Ten years ago, in the summer of 2005, I ran for president of the North Carolina NAACP, campaigning to move us from “banquets to battle.” We were not, I said, the National Association for Colored People. Our organization did not exist to hold fancy banquets where black folks could eat, drink, and be merry, remembering what the movement had done fifty years ago. No, the NAACP existed in 2005 to carry out the same work we’d been founded to do a century earlier—the work so many of our elders had sacrificed life and limb to carry forward. We were the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Our mission, I said, was to move forward, not backward.
In my campaign, I made clear that black people did indeed have much to celebrate. We had survived the Middle Passage and endured 250 years of slavery to see that great Jubilee when, by the executive order of President Lincoln, all slaves were declared free. And though that freedom was curtailed and the promise of forty acres and a mule denied, we kept our eyes on the prize and defeated Jim Crow, dispelling the fear of lynch mobs and White Citizen Councils. When Jim Crow decided to go back to law school and became Mr. James Crow, Esquire, we fought him in the courts and in boardrooms, advocating for affirmative action and antidiscrimination policies. But the NAACP in the twenty-first century had become a top-heavy social club for civil rights elites. If we were to have a future, I said, then it must be as a leader in helping America realize the promise of justice that had not yet been fulfilled.
Although my first task as president was to travel the state, presenting our vision to local chapters and reengaging the membership, from the beginning my team and I were talking about how we needed something more—a coalition that extended beyond the base of the NAACP to include others who were concerned about justice and the good of the whole. We had to find a way to stand with others, acknowledging their connections with us and our issues. In a year of almost nonstop travel, I learned something important about North Carolina: there wasn’t a huge crowd standing together in any one place, but if you added up all the different groups who were standing for their justice issue, the potential base for a coalition was large.
I started to sketch a list of fourteen justice tribes in North Carolina. We had folks who cared about education, folks who cared about living wages, and others who were passionate about the 1.2 million North Carolinians who didn’t have access to health care. We also had groups petitioning for redress for black and poor women who’d been forcibly sterilized in state institutions, organizations advocating for public financing in elections, and historically black colleges and universities petitioning for better state funding. I included on my list groups concerned about discrimination in hiring, others focused on affordable housing, and people opposed to the death penalty and other glaring injustices in our criminal justice system. Finally, I noted the movements for environmental justice, immigrant justice, civil rights enforcement, and an end to America’s so-called “war on terror.” Any one of these “tribes” had several highly committed people who’d been working on their issue for years. Some of them had been able to mobilize thousands of people for a particular event, especially when their issue was a hot news item. What could happen if we all came together for a People’s Assembly in our state capital?
Representatives of sixteen organizations showed up to a meeting of potential partners. Each group identified the issue they were most concerned about. Then we asked them to list the forces standing in the way of what they wanted. Though our issues varied, we all recognized the same forces opposing us. What’s more, we saw something we hadn’t had a space to talk about before: there were more of us than there were of them.
Our coalition partners announced North Carolina’s first People’s Assembly, a teach-in and march, for the second Saturday in February 2007. I’ll never forget showing up on that morning and seeing a few thousand people standing outside the auditorium where we gathered for the teach-in. After coalition partners presented each item on our fourteen-point agenda, the packed hall adopted them unanimously. Then we marched through downtown Raleigh to Jones Street and stood in front of the State Legislative Building to publicly present our agenda. Black and white, young and old, the coalition we had imagined only fifty days earlier was standing before us on the Fayetteville Mall. It was an astounding sight.
We did not know how long we would have to struggle or how many obstacles we would have to overcome. But we made three commitments to one another after that first assembly: (1) we would stay together until we saw our People’s Agenda become the agenda of North Carolina’s government; (2) we would go home and gather People’s Assemblies in our cities and towns, building up this fusion coalition; and (3) we would come back next year on the second Saturday in February. Since then, we have gathered in ever-larger numbers—tens of thousands each February—representing a growing partnership of religious and justice-seeking organizations. In the past five years, more than 1,000 of us have been arrested in acts of civil disobedience. We have inspired grassroots fusion coalitions in other states—and frightened an extremist elite.
Though our coalition has demonstrated incredible power, extremists have invested tens of millions of dollars—much of it from outside of North Carolina—in a campaign to discredit our efforts, demonize the poor, and stir up old fears that have divided the South for decades. In real and measurable ways, we have lost ground. When Republicans won control of the General Assembly in 2010, we saw what their plan looks like in action: the defunding of state government through a flat tax that increased the burden on poor people while giving the wealthiest a windfall; the denial of federally funded health care to half a million North Carolinians; the rejection of federal unemployment benefits for 170,000 individuals and their families; dramatic cuts to public education; deregulation of industries that have a demonstrated record of environmental abuse; a constitutional amendment to deny equal protection to gay and lesbian citizens; and the worst voter-suppression bill America has seen in half a century.
We know we are in a profoundly moral struggle. Extremists have not focused their energies and investments on North Carolina because we are weak. They have thrown all they have at us because we are strong. No, we don’t have money on our side. What we have is truth. We have love and justice and the faith that, if we can hold on for a little while longer, goodness will win out in the end.
After America’s First Reconstruction was attacked by the lynch mobs of white supremacists in the 1870s, it took nearly 100 years for a Second Reconstruction to emerge in the civil rights movement. Though we ended Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s, structural inequality became more sophisticated in the backlash against the movement’s advances. Nothing less than a Third Reconstruction holds the promise of healing our nation’s wounds and birthing a better future for all. But we’re not just waiting for it. In North Carolina, we’ve seen what it looks like.
In 1868, when North Carolina’s first fusion movement was just beginning, the Rev. J.W. Hood, a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, stood before the state’s Constitutional Convention and said, “Let us have faith, and patience, and moderation, yet assert always that we want three things,—first, the right to give evidence in the courts; second, the right to be represented in the jury-box; and third, the right to put votes in the ballot box. These rights we want, these rights we contend for, and these rights, under God, we must ultimately have.”
Hood was right, both morally and historically. Without power in the courts and in the legislature, a pro-justice fusion coalition could never defeat white supremacy. The expansion of voting rights was a bedrock of fusion politics from the very beginning. Ninety years later, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was just as clear that the single most important goal for an antiracist, pro-justice, fusion coalition in America was the expansion of voting rights. With the ballot, King foresaw, black people would have political power that they could use to partner with others to challenge the powers of injustice.
When our new coalition came together in 2007, we set out to expand voting rights, too. By the end of the legislative session, we had a crucial win. Both houses approved a bill that expanded early voting and made same-day registration possible. We had learned that poor people did not vote primarily because they didn’t have a day off from work on Election Day. Folks struggling to make ends meet on hourly pay simply could not afford to miss a day and risk losing their fragile employment. But if a poor person could show up anywhere she happened to be working on Election Day and both register and vote on that day, more poor people would be free to vote. And if poor people could register and vote on the weekend prior to Election Day, they could spend a precious day off voting for candidates who represent their interests in local, state, and federal government.
The presidential election of 2008 raised the curtain on our coalition’s appearance on the public stage. Something had happened in North Carolina that no one had expected: all fifteen of the state’s Electoral College votes went to a Democrat. What’s more, he was a black man. The margin was slim—about a third of a percent. When analysts ran the numbers on new voters, it became clear that the expansion of voting rights in 2007 had added at least 185,000 new voters to the 2008 electorate, most of whom had voted for change.
The people most frightened by our fusion coalition were the elites who had inherited the spoils of white power and had run North Carolina by proxy for generations. Our most powerful enemies were neither the fear-driven terrorists nor their puppet kings, but the quiet kingmakers. They were flying to private meetings with their peers in other states, developing a strategy to fight back against a movement they had falsely hoped they could ignore. The timing of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which gave wealthy power brokers free rein to pour mystery money into the 2010 midterm elections, couldn’t have been better for extremists in North Carolina. Determined to “take back” control of the legislature, they won a majority of seats by using the politics of fear to rally Republican voters. They immediately redrew voting districts and consolidated their power in 2012 in an election that pitched a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage as a way to split North Carolina’s growing black vote. In 2013, the legislature rewrote the tax code, repealed the Racial Justice Act, and passed the country’s most repressive voting law—which the Justice Department, the NAACP, and the League of Women Voters are challenging in court.
You can’t understand America’s deep need for a Third Reconstruction without studying our history of partial progress, which has been met, time and again, by immoral acts of deconstruction. In North Carolina, we look back to the state Constitutional Convention, where the Rev. Robert Ashley and the Rev. J.W. Hood—one white and one black—worked tirelessly to codify the language of fusion politics in our state’s primary legal document. Such cooperation could not have been possible if Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman had fought alone for their freedom. They built power throughout the nineteenth century by working with allies such as Levi Coffin, the white Quaker from Greensboro, who helped establish the Underground Railroad.
Building the movement took decades, but when it finally came to power, Ashley and Hood had the necessary language to begin mending the gaps in the fabric of America’s democratic experiment. “We hold it to be self-evident that all persons are created equal,” they wrote in North Carolina’s constitution. Yes, they were two men, but they were men who’d learned to see new possibilities while singing freedom’s song. They couldn’t say, as their forefathers had, only that all men are created equal. They looked ahead to a day when their sisters would join them as full citizens of our state and wrote “all persons.” They didn’t throw out the best of Jefferson’s language; they retained it, because they loved their enemy well enough to learn from him. But their struggle had taught them to name what a slave-holding Southern gentleman could not—that all persons are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among which are life, liberty, the enjoyment of the fruit of their own labor, and the pursuit of happiness” (emphasis mine). Workers’ rights became part of North Carolina’s constitution when former slaves were at the table during America’s First Reconstruction.
Between 1865 and 1900, interracial alliances in every Southern state arose to advance public education, protect the right to vote, and curb corporate power by reaching across the color line. These fusion coalitions outraged white Democrats because they led to raising taxes for public education. The fusion coalitions attacked the divisive rhetoric of white solidarity and pointed out the common interests of most black and white Southerners. As the fusion coalitions gained traction, more than a quarter of white voters in the South cast their ballots for interracial coalitions and the coalitions started to take political power. In the 1890s, a fusion coalition of Republicans and Populists in North Carolina swept the state legislature, won both U.S. Senate seats, and took the governorship. Together with their counterparts in other Southern states, these blacks and whites working together in the South passed some of the most progressive educational and labor laws in our nation’s history.
But fusion politics in the South were met with a violent backlash. As these coalitions began to emerge, extremists who called themselves Redeemers started a campaign to “redeem” America from the influence of black political power and progress. They immediately sought to deny the vote to blacks through violence, intimidation, and the passage of laws that, together, came to be called Jim Crow—a systematic, de jure denial of equality and rights, often achieved via the concept of “separate but equal.” From 1890 to 1908, ten Southern states wrote new constitutions with provisions that included literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses that denied black people the franchise not because they were black but because their enslaved grandfathers had not been able to vote. As early as 1875, restrictive state provisions had been upheld by an ultraconservative, radical Supreme Court. Later, in the twentieth century, when the Supreme Court began to find a few of the provisions unconstitutional, states devised new legislation to continue the disenfranchisement of most blacks.
Everywhere and always, the Redeemers howled about the use of tax money to support public education, especially for black children, and sought to suppress the African American vote. Driven by fear, they incited “race riots” in New Orleans, Wilmington, Atlanta, Springfield, and other cities, arming poor whites and playing on old fears in order to destroy interracial democracy and create a Jim Crow political economy rooted in low taxes, low wages, and fewer and fewer voters.
When we pay attention to this long history, a pattern emerges: first, the Redeemers attacked voting rights. Then they attacked public education, labor, fair tax policies, and progressive leaders. Then they took over the state and federal courts, so they could be used to render rulings that would undermine the hope of a new America. This effort culminated in the landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which upheld the constitutionality of state laws requiring segregation of public facilities under the doctrine “separate but equal.”
Past is prologue: We can see the same pattern recurring if we examine America’s Second Reconstruction—what we commonly refer to as the civil rights movement. Once again, Dr. King and Rosa Parks did not launch our Second Reconstruction alone. From the very beginning of Jim Crow, there were pockets of resistance and efforts to build fusion coalitions against Jim Crow’s injustice. Black and white stood together within the NAACP to protest lynching and develop legal challenges to segregated education. Small pockets of labor in the South continued to organize across the color line. Faith-rooted radicals such as Clarence Jordan, who started an interracial community in Georgia in 1942, defied Jim Crow. Like the abolitionists before them, these freedom fighters built coalitions and established interracial institutions, such as Highlander Folk School, that invested in building strength for the long haul.
As a mass movement, we can pin the beginning of the Second Reconstruction to two specific events: the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, and the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. Declared the “case of the century,” Brown established that intentional segregation was unconstitutional. This ruling fueled the struggle for civil rights and equal protection under the law, challenging the legitimacy of all public institutions that embraced segregation. But given the Court’s refusal to order an immediate injunction against segregation, public resistance to following its mandate was inevitable. The lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was visiting family in Money, Mississippi, was a vicious sign of that resistance. Till’s mother refused to mourn quietly, insisting on a public, open-casket funeral for her mutilated child. Photos from Till’s funeral were published in national magazines, exposing the violence of the Jim Crow South. Rosa Parks, a seasoned freedom fighter who had attended trainings at Highlander, was devastated by Till’s lynching. She said she kept her seat on a Montgomery bus in part to protest his murder.
The Second Reconstruction’s power was in cross-racial, cross-class solidarity, embracing Chicano workers, Jewish students, Native American sisters and brothers, Malcolm X’s challenge, and the Poor People’s Campaign. What happened when they all got together? President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925, mandating that projects financed with federal funds “take affirmative action” to ensure that hiring and employment practices be free of racial bias, and we saw the establishment of an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. We saw civil rights connected to economic justice in the Social Security amendments of 1965, which allowed domestic workers and farm workers to receive benefits that had been available for a generation to other workers. We saw the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. President Lyndon B. Johnson said that the Voting Rights Act was a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory won on any battlefield.
But LBJ didn’t say “We shall overcome” in a sudden moment of inspiration. It was a moral fusion movement that had moved him. His support for the Voting Rights Act was in direct response to the coordinated organizing of Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and local leaders in Selma, Alabama. The Selma campaign grabbed the nation’s attention as they watched unarmed, nonviolent marchers gassed, chased, and beaten with billy clubs on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. When people of all different faiths and colors came together and demanded change from a moral perspective, it touched the conscience of the nation. Moral fusion politics gained tremendous ground in the Second Reconstruction.
But once again, as in the 1800s, the transformative power of moral fusion politics came under attack. For a while, opponents tried the old terrorist tactics of deconstruction. They killed four little girls in a church bombing in Birmingham. They killed Medger Evers, Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo, Jonathan Daniels, Malcolm X, Dr. King, and others—on top of the thousands they beat, bombed, threatened, and jailed. But the great power of the Second Reconstruction was that it could not be deterred by violence. Nonviolence turned violent attacks on their head, using them to gain the moral high ground. So the extremists retooled. This is when Jim Crow went to law school and got respectable. Kevin Phillips and others began to develop the Southern Strategy, marrying old fears deeply held in the South to the self-interest of the Sun Belt and the suburbs. This is when Charles Koch stopped trying to attack the civil rights movement head-on and started investing in infrastructure. Lee Atwater, who mastered the deconstruction’s new tactics and became a chief Republican strategist, said in an interview years later:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968, you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing. States’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.
By using such abstractions, extremists held on to power by manipulating old fears to divide and conquer people whenever we started to come together on an issue. But if you read the policies they implemented, the characteristic patterns of the old deconstruction are there: they used the new tools to attack voting rights, public education, fair tax structures, labor rights, women, immigrants, and minorities. Once again, they distorted religious language, declaring a New Beginning when America would once again shine as a “city on a hill.” They even called themselves a “Moral Majority,” as Ronald Reagan, their candidate for president, launched his campaign in Neshoba County, Mississippi, talking about “states’ rights” on the hallowed ground where the civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Earl Chaney had spilled their blood in 1964 to challenge a state that would not acknowledge black people’s humanity.
The more we paid attention to the patterns of the First and Second Reconstructions, the more our experience in North Carolina made sense. Back in 2008, our little fusion coalition, hardly a year old, had shaken the nation’s governing elite to the core. With the hidden violence of their new version of the Southern Strategy, they thought they had won the battle against reconstruction once and for all.
But then a black man moved into the White House, a residence built by slaves. Fears that had been cynically manipulated for so long began to spill out not only on blogs and bar stools, but also on the floor of Congress. Though our coalition building in North Carolina had been as local and grassroots as the militiamen who were defending their homes at Lexington and Concord in 1775, the election of 2008 resounded as a shot heard round the world. When President Obama won North Carolina, that new electorate revealed the potential of a new fusion majority in this country.
In both the First and Second Reconstructions, it took the extremists more than a decade to mount an effective reaction. But in the face of this new electorate in the South, the extremists reacted immediately. In North Carolina we recognized this opposition as a confirmation of something important: we are participating in the embryonic stages of a Third Reconstruction.
Everywhere I’ve gone—from deep in the heart of Dixie to Wisconsin—I heard a longing for a moral movement that plows deep into our souls and recognizes that the attacks we face today are not a sign of our weakness, but rather the manifestation of a fear among the governing elites that their days are numbered and the hour is late.
Within two years of our first Moral Monday in Raleigh, we saw Moral Mondays movement coalitions come together in fourteen states, not only in the South but also in the Midwest, New York, and Maine. Even as our North Carolina coalition partners organized over 200 events, rallies, and protests across the state, the Moral Mondays movement was taken up and extended in other states, growing beyond our ability to keep count. Ours is a movement raising up leaders, not an organization recruiting followers.
If we refuse to be divided by fear and continue pushing forward together, I have no doubt that these nascent movements will swell into a Third Reconstruction to push America toward our truest hope of a “more perfect union” where peace is established through justice, not fear. Ours is the living hope of America’s black-led freedom struggle, summed up so well in Langston Hughes’s memorable claim that although America had never been America to him, even still he could swear, “America will be!”
Adapted from The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement, by William J. Barber II with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (Beacon Press, January 2016).