In the gap between January 6 and MLK Day, once forbidden history offers hope
EVEN Ron DeSantis had to admit, when pressed at a CNN town hall, January 6 was a bad day for America.
Invariably, following this past week’s anniversary of the insurrection, we’re forced to ask ourselves: Will we ever be able to pull this country back together again?
It’s a reasonable question. The fissures run deep.
For the answer to that big, terrible question, I turn to the history books. And to the history of our country that was long kept out of those books.
In the wake of the Civil War, America was still a tinder keg. In 1867, two years after the Civil War had ended and nine years before another almost erupted, Frederick Douglass laid out the argument for why, as Americans, we should remain optimistic about our future and our ability to come together.
In Our Composite Nation, Douglass explained, a nation’s character is defined by that nation at its best, not its worst. And America’s character (at our best), our geography, and our already diverse population “all conspire to one grand end” … to make us the most “perfect national illustration of the unity and dignity of the human family, that the world has ever seen”.
It seemed a tall order in those tough times, as it does now. And yet close to 15 years after he gave that speech, a new movement erupted in Petersburg, Virginia, that swept across the old Commonwealth, uniting freedmen and former Confederate soldiers in a shared quest to save the public schools.
The Readjusters Party emerged amid an attempt by the old plantation owner oligarchs to reassert their influence, following the Hayes-Tilden Compromise.
The Compromise — which both prevented the possible outbreak of a second civil war and unleashed the terror of the Ku Klux Klan — resolved a bitter dispute over the election of 1876 and re-enfranchised former Confederates.
With the Confederates’s votes restored, the old oligarchs presumed their political power was assured. But they made a fatal mistake. They tried to dissolve the free public schools created by black-led Reconstruction governments, claiming war debt made them unaffordable.
With the Readjusters offering a haven, working-class, white, former Confederates fled the Democratic Party of the plantation oligarchs to defend their children’s schools. At the same time, sparked by both President Hayes’ betrayal of black communities in the South and the same concern over public schools, my grandmother’s grandfather, Edward David Bland, led an exodus of blacks from the Republican Party to join them.
The math of democracy necessitated that if they were going to save their children’s schools, they would have to join up with the white parents who shared their same fears.
The new Readjusters Party quickly took over the state and won the governorship, control of both houses of the legislature, and would appoint both US senators (state legislators still appointed US senators back then).
In four years the Readjusters succeeded in saving the free public schools. They radically expanded Virginia Tech to make the college the working white person’s answer to the patrician University of Virginia, and aided the creation of what is now called Virginia State University — the first public university for the training of black teachers. They also abolished the poll tax and the public whipping post, and even pushed the state out of a deficit into a surplus.
However, at the end of the one term any governor is allowed in Virginia, the Readjusters would be swept out of power by a political movement built on disinformation, ruthless violence, and a call to white supremacy. The new political regime of Jim Crow then took steps to ensure that the history of the Readjusters would never make it into the lessons taught to Virginia schoolchildren. Jim Crow politicians knew how much of a threat that example was to their power structure, built on lies and hate.
The story of Frederick Douglass’s optimism and confidence in America’s destiny, and the Readjusters’ courage in pursuing it, is a reminder that the people of our country were always more resilient and greater than most politicians were ever willing to bet on.
It also begs the question: If they could unite then in the interest of all their children, what is actually keeping us from uniting now in the interest of all of ours?
– Ben Jealous is executive director of the Sierra Club and a professor of practice at University of Pennsylvania.