As we live through this experiment in extreme polarization during the presidential campaign, I’ve wondered if it can get much worse, if we can sink any lower...but then I’ve wondered that before and sure enough, it did and we did. Historically, political heat has frequently been intense, certainly disrespectful, and sometimes violent. Abraham Lincoln was known for his deft use of humor and was equally adroit with its cutting edge to lampoon political opponents or anyone else who displeased him. In a 1840 run for re-election to the Illinois Assembly, his mocking imitation of opponent Jesse Thomas’ unfortunate looks and mannerisms left Thomas in tearful humiliation, his political career ruined. Lincoln did feel remorseful and apologized publicly, but Thomas’ political aspirations were over.
Today it seems the melting pot is boiling with anger and outrage bubbling to the surface. It reminds me of the 1976 movie “Network” when broadcaster Howard Beale has a breakdown on air and urges his listeners to shout from the windows, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
Rev. William J. Barber II, a Protestant minister and president of the North Carolina NAACP, exhorts people of all faiths and races to take action, not in anger but in resolute determination to stand up for the core values that define the heart of America. He is currently touring major American cities, preaching in revivalist mode. Seeking more information about him online, I stumbled on Revival Minneapolis: Time for a Moral Revolution of Values being streamed live from a church in Minneapolis. Called the “most important progressive political leader in North Carolina in generations,” Barber has brought together a statewide political coalition of 170 organizations of young people, minorities and people of multiple faiths. One result: In February of this year, about 30,000 people marched on the North Carolina State House in Raleigh to demand anti-poverty legislation, voting rights, access to healthcare, LGBT rights, environmental justice, criminal justice reform and reproductive rights. The local newspaper and corporate-owned TV station all but ignored it while a photo of the march on Facebook reached 1.5 million people. Compare that to Lincoln’s era when the entire population of Illinois was under 500,000!
Barber gets the broad view and nails the particulars. In his book The Third Reconstruction, he describes the waves of change in America. The first, known in history as the Radical Reconstruc-tion, followed the Civil War when African Americans, white southern farmers and some northern allies joined forces at state conventions for the first time in American history, controlling every statehouse in the South within four years. Over 600 African Americans served in various Reconstruction Era state legislatures and 16 were elected to Congress. Rapid progressive reform followed: they made public education a right; extended voting rights to all men (U.S. Constitution 15th Amendment); guaranteed equal protection to all under the law (14th Amendment); and enabled African Americans to sit on juries and give evidence in court.
After only four years, the backlash of fear began with powerful opposition. The Ku Klux Klan was formed to attack white sympathizers as well as black people. The opponents of reconstruction fought to cut taxes so the government couldn’t fund the new initiatives; resisted public education as they did not want equal education for blacks; and went after the courts, seating judges who shared their extreme views. While they were not able to rescind the 15th Amendment, they instituted obstacles to voting such as literacy tests, poll taxes and outright intimidation. One quarter of the black legislators were killed, threatened, beaten, or jailed. Blacks were legally disenfranchised in 1908.
The Second Reconstruction began in 1954 with blacks, whites, Latinos, young people, Christians, Jews and Catholics working together to build a new fusion movement. Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP’s lead counsel in the Supreme Court debate over Brown vs. Board of Education, appealed to morality while he argued the law. In his closing argument, he said that the only way to allow segregation was to agree that we must keep the former slaves as close to slavery as possible. The justices voted unanimously to end segregation, including one former Ku Klux Klan member.
In 1955, 14 year-old Emmett Till was lynched in Missouri. In Jet magazine, Rosa Parks saw his picture in the open casket that his mother insisted on, wanting the world to see the ugly truth. In that same year, Rosa refused to give up her seat on the bus, triggering the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She never saw herself as a heroine; she had just had enough, she felt within her rights and wasn’t willing to put up with it anymore. The incredible energy unleashed through Martin Luther King, Bayard Rustin, and so many others brought results: the March on Washington, 1964 Civil Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, the War on Poverty, expansion of Social Security and economic opportunities. Federal funding increased for K-12 and higher education.
In 1959, 46 percent of American elders lived in poverty, which was reduced to 15 percent by 1979; child poverty was cut in half. Overall for the nation the poverty rate fell from 22 percent in 1960 to 12 percent in 1980, then moved up to 15 percent during the current era of rising inequality.
The backlash to progressive action was again violent, fueled by the fear of those who felt their places in society were threatened. Many civil rights leaders were assassinated, including Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and civil rights workers Viola Liuzzo and James Ribb, both killed by the Ku Klux Klan. President John Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy, strong advocates for change, were both gunned down. The mantra of those who resisted that change was: “We must take back America. We must make America great again. We must redeem America.” Sound familiar?
Rev. Barber believes the third reconstruction period has begun with young blacks, whites and Latinos coming together, coupled with the deep concern of progressive people of all ages, faiths and races, united in the desire to maintain progressive reforms, to regain lost ground and to reverse the rising inequality in income and wealth. His voice is a clarion call for action, asking people to focus at the state level, saying that is where they can have the most effect and that Congress “isn’t passing anything.” He calls for a deeply moral and constitutional fusion movement to go after racism and poverty, to promote education, justice and fair wages.
Barber says, “We don’t have a Left or Right problem or a Liberal or Conservative problem. We have a problem of the heart, in a moment right now that is critical for the heart of the nation.” He recommends we conserve love and spread it liberally. He isn’t speaking of sentimentality but of powerful, courageous love that is willing to speak truth to power, take risks, and make sacrifices in order to stand up for each other, the principles our country was founded on and the values we say we believe in.
He praises Parker J. Palmer’s book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, in which Palmer explores five “habits of the heart” to restore the foundations of democracy:
1) An understanding that we are all in this together.
2) An appreciation of the value of “otherness.”
3) An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.
4) A sense of personal voice and agency.
5) A capacity to create community.
He offers us the challenge: Can we be just? Do we have the courage to act, to do what we know is right, to believe that we can lift each other up?