Many of us have been thrilled by the video of 106-year-old mentor and school volunteer Mrs. Virginia McLaurin visiting the White House during a Black History Month celebration to meet — and dance with — President and Mrs. Obama. Her joy in being there and fulfilling her dream of meeting the first African-American President and First Lady was infectious. Born a child of South Carolina sharecroppers in 1909, this was a day she never dreamed would come: “I didn’t think I’d ever live to see a colored president. I am so happy.”
Moments like these give us a chance to appreciate how much change a citizen like Mrs. McLaurin has seen in her lifetime. When she was born America was firmly in the grip of Jim Crow, segregation, racial violence and political disenfranchisement that characterized the decades following the initial post-Civil War promise of Reconstruction. She moved to Washington, D.C. in 1941, in time to see the activism of A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and others urging the federal government to desegregate our armed forces and provide more economic opportunity for African-Americans. She saw burgeoning civil rights activities like these surge into a transforming movement across the South including the 1963 March on Washington in her new hometown. And she saw the Civil Rights Movement lead to significant changes — enough to allow her to visit President and Mrs. Obama in the White House in 2016.
When we look at arcs of history like this, where are we today? Many scholars see the Civil Rights Movement as a second Reconstruction Era and a second try at rebuilding our nation into one truly committed to liberty and justice for all. But just as the progress of the first Reconstruction was followed by decades of retrenchment and reversal, many of the formidable threats millions of poor children and families of all races but especially children of color face today are very dangerous steps backwards. Unjust racial profiling and killing of Black boys and men by law enforcement officers enjoined to protect them; mass incarceration of people of color — especially Black males; massive attacks on voting rights which especially impact the poor, people of color, the elderly, disabled and the young; and resegregating and substandard schools denying millions of poor Black, Latino and Native American children basic literacy, numeracy and other skills they will need to work in our increasingly competitive globalized economy should be siren calls to wake up and fight back.
Past lessons have led some scholars and observers to believe we may be in a second post-Reconstruction Era, fighting deliberate widespread well-funded regression and backlash against progress made. But Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, the head of North Carolina’s NAACP chapter and a leader in the “Moral Mondays” movement, views this historical moment with optimism but urges vigilance. In his new book with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement, Dr. Barber argues that the beginnings of a Third Reconstruction are underway—rooted in “fusion politics” that have changed our nation before and can do it again.
The Third Reconstruction describes how what has become the Forward Together Moral Movement was the outgrowth of several years of theological education and grassroots organizing in North Carolina that coalesced in 2013 with Moral Mondays, a nonviolent civil disobedience campaign of protests, rallies, and arrests that has been adapted in other states, including Florida, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Ohio and New York. The multifaith, multiracial movement is committed to a 14-point People’s Agenda including education, health care, the economy and reforming the justice and electoral systems, and is supported by over 150 coalition partners. The book describes the historical impact that can occur when people are willing to form strong coalitions for change. The coalition in North Carolina includes progressive people of faith, union members, immigrants, Appalachian workers and many more and may be a model for others committed to racial and economic justice.
When Dr. Barber spoke to a group of young leaders at a Children’s Defense Fund event last June, he explained why he believes multiracial, multifaith, nonviolent coalitions are essential right now: “So what many extremists are trying to do is abort the third reconstruction. That’s why they are telling America this myth . . . You want a great America? Deny public education, deny health care, deny living wages, deny labor rights. You really, really want a great America? Deny immigrant rights. Deny LGBTQ rights. Deny women’s rights. You really want a great America? Deny the right to vote. You really want a great America? Turn everybody against everybody. Pit Muslims against Christians and women against men. Call the president everything you can but a child of God . . . And if you really, really, really, really want a great America, make sure that people can get a gun quicker than they can vote. . . . And I stopped by to tell you that in this moment we better know who we are and where we are, and that in this moment of a possible third reconstruction we are called to speak truth in times like these . . . Dr. King said: ‘The dispossessed of this nation—the poor, both white and Negro—live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to deal with the issues of injustice.’ And I want you to know it’s your time, and we can learn from the past.”
It is our time. We must all learn from the past to end another era of backlash and backsliding and keep moving forward together.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.