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Only 12 years elapsed between the glorious military victory over the Confederate Slave States in 1865 and the definitive defeat of Reconstruction in 1877. In many important respects, the Reconstruction period was even briefer than that. By 1870, when the last of the southern states ratified the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, Tennessee had already rejected biracial democracy and installed an all-white “Redeemer” government. “Redemption” then swept through Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

For the next six years, much of the South experienced El Salvador-like levels of political violence, including the 1873 massacre of as many as 300 Blacks in Colfax, Louisiana – just one episode in the successful campaign to “Redeem” that state for white supremacy. Although the last Black congressman was not run out of the South until 1900 (Rep. George Henry White, Wilmington, North Carolina), Reconstruction was politically crushed with the 1877 Democrat-Republican agreement to withdraw federal troops from South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana.  The Hayes-Tilden Compromise signaled that white southern “Redemption” from the threat of full Black citizenship rights was all but complete.  This mutual understanding among the great majority of whites – North, South, East and West – would remain intact for nearly a century. In the warped religiosity of the white southern sense of the word, America as a nation was “Redeemed.” A suffocating peace would reign among white men.

With the death of Reconstruction, the great American leap into social modernity was aborted. What followed was not only a descent into Jim Crow hell for Black folks, but the arrested development of the United States as a civilized society. For the next 60 years, American politics was dominated by a national corporate oligarchy and a one-party apartheid political order in the South, armed with congressional veto power over federal social legislation. For three generations, until the Great Depression of the 1930s made the conversation unavoidable, American rulers more or less successfully suppressed the mere discussion of a social contract between capital and labor and among citizens. How could it have been otherwise, since white America had rejected the equality clause of Reconstruction’s proposed contract with Black America?

The social legislation of the New Deal and the post-World War II GI Bill – tame by European standards – was received by most white Americans as a gift of white privilege, a helping hand for the “good people” as opposed to the undeserving – chiefly, but not exclusively, Negroes. The U.S. became a global superpower without the bulk of its population having ever wrestled with the broader meaning of the Rights of Man in an industrial world. In the Fifties and Sixties this fundamentally stunted society was beset by alien intrusions – the necessity to interact with and impress a wider world and, most importantly, agitation by the Black “others.” Kicking and screaming (and warring and lynching), the white body politic was forced to reconsider its previous verdict on Black citizenship rights.

The debate over the Black condition in America of necessity led to a reexamination of the nature of U.S. society in general – just as Reconstruction in the South had briefly introduced the notion of public intervention in education and social development. In addition to strictly “civil rights” measures, the Sixties produced a flurry of social legislation (entitlements) that reinforced the New Deal rudiments of a truly national social contract. The U.S. seemed poised to achieve Western European levels of civilization.

“Redemptionists” despaired when Barry Goldwater’s 1964 GOP/Dixiecrat counterattack flamed out in a landslide defeat. But only four years later, in 1968, the Republicans’ “Southern Strategy” put Richard Nixon in the White House. In the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King’s murder, Black Americans either demobilized or, in the case of the most militant elements, were crushed by the state. The heirs to Black leadership all but abandoned mass political action – aside from electioneering. For the newly upwardly mobile segment of Blacks, profit-taking became the order of the day. Their anthem, courtesy of songwriters McFadden and Whitehead: “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now – We’re on the Move!”

However, true white “Redeemers” never accepted the tenuous new order, and distrusted Richard Nixon as an appeaser of dark, anti-American forces at home and abroad. Their hero was California Governor Ronald Reagan (1967 – 1975), a Goldwaterite who opposed the Voting Rights Act (“bad legislation…that infringed on the rights of citizens”), affirmative action (“reverse discrimination”) and the entire menu of War on Poverty programs.

Unable to pry incumbent Gerald Ford from the Republican nomination in 1976, Reagan’s handlers led Goldwater’s resurgent forces to a pure “Redeemer” victory in 1980, coached by none other than the young Mississippi Congressman Trent Lott. As Time Magazine’s Jack White wrote in his December, 2002 article, “Lott, Reagan and Republican Racism,” Lott “was among those who urged Reagan to deliver his first major campaign speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in one of the 1960s' ugliest cases of racist violence.” Lest anyone mistake the “Redemptionist” nature of his campaign, Reagan proudly waved his Dixiecrat credentials: "I believe in states' rights and I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level."

Every white voter in the South – and most in the North, East and West – knew what he meant. Black folks understood the language, too, but nonetheless remained largely immobile outside the electoral arena.

”The gravy-train years of the 1970s, the golden age of the post-civil rights era, led black Americans into a false sense of security and did not prepare them for the Republican Risorgimento of the 1980s,” writes Norman Kelly, in “The Head Negro In Charge Syndrome: The Dead End of Black Politics” (2004, Nation Books):

“Some of the reaction to black progress could have been reasonably foretold by reading some earlier post-emancipation history, and discerning a fundamental social law. Any sustained concerted effort to alleviate the status of African Americans will result in a subsequent period of reaction. This happened during Reconstruction, 1865-1877, and the years of lynching and political disenfranchisement began after 1877…. The 1980s were no different (albeit without the systematic physical violence directed at blacks by terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan), but blacks either didn’t see the retrenchment coming or didn’t want to believe what was unfolding before their eyes.”

As during the Reconstruction years, the modern period of progressive victories was intense but tragically brief. Legislatively speaking, most of the action occurred from 1964 to 1968 under President Lyndon Johnson (although non-True “Redeemer” Nixon acquiesced in a number of broadly progressive initiatives).

Having won as many “rights” as they actually wanted, but uninterested in fundamentally altering power relationships in America, those African Americans who perceived Jim Crow as the only problem disbanded the “movement,” leaving poorer Blacks to their own devices. The pursuit of individual wealth is not a mass activity, although the aggrandizers never hesitate to invoke the plight of the Black masses when it is to their advantage.

What the demobilized Black leadership failed to understand is that the “Redeemers” never quit; they continue to demonize and campaign against Black people even when African Americans represent no threat to their rule. Such was the case in the Deep South in the more than half-century in which the Black vote was virtually nonexistent. No matter.  Racist demagogues kept their lock on power by relentlessly railing against helpless, unarmed, economically dependent, despised Blacks. It’s still a winning formula.

A quarter century later, the Reaganite momentum shows no signs of having exhausted itself. As journalist Joe Davidson puts it:

During his two terms in office, Reagan captured, solidified and came to personify America’s move to the political right. His greatest legacy is as leader of that swing in the American political spectrum. That shift made “liberal” a dirty word and Democrats cower. What had been conservative became moderate. What was moderate was pushed to the left wing. The shift was so pronounced and profound that black America giddily embraced Bill Clinton despite his promotion of programs, criminal justice and welfare policies in particular, that would have been called racist and reactionary under Reagan.

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Acel Moore phrases it succinctly in his piece, “Left Out of Morning in America.” Reagan, said Moore, “presided and helped create an age in which too many people felt free to express their bigotry. Ignorance had a holiday.”

George Bush is ignorance personified. But he knows his people.

The first and second Reconstructions were too short to disconnect white America from its founding, racist vision of Manifest Destiny. As a consequence, the United States is fundamentally disconnected from the modern world – to the world’s peril, and our own.

Persons not enthralled at the pageantry of Reagan’s sendoff wonder, what is this national display really about?

It is white Americans deeply engaged in the rituals of self-worship – a heresy and abomination that usually portends great violence in the fires of “Redemption.”



June 10 2004
Issue 94

is published every Thursday.

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