Historical Parallels: Déjà Vu

Post-election texts, emails, and conversations are filled with anger, angst, disbelief, and finger pointing. How did this happen? How did Donald J. Trump — crude and inexperienced, arrogant and uninformed — become the 45th President of the United States? For certain, the analysis of those who never saw this coming, including those we call “pundits,” will continue for decades.

“Make America Great Again” means different things to different people. Once again, even though there is no easy analysis of the rise of Donald Trump, history can teach some valuable lessons. This latest presidential campaign neatly parallels a much-overlooked phase of national history, namely the years following the Civil War — a brief period of Reconstruction — and the collapse of protections that followed. Within a period of 12 years (1865-1877) the enslaved had been emancipated, and all males had been granted citizenship. During Reconstruction, communities of freed people blossomed economically and socially across the land, with universal education as the underpinning. The federal government provided limited protections, too, in the form of Freedmen’s Bureau and the presence of US troops. However, with the election of Rutherford B. Hayes, these measures were systematically dismantled. The era is aptly-named the “Redemption” by some describing those Post-Reconstruction years when White rule across the board was restored, frequently with the help of Ku Klux Klan terrorism and shortly after, the birth of Jim Crow.

Similar to the Reconstruction years, from 2008-16, in spite of an obstructionist Congress, President Obama reversed a severe economic recession, reduced unemployment to an all-time low, enabled the passing of a national health insurance program, brought the majority of internationally deployed troops home, brokered an accord with Iran on nuclear weapons, advanced the cause of environmental protection, and ended his term with one of the highest approval ratings ever for an incumbent President. These are stellar accomplishments. Yet for half of those who voted, as a Black man he was a threat to the established order of things and, therefore, an aberration of American ideals.

Looking back over time, African Americans have seen it all. We have been discouraged, been disenchanted, been disillusioned, and experienced injustices, all the while continuing to pledge allegiance to a nation where a significant number of its people perceive Black people as the “other,” as thugs, as unemployed, as criminals, as ignorant. When addressing African Americans he regards as dysfunctional, Candidate Donald Trump asked, “What have you got to lose?” by endorsing him. He obviously does not know US history – we most certainly have a lot to lose. Have we not come a long way, or have we forgotten? Do some of us not know our history, or maybe some of us are new immigrants, or perhaps some of us have been disenfranchised through the criminal justice system, or some of us have received inadequate education, or some of us think this is all a sham anyway – no matter what we do.

To some of us, this is a country designed to continuously protect the privileged and entitled. It often seems to be a nation operating under 18th century social codes, where a constitutional mechanism systematically protects a few and excludes many others. Is this nation of 300 million too unwieldly to continue under a two-party system? Can it even be called a representative democracy?

The question now becomes what we should tackle if “Black Lives Matter.” What are the priorities? In two years, Congressional seats will be up for election. If we begin now, we can stack the deck by placing representatives who answer our needs and wants. Democracy works best on the local level – school boards, city councils, state legislatures, governorships. Make this presidential election a rude wake-up call for real change. Get active. Whether it’s LGBTQ, enfranchising ex-offenders, quality education, street cleaning, and/or providing appropriate job skills education — become committed. That’s our responsibility as citizens.

We do need to redeem ourselves! Every day is an opportunity to get it right. We must organize and take action to make life better for each and every one of us. This is as much about class as race, about immigration as national security, about individual choice as religious freedom, about civil rights as law and order. The issues are clearly before us. Since Black people have always borne the heavier part of re-shaping this society, the question may not be what to do. It may be, “Will you pitch in and help?”

As encouragement, remember the rallying cry from decades past, “Come too far to turn back now.”

 

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