The thrust for civil rights cannot be regarded purely as a drive to ensure equal treatment under the Constitution. It very quickly became enmeshed in the quest for social and economic equality, as well. Abstract legal rights were essential to the movement. Without them, blacks would have been condemned to a perpetual apartheid, forever barred from socio-economic equality.
But once the issues moved away from the purely legal, once they moved from the abstract right to register at a hotel to the real-world issue of the opportunity to earn the money to pay the hotel bill, the consensus in favor of equality faded away.
The process was described by Martin Luther King, just before he was killed. "Negroes became outraged by blatant inequality," he said. "Their ultimate goal was total, unqualified freedom. The majority of white progressives were outraged by the brutality displayed. Their goal was improvement or limited progression. Obtaining the right to use public facilities, register and vote, token educational advancement, brought to the Negro a sense of achievement; he felt the momentum. But it brought to the whites a sense of completion. When Negroes assertively moved on to ascend the second rung of the ladder, a firm resistance from the white community became manifest."
Let us take a closer look at the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, which I will refer to as the Second Reconstruction. The period shares many features of the Reconstruction Era of the late 1860s and early 1870s. During both periods, blacks made rapid advances, had considerable white support, benefited from laws ensuring their rights, faced violence from racists bound to uphold the Old Order. In both cases, once concrete steps began to be taken so that it was not simply stark legal pronouncements but also practical and concrete results that began to be achieved, the nation had serious second thoughts.
In the First Reconstruction those second thoughts won out; almost all the practical progress was lost. The question now is whether the nation will again turn away from the great practical steps that are necessary to implement those rights in concrete and meaningful ways.
It must be understood that this second revolution was not from the top down; it did not occur because national leadership suddenly decided to implement the Constitution. Rather, it responded to a mass movement whose advantage lay in direct confrontation with a legal and social system that was morally indefensible, socially backward and economically counterproductive.
Black people in the 1960s toppled segregation themselves -- through black organization, black demonstrations, black sacrifices, and by the blood, sweat and tears of black people and committed whites. Civil rights were not granted in
Black people in the 1960s toppled segretation themselves -- through black organization, black demonstrations, black sacrifices, and by the blood, sweat and tears of black people and committed whites. Civil rights were not granted in Washington; they were won by the Freedom Riders, by the marchers on the road from Selma to Montgomery, by heroic black people who were beaten senseless because they refused to move from a lunch counter until they were served, and by ordinary black people who refused to ride the buses in Montgomery until they were allowed to sit anywhere on those buses.
And black people in the 1960s were aided by white allies. Countless white people were repelled by the indignities faced by southern blacks. Those allies were valuable -- they marched with us; they fought side by side with us; some even died with us.
Ironically, perhaps the most valuable involuntary allies were the Bull Connors and the Jim Clarks -- the sheriffs who clubbed peaceful demonstrators and who turned firehoses on little schoolchildren marching for human dignity. The television cameras brought that sorry spectacle into every home in the country. And even those who had little sympathy for the plight of black people recognized the moral imperative of wiping out overt, legal segregation.
The economic level of the Second Reconstruction is something too often neglected. It is forgotten that the 1963 March on Washington was for "Jobs and Freedom." We may have started by marching for the right to sit in the front of the bus, but the movement quickly encompassed such issues as whether blacks will be hired to drive the bus and help manage the system of public transportation.
That is why the "Great Society" programs cannot be separated from the steps taken to define and confer constitutional rights. For those programs were necessary to implement those rights and to draw black citizens into the mainstream of national life.
It seems to me a fairly obvious conclusion to draw, but this simple point apparently escapes the understanding of the president of the United States. Several months ago, President Reagan addressed a meeting of black Republicans and told them that black people would have been better off if the Great Society had never existed. All those programs he said, just made government grow, consumed tax dollars, and "threatened the character of our people."
The irony here is that the Great Society and the Second Reconstruction of which it was an integral part made that meeting possible. It was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that gave those black Republicans he was talking to the right to meet in a downtown hotel. It was the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that gave them the right to register and vote. It was the Fair Housing Act of 1968 that gave them the right to buy houses in the suburbs. It was the laws, judicial decisions and executive orders on affirmative action that helped get those black Reupblicans jobs in government and in corporate America, jobs that had been closed to earlier generations of blacks.
And it was the Great Society programs that cut black poverty in half. Food stamps fed the hungry. Head Start and education aid helped bring our kids the schooling they had been denied. Legal aid gave poor people a stake in the system of justice. The Jobs Corps took kids off the street and put them into jobs. Medicare and Medcaid helped old people and poor people get decent health care.
We see the results of the Great Society programs today in the marked improvement in reading test scores among black children in poor neighborhoods; in longer black life expectancy, in black sheriffs and mayors, and in campaigns by George Wallace or Storm Thurmond in black precincts.
If the Second Reconstruction did not achieve its goals of racial equality and an end to poverty, it did leave a lasting, positive mark on America and its people. It brought the nation to a new, higher level of civility. It brought America closer to its stated ideals and principles. Americans felt better about themselves and about their country; they felt morally renewed. Pride replaced shame, and a sense of accomplishment replaced apathy.
But just as the Second Reconstruction must be seen as part of a continuum in the black struggle for equality, so too must its end be seen as part of the continuum of white resistance to equality.
If I had to pin a date on just when the Second Reconstruction ended, I would choose the election of 1968, in which Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey. Nixon won, in part, because of a failure of nerve among liberals. Determined to punish Humphrey for his loyalty to Johnson's war policy, many either did not vote or voted for the far more hawkish Nixon.
They helped end the moral triumph of the Second Reconstruction. Instead of punishing Humphrey, they punished the white and black poor whose gains were imperiled.
American liberalism has been marked by a lack of staying power. Liberals swung from the quest for black equality to ending the war in Vietnam to saving the environment to backing women's rights and, now, to fighting for a nuclear freeze. What will tomorrow's fashionable issue be?
There were, of course, other reasons for the end of the Second Reconstruction. The war in Vietnam proved the unalterable truth that a nation cannot have both guns and butter. Resources that could have rebuilt our cities were used to destroy rice paddies.
And once the major thrust of black effots turned from winning rights on paper to implementing those rights, white support melted away. It was one thing to support integrated lunch counters in South Carolina, quite another to support integrated schools in Chicago.
As black demands moved north, our former supporters spiritually moved south. "No, not one" became the battle cry not only of the governors of Alabama, but of whites resisting school desegregation in Boston and of whites resisting housing desegregation New York.
I should also mention the negative effects of a black power movement that encouraged self-isolation while frightening away some white allies. A similar effect was produced by the urban riots of the late '60s, riots that occurred mainly in the North, where blacks did not share in the gains made by southerners.
The Second Reconstruction had not yet adequately addressed the core issues of concern to northern blacks -- grinding poverty, subtle discrimination, police brutality, lack of opportunity and more. Events in the South fueled their expectations; failure to meet those expectations fueled their frustration.
Thus, by the end of the 1960s black people were suspended in midair -- with new enpowerments and new opportunities, on the one hand, but still on the margins of the society and vulnerable to sharp setbacks, on the other.
The withering away of the Second Reconstruction can be measured by the widening gap between whites and blacks. Some blacks have made it. Some are now partially absorbed into the mainstream of American society. But the bulk of black Americans are locked into socioeconomic conditions only few whites have tasted.
Richard Nixon halted, but did not reverse, the Second Reconstruction. It took Ronald Reagan to inaugurate the counterrevolution.
The Second Reconstruction was based on the concept of integrating society. The Reagan counterrevolution is based on re-segregating society.
The Second Reconstruction was about empowerment, about extending people's participation in decisions that affect them. The Reagan counterrevolution operates to concentrate power among those who hold it -- state and local elites, the affluent, the business community.
The Second Reconstruction was about democratizing economic life, tilting resources to those in need through programs providing survival assitance, and programs that create opportunities for self-advancement. The Reagan counterrevolution has ruthlessly cut those programs, inflicting fresh hardships on the poorest among us.
The lesson that many people are drawing from this counterrevolution is that the fates of blacks and whites are linked. Millions who voted for Reagan in the hope that he would end those "black programs" are today standing on welfare lines, registering for food stamps, and looking in vain for a job-training program to join. Now they see that when the his counterrevolution increases inequality and removes the helping hand extended to black people, whites are hurt as well.
The impending defeat of the Reagan counterrevolution is inevitable, if only because the Second Reconstruction, like the New Deal, left a lasting impact on America. Its basic principles have become part of the structure of the way we think about our society. Aside from the radical right, Americans of all political persuasions recognize that the federal government has to play a major role in shaping the economy, in providing opportunities for the disadvantaged, and in making our society more just and fair.
American has changed, people's minds have changed. What was once considered normal is now beyond the bounds of decency. Americans may not love busing, but they hate tax exemptions for segregated academies. They may not like welfare, but they hate seeing the homeless poor wandering the streets. Racism may linger but a return to Jim Crow is unthinkable.
And because of those changes in America, I see the seeds of a new coalition for decency and fairness being planted today; seeds that are nurtured in the harsh ground of unfair, insensitive government policies and economic hard times.
I see that emerging new coalition in every city, town and hamlet of America. It is black and white, old and young, urban and rural, rich and poor, labor and management, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. This coalition need not be narrowly partisan and ideologically pure. Consensus is not necessary on every issue. Nor does every member have to love one another.
Rather, it is a coalition that understands that our wants and needs are plain and simple -- a decent job at a decent wage, a little white house with green shutters and a white picket fence, car in the garage, food in the fridge, beer in the cooler, a TV in the den, tuition for the children, two weeks at the beach, a fair pension, a quiet funeral and a debt-free estate.
Reaganism takes America to the brink. And Americans look into the deep abyss into which it wants us to jump, and they say "no." Americans resent being asked to choose between meanness and fairness, between an arms race and food race, between a mean society and a great society, between prosperity for all or depression for all but the rich.
Given those choices, Reaganism will be just a passing mistake in the history of a nation's march toward equality and justice. And Ronald Reagan will be seen by historians as having performed the invaluable service of bringing meanness to the surface. Throughout the '70s that meannesss festered, poisoning national life. It took Reaganism to make that meanness a cardinal feature of national policy, exposing it to full view, thus creating the conditions for removing it from the body politic.