We haven't wanted to face it. We've tried to avoid it. We've hoped that last summer's town halls, the Birthers, the deliberate misinformation about President Barack Obama, the rise of the Tea Party, the refusal of Republican leadership to engage with the president in good faith — we hoped that all of these things represented the temporary growing pains of a nation that was navigating unchartered waters after courageously electing its first African-American president at a time of devastating economic turmoil.
We've hoped that, as Obama showed himself to be a pragmatic centrist rather than a liberal firebrand, things would settle down. We've watched the president twist himself inside out in pursuit of "bipartisanship." We've seen the president make two careful, moderate picks for the Supreme Court, even as his base clamored for the appointment of more ideologically liberal justices. But as the midterm congressional elections approach and the nation hangs on Sarah Palin's every tweet, and Glenn Beck bizarrely positions himself as a civil rights activist, it's time to face up to the obvious and painful truth: We've been witnessing what is the equivalent of "massive resistance" to the Obama presidency.
Massive resistance was a call to arms by Virginia Sen. Harry S. Byrd Jr. after the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Virginia Gov. Thomas Stanley reasoned that "if we can organize the Southern states for massive resistance to this order … the rest of the country will realize that racial integration will not be accepted in the South." He closed the white schools of Norfolk until mounting media and litigation pressure forced him to reopen the schools a year later.
But the poster child for massive resistance, of course, was the 1959 decision of the Prince Edward County School Board in Virginia to close its schools rather than desegregate. The schools in the county remained closed for five years. White students largely flocked to private academies after the first year. The first one — the Prince Edward Academy — and other schools like it received tuition dollars and tax credits provided by the state.
Black students were left with few options. Parents who could scrape together the means sent their children to relatives in other parts of the state or to other states. Many more simply saw their education come to a standstill. Many black students who were in the fifth grade when the schools were closed didn't return five years later when the schools reopened. What 16-year-old wants to re-enter school as a sixth-grader? It wasn't until 1964, when the court outlawed Prince Edward County's appropriation of tax dollars for private-school tuition grants to these private academies, that schools were reopened in the county — a full 10 years after Brown.
Private "academies," using private and public money and benefiting from tax breaks, sprang up all over the South. These academies became the shadow education system for white pupils. But the South wasn't the only region that forcefully resisted school integration. The violent resistance of whites to busing in Boston rivals any actions taken by Southern jurisdictions.
There was passive resistance as well. The Supreme Court's decision in Milliken v. Bradley, striking down orders that required busing across city and suburban lines, ensured that whites willing to leave the nation's major cities for the then nearly all-white suburbs could avoid the prospect of sending their children to integrated schools. In all, the promise of Brown was never fulfilled — not because it was impossible to educate our nation's children in desegregated schools, but because massive resistance, both institutional and individual, refused to give it a chance.
In this same way, resistance to the Obama presidency has begun to mirror that marshaled against Brown. As Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) — now fighting to hold on to his once-sure seat — observed when he visited all of the counties in his state after Obama's election, "a conscious decision was made by some groups to destroy this presidency even before it started." Rush Limbaugh candidly admitted in the first days after the inauguration that he wanted the Obama presidency to fail.
The legitimate anger and frustration of voters at the massive bank bailout, and the pressures of the economic crisis, understandably inspired populist activism. Progressives, exhausted from the campaign or still celebrating the Obama election, missed the opportunity to take advantage of populist outrage to build support for resistance to the rise of the unfettered corporate state.
But the channeling of legitimate anger by town hall protesters and many Tea Party activists into an all-out challenge to the legitimacy of Obama as president has revealed the extent to which animosity toward Obama himself is what lies at the heart of these movements. The theory that this rise in anti-government activism is triggered by a concern for fiscal responsibility and the bloated deficit would carry more weight if these same concerned citizens had revealed their resistance to unfettered spending during the Bush administration's run-up of a trillion-dollar deficit pursuing two wars and tax cuts for the wealthy.
To be sure, Obama is not a perfect president. But he followed one of the most imperfect presidents in the nation's history. He has faced a crippling financial crisis and two unwinnable wars — conditions almost wholly created by the policies of the Republican Party under President George W. Bush. Obama entered the job with a cool head, prodigious intelligence, a commitment to compromise and a fount of international good will. He was our best chance to turn around many of the policies that have brought this country to the brink of disaster. His skills as a conciliator, politician and organizer could have opened a new chapter in our too-often deadlocked political discourse.
The election of the first African-American president also had the potential to push this country forward in its long-standing racial stalemate. As the son of a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas, Obama challenged racial orthodoxy. His nontraditional roots offered space for rich and complex racial dialogue. He has managed in only 18 months to implement policies and ensure the passage of key legislation and initiatives on health care, employment, civil rights, economic recovery and education. He ended combat operations in Iraq (admittedly while stepping up operations in the Afghanistan quagmire). And despite all the political naysayers, Obama is likely to accomplish more reforms before 2012. Technically speaking, he has been a successful president.
Despite the best efforts of his opponents, then, the Obama presidency will not be a failure. But its full promise has been lost. Although painful to say, this is almost certainly true. The opportunity to advance our political discourse; expand imagination in our public policy; and infuse our economic, educational and political initiatives with greater humanity seems unlikely to arise. To continue to blame Obama alone for this failure is almost like blaming Thurgood Marshall and his team of lawyers for the failure of school integration. They made mistakes. So has Obama.
It is almost certainly true that health-care reform should not have been advanced as the new president's first initiative. But the mistakes of the push for reform are simply insufficient to explain the ugliness, the anger or the destructiveness of the continuing opposition to Obama, and indeed to the very idea of responsible governance. Like the obstructionists in Prince William County, Republicans have shown themselves willing to dismantle the very apparatus of government to ensure Obama's failure.
Indeed, some Republican leaders seem hellbent on making this country ungovernable. The recalcitrance of members of Congress — as well as their increasingly disrespectful treatment of the president (the "you lie" assault before a joint session of Congress was a watershed moment) and the political process — has contributed to an atmosphere of rebellion that may have dangerous consequences. Beck, Limbaugh, Sarah Palin and others have used the same kind of language used to stoke fear and uncompromising resistance in white residents of Virginia after Brown.
The idea that Obama is Muslim has been promoted in order to ally him with extremist Muslim terrorists, and thus to paint him as an enemy of our country, much as Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders were branded as communists in the 1950s. Bizarre staged acts of bigotry may also be making a comeback. Like Lester Maddox, who catapulted himself onto the national stage by wielding a pickax to keep blacks from entering his restaurant after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, Florida sect leader Terry Jones threatened to burn Qurans — imperiling U.S. servicemen and disrespecting the millions of Americans who are Muslims (many of whom are African American), and all people of faith. The result is nonstop political theatrics designed to inflame the public and foment an atmosphere of opposition to the Obama presidency.
The uncontrolled emotional response to the Obama presidency will compel too many Americans to work against their own interests, just as it did in the years following Brown. Massive resistance to school integration began the virtual abandonment and impoverishment of the public education system in this country. So too, massive resistance to the Obama presidency, if not turned back, will impoverish and imperil the integrity and vitality of our political system.
So how should massive resistance be met in 2010? With massive organizing and push-back. The greatest successes of the civil rights movement came during the resistance to school integration. They came as a result of marches and boycotts. Rather than spend energy critiquing the Tea Party, progressives will have to gear up and speak up to maximize the possibilities of the Obama presidency. The first test will be this November's midterm elections. Obama now seems up for the fight. But it's the job of progressive activists and voters to resist massive resistance.
Sherrilyn A. Ifill, who teaches law at the University of Maryland, is a frequent contributor to The Root.