The Second Time Around: Will History Repeat Itself and Rob Blacks of the Gains of the 1960s?

By Bennett, Lerone, Jr. | Ebony, September 1995 | Go to article overview

The Second Time Around: Will History Repeat Itself and Rob Blacks of the Gains of the 1960s?


Bennett, Lerone, Jr., Ebony


OVER.

It was, at long last, over and done with.

How could anyone doubt it? How could anyone fail to see that the race problem in the United States had been solved forever?

One man who had no doubt said, "All distinctions founded upon race or color have been forever abolished in the United States."

Another who saw things this said the category of race had been abolished by law and that "there [were] no more colored people in this country."

One of the architects of the victory, the inimitable Frederick Douglass, said, "I seem to myself to be living in a new world. The sun does not shine as it used to ... not only the slave emancipated but a personal liberty bill, a civil rights bill ... given the right to vote, eligible not only to Congress, but the Presidential chair-and all for a class stigmatized but a little while ago as worthless goods and chattels."

Even the skeptical Wendell Phillips was overwhelmed. "We have not only abolished slavery, but we have abolished the Negro. We have actually washed color out of the Constitution."

Thus spoke the dreamers and prophets - and victims - in the first Reconstruction of the 1860s and 1870s.

And it is worth emphasizing here, at the very beginning, that these flights into fantasy were based on the same "hard" facts that gripped the imagination of Blacks in the second Reconstruction of the 1960s and 1970s. There was, for example, a Black man in the U.S. Senate in the 1870s, and there was a Black governor in Louisiana. In the 1860s and 1870s -as in the 1960s and 1970s-there were Black sheriffs and mayors in the South, and there was open speculation about a Black vice presidential candidate. There was, moreover, a network of civil rights laws that seemed to settle the issue beyond all possibility of dispute or recall. Back there, 100 years ago, there was a federal law protecting voting rights in the South - does all this sound vaguely familiar? - and there was a national public accommodations act.

Such, in broad outline, was the racial situation 100 years ago - in the 1860s, 1870s and 1890s - when racism was "forever abolished" in America for the first time.

It was a short "forever."

In the '90s of the 19th century, as in the '90s of the 20th, affairs turned, as if on a hinge. A combination of circumstances - a massive White backlash and a massive defection by White liberals, the economic interest of powerful industrialist, growing unease over welfare and taxation for social purposes a national economic crisis, a violent White revolution, an ambigious and ambivalent new president, and a new and conservative Supreme Court - cast Blacks down from the great height; and within a few years the gains of the green years vanished, like the shimmering images of a mirage.

There then followed - in the 1880s and 1890s - those indelible events that are etched in the collective psyche of Black America, the decades of lynching and Jim Cronx, and nighttime assaults by the KKK and other vigilante groups. The White violence went on in America for decade after bloody decade, and nobody, neither the White Church nor the White Academy nor the White Supreme Court, opposed it. And then, almost as if on cue, the same story began unfolding in precisely the same way precisely 100 years later in the 1960s.

Once again, Blacks and their Mute allies went to the barricades. Once again, breaches were made in the Great White Wall. Once again, there were voting rights bills and public accommodations acts and Black sheriffs and mayors and even Black U.S. senators. And then in the same decades - in the 1970s and 1980s - the same forces that dug the grave of the first Reconstruction - a massive defection by White liberals, the economic interest of powerful industrialists, growing unease over welfare and taxation for social purposes, a national economic crisis, an ambiguous and ambivalent new president, and a new and conservative Supreme Court - began to dig the grave of the Second.

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