Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
“No one had ever seen anything like it. Wilmington’s whites had mounted a rare armed overthrow of a legally elected government. They had murdered…with impunity. They had robbed black citizens of their right to vote . . .They had forcibly removed elected officials from office…They had turned a black-majority city into a white citadel.” – David Zucchino, Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy
On Jan. 6, I tuned in to watch the certification of the 2020 electoral college vote. It was my first time witnessing this process unfold. As a D.C. native, I’m admittedly nerdy when it comes to our national government. In D.C., politicians, pundits, and journalists are equivalent to celebrities.
I certainly expected resistance and grandstanding on the floor of the Congress; It would not be the first time for members of the legislative branch. However, I was unprepared for the scenes of savagery I witnessed: an enraged and violent wave of bodies forcing its way into the Capitol building in the name of “Saving America,” seeking to supplant the legitimate results of a presidential election. Watching from the safety of my home, I could not help but think of a different American insurrection I’d read about, one that took place in Wilmington, North Carolina, more than a century before.
History Repeats Itself
The insurrection of 1898 had long been referred to as the Wilmington “race riot,” but this label was a misnomer. A riot suggests a spontaneous or random combustion, but the violent episode that took place in Wilmington was a carefully orchestrated, premeditated coup against a lawfully elected biracial government.
Thanks to post-Civil War Reconstruction, Black freedmen were finally granted the right to vote and to hold political office, and Black and White Republicans and Populists successfully formed a Fusionist government in Wilmington. This interracial coalition of politicians rewrote North Carolina’s Constitution so that it protected universal male suffrage, liberalized the requirements to hold political office, created a public school system for both Black and White children, and better safeguarded the rights of workers.
Democracy is a covenant we make with our fellow citizens. It’s not a guarantee, or even a gift.
The coup that toppled the Fusionist government was plotted by unrepentant White Confederates and Democrats and culminated in a mob of about 2,000 White people taking to the streets, the loss of hundreds of Black lives, and the forced migration of thousands of the city’s Black citizens. It was a transformative event in the campaign of Southern Redemption waged in a majority Black city, and it has been a majority White city ever since. White Southern historians rewrote the narrative, turning the event into a riot for posterity and tying it into the Lost Cause philosophy that romanticized the Confederacy and guided the Democratic party’s Jim Crow strategies from that point forward. As Bryan Stevenson said, “The North won the Civil War, but the South won the narrative war.”
The Capitol insurrection and the Wilmington coup share key similarities. They both divided our citizenry between those wanting to guarantee rights for a broader cross section of individuals versus those wanting to restrict them to a privileged few. Both events were also orchestrated from the top down in an attempt to place party above country and to delegitimize our election process. And finally, both instances were perpetuating a so-called Lost Cause. The fallacy that the 2020 election was stolen is just another way to glorify White supremacy, to justify the disenfranchisement of Black and Brown voters, and to “take back” the country.
Mere hours before the violence, we learned that a biracial coalition had successfully elected the first African American and Jewish senators from the Deep South state of Georgia. Senators Warnock and Ossoff harken back to the Jewish and Black interracial collaboration that powered the civil rights movement, our Second Reconstruction, and for me, their victories hold a special resonance as a person who identifies as both African American and Jewish.
But the coverage of this historic victory was quickly supplanted by the violence at the Capitol and glaringly revealed the great inequity at the heart of American society. What the footage allowed me and others to see quite clearly was the care shown to White insurrectionists as opposed to protesters for Black lives, and the huge differential between the value accorded these respective lives. The contrast between the deep militarization of Washington, D.C., streets during last summer’s peaceful police brutality protests and the lack of preparedness, and in some cases, enablement, of insurrectionists raging against the results of a lawful election result could not have been more stark.
While this dream of America has been deferred, it need not be denied.
Although this contrast was no surprise to Black and Muslim Americans, it was disturbingly reaffirming to see White privilege so blatantly unmasked for the world. It was also a powerful reminder of our democracy’s fragility. As Adam Serwer of The Atlantic points out, American democracy is only 55 years young, dating from the time of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that ostensibly enfranchised every male and female citizen of the country.
In subsequent weeks of coverage, legislators, and journalists immediately expressed disbelief that our national “Temple of Liberty” was profaned by Confederate flags and a Camp Auschwitz sweatshirt. However, we must not forget that the Capitol’s foundation and the “Statue of Freedom” were built by enslaved hands. It was also our Capitol that served as a site for slavery auctions and coffles of enslaved men, women, and children. In the Senate chamber, pro-slavery Congressman Preston Brooks savagely beat abolitionist champion Sen. Charles Sumner, almost killing him. Black Washingtonians have therefore always had an uneasy relationship with the Capitol. It is an important lesson in perspective: While some take it for granted that such an important symbol of democracy has always been and will always remain thus, We the People of Color see both the dire shortcomings of this nation and what it could truly be in its best manifestation.
Dual perception aside, it will take all of us to remain vigilant to ensure that both the Capitol and this republic remain democratic institutions, that the right to vote is secure, and that a minority mob can’t thwart the will of the people. Democracy is a covenant we make with our fellow citizens. It’s not a guarantee, or even a gift.
Our Path Forward
Once again, Americans face a critical turning point in our country’s history: We can choose to live up to the unfulfilled promises of our founding or sink deeper into our deficits. Reconstruction is an optimistic act of rebuilding, reimagining, and recreating our country. It’s about rejecting the status quo and channeling our better angels. Our two prior periods of Reconstruction were both fought tooth and nail by Redeemers, which included an alliance between domestic terrorists and the governing elite. Without the latter it is difficult for the former to thrive.
History is always instructive. As the Rev. Dr. William Barber II explains in The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement is Overcoming The Politics of Division and Fear, the same issues today are at play as they were during our two prior Reconstruction periods. Voting rights are usually attacked first because they have been “the bedrock of fusion politics from the beginning to the end.” Without meaningful access to the ballot, it is impossible to have a voice in the decision-making that impacts our lives, let alone a true democracy. We’ve never in our country’s history successfully secured meaningful access to the ballot for all. Instead of coming closer, we’ve drifted further away from achieving this goal due to the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act and a multitude of draconian state voter suppression measures.
Barber also flags the weakening of public education and labor, the flouting of fair tax policy, the takeover of the courts, and the liberalization of gun laws as other hallmarks to “take back” or “save” America from would-be Reconstructionists. We witnessed the Trump administration pursue these same lines of attack through a Department of Education that promoted school choice to the detriment of public schools, a National Labor Relations Board hostile to unions, the imposition of tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans and corporations, the installation of hundreds of Federalist Society-approved judges, and a willingness to follow the National Rifle Association’s script on the Second Amendment.
January’s failed coup is a painful but vital reminder of how much is at stake in this American experiment. Proactivity, engagement, and responsibility to and for each other are essential in realizing a Third Reconstruction that truly safeguards the rights and well-being of people living in this country to truly achieve justice. New data on how to create social change offers a glimmer of hope in these dim times. According to University of Pennsylvania social scientist Damon Centola’s research, 25% of a population is a critical tipping point in changing a cultural or social system, provided that our social infrastructures are strong enough. This change requires social reinforcement of new ideas through close relationships and wide, inclusive bridge-building. It is up to us to achieve a better America this third time around, one that includes not only a true reckoning with the violent history of this country, but redress of systemic racism and a recognition that the pursuit of justice is not a zero sum game. While this dream of America has been deferred, it need not be denied.
Johnisha Levi (she/her) brings a wide ranging perspective to her writing based on her experiences as an attorney and working for food insecurity and nutrition nonprofits. She was a 2013 LongHouse Food Media Scholar, as well as the author of a culturally relevant children's nutrition curriculum, and a current recipe tester for the food blog Leite's Culinaria. She is a Senior Grant Writer and Content Creator for Elevate: Smart Grants for Powerful Social Change, where she has advised nonprofits specializing in early childhood education, environmental justice, community organizing, racial justice, health equity, and adult literacy. She graduated from Harvard College, New York University School of Law, and Johnson & Wales University. In her free time, she is an avid reader of memoirs, African American history, and literary nonfiction and is currently working on a memoir.