President John F. Kennedy led our nation during the tumultuous period of violence backlash against the Civil Rights movement, and historian Carl M. Brauer argued that this era was the Second Reconstruction, a second attempt to make good on the promise of America, for all Americans, in the South as well as the North.
We traveled to Durham, NC and met with Rev. Dr. William Barber — President of the North Carolina NAACP — in early January, 2013 to ask him why he thinks America is so divided today. He offered this historical framework, in which the America that twice elected President Obama is embroiled in a Third Reconstruction, with a similar, but less violent, political backlash:
In Rev. Dr. Barber's view, we are currently going through the third reconstruction. The first Reconstruction took place after the Civil War. Fusion politics — a governing coalition including Lincoln Republicans, freedmen and former slaves, and populists — made it possible for former slaves to become business, community, and political leaders. But fusion politics was snuffed out by a violent backlash, and replaced by Jim Crow laws that blocked African Americans from voting through poll taxes, impossible "tests," and terrorism.
In the 1960s, there was another attempt at reconstruction, better known as the Civil Rights Movement. The progress we made was met with another violent backlash, culminating in the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.
Rev. Dr. Barber identifies the possibility of a third reconstruction, one that could actually succeed, with the launch of Barack Obama's campaign for president in 2008. Once again, this attempt at fusion politics has been met with a hateful backlash. The backlash against integration, equality, and trans-racial governing coalitions has, in all three instances, included attacks on voting rights of African Americans and other minorities. Rev. Barber believes that change is inevitable because of demographic shifts in America and the effectiveness of fusion politics.
Since I began my journey advocating for civil and informed dialogue, many people have made dismissive comments about the idea of dialogue and deliberation. I want to state again why dialogue is so important.
So much of what we do in politics is about communication. Think about the place of the First Amendment in our Constitution and our understanding of freedom. Think about how we use the money we raise for campaigns: candidates buy ads to communicate. They use the money to influence how we think, talk and vote.
We can't have a functioning democracy if we hate each other and refuse to talk to each other. We need to create opportunities where we can think together and reinforce "We the People" as a civic identity.
If We the People remain alienated, fearful, and hateful, we will become vulnerable to manipulation and misinformation. We make room for plutocracy and other non-democratic forms of government to take hold.
Talking to our fellow citizens in a respectful manner and listening to each other, thinking together, is the best antidote to the scourge of propaganda.
So, talk is action. It is not the only action, but it is a vital one if we want to preserve a government of, by, for the people.