This has been a bruising time for the African-American community—as bruising as any in recent memory. The tragic deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the other eight victims in Charleston, S.C.—as well as others too numerous to name, but whose lives and sacrifices matter no less—shocked us all. Legions of young activists have taken to marching, tweeting, advocating and protesting in order, simply, to save lives that matter so deeply. As were so many who came before, they have been called to action by the grueling inequalities that seem to grow more vivid every day, despite the significant and stunning advances that we as a people have experienced—inequalities in education, wealth, justice, health, political representation and the safety of day-to-day living.
My concern is that the end of the Second Reconstruction is upon us now, or that there are too many in power who are trying to achieve that pernicious end. W.E.B. Du Bois said of the beginning and end of the first Reconstruction, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery. The whole weight of America was thrown to color caste. The colored world went down. … A new slavery arose.”
Following the first Reconstruction—that decade after the Civil War in which the Union was to become whole again, the slave was to become free and property was to become citizen—the economic relation of slave to master was essentially reconstituted through sharecropping and disenfranchisement mounted mischievously in fits and starts, and then confirmed and maintained as the law of the land. As Du Bois again put it:
The most magnificent drama in the last thousand years of human history is the transportation of ten million human beings out of the dark beauty of their mother continent into the new-found Eldorado of the West. They descended into Hell; and in the third century they arose from the dead, in the finest effort to achieve democracy for the working millions which this world had ever seen. It was a tragedy that beggared the Greek; it was an upheaval of humanity like the Reformation and the French Revolution. … [But] we fell under the leadership of those who would compromise with truth in the past in order to make peace in the present and guide policy in the future.
The legacy of the ending of Reconstruction, the redemption of the Confederacy, was a debilitating blow to the status of the newly freed slaves and their descendants: sharecropping, convict lease (both actually forms of neo-slavery), Jim Crow and lynch laws, poll taxes and literacy tests, and the scandalous sanctioning of separate but equal as the law of the land by the U.S. Supreme Court. These are just some of the items in the catalog of horrors that kept the majority of black people systematically separate and decidedly unequal throughout the first half of the 20th century. Still, miraculously, many of our ancestors persistently rose, and stories of success were beacons of hope and a promise of better days to come.
The brilliant strategies of leaders such as Du Bois and Ida B. Wells, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White and Charles Hamilton Houston, Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, Vernon Jordan and Constance Baker Motley, Stokely Carmichael and John Lewis, Malcolm X and, of course, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (among many others), worked in their various ways to get us, in the mid-1960s, to what many scholars call the Second Reconstruction, ushered in by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Affirmative action would follow, and the numbers of black people entering the American middle class swelled and educational opportunities increased, such that people of my generation were able to matriculate at historically white colleges and universities. And it seemed that, finally, we were poised as a people to arrive on the threshold of full American citizenship, with all of the rights and responsibilities that entails.
We know that this isn’t the full story. As this Second Reconstruction of rights and opportunities in the late 1960s and early 1970s began to take off, work disappeared from urban centers, as my colleague William Julius Wilson has so cogently demonstrated, and black unemployment rose, the black achievement gap widened, the incarceration of black men became massive, public schools became increasingly segregated, and discriminatory practices in the workplace and on our streets continued to affect countless black lives, at the level of both macro- and microaggressions.
Still we rose—and still we could vote, thanks to the Voting Rights Act. And eventually that glorious night that neither our ancestors—the “many thousands gone”—nor we, their heirs in faith and struggle, could ever imagine living to see: We—the American people—elected an African-American president, a black man. And now he and his lovely family so gloriously and elegantly occupy the White House, for all the world to see!
But what has changed—and what is most frightening—is that we see our legislative and judicial branches of government slowly and methodically chipping away at the rights that were so hard-won (the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder [pdf] comes to mind). And in our viral world of social media, we hear of unarmed black people being brutalized by some members of our police forces in ways that call to mind images of the violence wreaked upon protesters in the worst days of the civil rights movement, just as we witness the stubborn persistence of black-on-black homicide.
So as we find assaults on the Second Reconstruction proliferating, we still have to stand boldly, and say loudly and proudly that our history of struggle in this country matters; that the defense of voting rights matters; that the right to a job with a livable wage matters; that the right to decent housing in integrated neighborhoods matters; that the right to a superior public school education matters; that the right to access to affordable health care matters; that the right to live in safe neighborhoods free from the threat of random murder matters … that, indeed, black lives will always continue to matter.
Editor’s note: This article was adapted from remarks made by Henry Louis Gates Jr. at the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal ceremony at Harvard University Sept. 30, 2015.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.