleigh, North Carolina. They were protesting the rise to power of extremists in all three branches of the state’s government. The result, in the previous decades, had been a full-spectrum assault on democracy and the rights of everyday North Carolinians, especially the poor and people of color. This had included attacks on public-school funding and public healthcare, as well as immigrant and LGBTQ rights. To tie it all together, the state politicians of that moment had used thinly veiled racist claims of voter fraud (sound familiar?) to pass the worst voter-suppression laws in a generation.
What began as a small action, however, quickly grew into the largest state-government-focused civil-disobedience campaign in American history. The architect of that campaign and the animating visionary for the Third Reconstruction was Reverend William J. Barber II. He and other leaders of what became known as the Forward Together Moral Movement had studied the history of the two Reconstructions in North Carolina and recognized the historic possibilities in their growing movement. Thanks to sustained organizing, they broke through the silos of single-issue politics and so flipped the governor’s house and, in the longer run, shifted the balance of power in the state supreme court. In the process, they overturned a monster voter-suppression law that, according to a federal court, targeted African-Americans “with almost surgical precision.”
This movement, which I first connected with in 2013, is a shining example of what might be called modern reconstruction politics. The trauma of the 2007-2008 recession and the brief rise of the Occupy movement helped transform a generation who found themselves with worse economic prospects than their parents. Many of them and the generation that followed have joined people from every walk of life to sustain movements ranging from Black Lives Matter and the Poor People’s Campaign (of which I’m the co-chair) to Indigenous people’s struggles and a rising wave of climate-justice activism on an ever more endangered planet.
These intersecting movements are, notably enough, generally multiracial in character and often led by poor people. Better yet, as the polls tell us, their calls for sweeping reforms have been backed by popular opinion — and even have growing support in Congress. In late May, for instance, Democratic congressional representatives Barbara Lee and Pramila Jayapal (backed by other representatives) sponsored a congressional resolution aptly entitled “Third Reconstruction: Fully Addressing Poverty and Low Wages From the Bottom Up.” It called on the nation to raise the minimum wage, enact comprehensive and just immigration reform, and expand voting rights.
The First and Second Reconstructions both emerged during moments of significant political turmoil and socioeconomic change, similar to what we’re living through today. Hourly wages for most workers have essentially stagnated since the 1970s, while income and wealth inequality have skyrocketed. Meanwhile, technological innovation has made increasing numbers of people superfluous to the economy, while producing a historic shift in downward mobility for middle-income earners. In the richest country in world history, poverty, joblessness, and homelessness have become permanent fixtures of American life, with at least 140 million people living in poverty, often just a $400 emergency away from utter ruin.
They represent a sleeping giant that, amid much upheaval, may be waking up to the injustice of voter suppression, the denial of healthcare, the suppression of wages, the state-sanctioned murder of people of color and the poor, the poisoning of America’s waters and air, and so much more.
When I think about the possibilities of this social awakening, I’m reminded of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., just months before he launched the Poor People’s Campaign and was then murdered: “There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.”
Exactly such a force is possible today. Onwards to a Third Reconstruction!
Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice and Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.