Twenty years ago, I was a college sophomore. On September 11, 2001, I was sleeping through a morning class while the rest of the country was watching a violent, deadly terrorist attack with horror-struck astonishment.
My mother – who worked in a federal building just a couple hours from my East Texas college, called my dorm room to let me know she was safe. I groggily mumbled some incoherent response before she registered – with justified irritation – that I had been asleep, and let me know there had been a terrorist attack.
In the years during and immediately following the Civil War, there was no doubt in the minds of our country’s leadership: if America was going to successfully make the transition from its fractured present to a unified future – one in which formerly enslaved Black Americans could exercise equal rights under the law – legislation would need to be intentional and explicit. Pretending to magically reunite as brothers and sisters under one national flag would not be sufficient to ensure that Black Americans got the rights the Union Army’s victory had secured.
So began America’s first Reconstruction.
For “a brief moment in the sun,” as DuBois stated, Black Americans were able to glimpse the promised land of freedom and liberation, and inch toward attaining the American dream of prosperity and generational wealth and legacy.
But when the last federal troops were withdrawn from the South in 1877, Reconstruction ended, and Black Americans who sought to exercise the rights bequeathed to them by the Emancipation Proclamation and subsequent constitutional amendments were left to fend for themselves. Jim Crow laws took root, their fruits manifested as numerous instances of racial terror and lynchings, and Black Americans were no longer free to pursue their lives, liberties, and pursuits of happiness in freedom and peace.
By the middle of the 20th century, Brown vs. the Board of Education would overturn the “separate but equal” precedent set by Plessy vs. Ferguson, heralding the advent of the second Reconstruction: the Civil Rights Movement. Freedom Riders, Selma marchers, bus boycotters, students, and a host of activists whose names and courageous acts we may never know, organized and endeavored to push and pull and redeem the soul of America. Their collective efforts would culminate in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These expansive measures mandated equity at the federal level that states would not enact themselves.
In the eyes of many Americans, these measures achieved Dr. King’s dream of equality.
However, such a view of King’s dream misses its meaning. And such a view of America’s history since that time overlooks white flight, redlining, and gerrymandering, all of which only hint at the plethora of laws, policies, and practices that have shortchanged Black Americans by erecting barriers to equity and affluence.
Thus, now is the time for a third Reconstruction: a conscious effort not limited to repairing systemic harm caused to generations of Black Americans. Rather, what is needed is an expansive, inclusive effort aimed at reparation, equity, and protection for historically marginalized people groups of every kind.
In order for this necessary third Reconstruction to take firm root and yield life-sustaining fruit in due time, it must reconstruct our American ideals, our concept of right relationship between faith and country, and our very image of who is American. We must, in the posthumous words of John Lewis, “study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time.”
In the days and weeks following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, I heard this sentiment more than once from some of the white male students with whom I went to college: We should be willing to die for our faith, too. These young men seemed earnest in their observation; they appeared to respect not the extremists’ actions but their zeal and conviction to carry out their plans under the banner of their beliefs.
I didn’t share their sentiment. But at the time, I didn’t let their thoughts take up too much space in my own mind.
However, twenty years and an insurrection have brought their words to the front of my mind now.
When these former classmates of mine witnessed the insurrection on January 6, did they feel awe at the domestic terrorists who stormed the steps of the Capitol building? Did they *themselves* carry the Jesus and Trump flags, thereby living out their faith in what they believed twenty years to be an admirable fashion? Do they remember the sentiments they expressed twenty years ago, when national tragedy was still fresh and the death toll was not yet final? Did their bodies and the ideas their minds would shape hold on to the shape of the memory if not the words themselves?
America – our country, our home – needs a Reconstruction of both policy and ideology.
If this third Reconstruction, which we so desperately need, is to take root and in time yield the good fruit of equality, liberation, freedom, and peace for us all, then we are going to have to study our past to learn from its successes and its follies. We are going to have to value each other more than we value nostalgia. We are going to have to build the America that never has been yet.
This week I hope that you will watch the videos, article, and poem I’ve linked. And as you do, I hope you will reflect on these questions:
- When you admire a person’s passion, do you focus more on their energy, their charisma, their actions, or their message?
- Why do you think the federal government was willing to leave the South before Reconstruction was anything like complete?
- What can you do to help ensure that nationwide forward progress as a country doesn’t leave anyone behind?
Keep leaning into the hard, intentional work of [re]constructing peace by unlearning racial bias, one piece at a time.