How do we build a people’s movement? We start with vision. Prophetic moral vision seeks to penetrate despair, so that we can believe in and embrace new futures. It does not ask if the vision can be implemented—questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The slaves didn’t get out of slavery by first figuring out how to get out; they got out because they were driven by a vision that said, “Oh freedom over me. / And before I’d be a slave / I’d be buried in my grave / And go home to my Lord and be free.”
If we are going to have a real populist movement in this country, we have to reinstate an imagination that is not driven by pundits but by a larger vision. Most of the time, your greatest vision comes in your darkest night, because it is then, Martin Luther King Jr. said, that you see the stars. Populist movements don’t build when everything is fine. A populist moral vision is a form of dissent that says there’s a better way, there’s a moral way.
I believe we are in the middle of a Third Reconstruction—and that we are facing the reaction to it. The First Reconstruction was built and led by a multiracial Southern fusion movement after the Civil War. It was crushed by the nation’s acceptance of Jim Crow, as codified in the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, and by decades of white terror attacks on black people. The Second Reconstruction can be traced to that glorious day in May, sixty years ago, when nine white men in black robes said no forever to the evil system of Jim Crow in Brown v. Board of Education. For the next fourteen years, young and old, rich and poor, white, black and brown risked their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to repair the breach in God’s human race. In 1968, with the murder of King, the destruction of the organizational infrastructure of the Southern freedom movement and a clever propaganda campaign based on racist appeals to white voters, “Southern Strategy” extremists began what has become nearly a half-century effort to dismantle the gains of the Second Reconstruction.
Now we’ve begun a Third Reconstruction, a movement signaled by the 2008 election of Barack Obama and the emergence of a new majority electorate. His campaign used some of the elements of fusion politics that were used in the 1800s and 1960s. In North Carolina, we had a movement that had already reformed the voting laws before Obama was on the ballot—an interracial, intergenerational, anti-poverty, pro-labor, fusion movement that was challenging even Democrats to be more committed to a moral vision.
When Obama won the state, he revealed the potential of a new fusion majority, one that directly challenges the right’s Southern Strategy. And that scares the daylights out of them. In both the First and Second Reconstructions, it took the right a while to mount an effective reaction. With Obama’s election, the right said “Hell, no!” even before the man was inaugurated.
The fusion vision and movement is not being attacked because it is weak. We’re being attacked because the right sees—sometimes more clearly than we do—our power. This is as old as the Scriptures. Psalm 78, one of the most tragic psalms in the Bible, relates how Ephraim had everything needed to win the battle but chose not to fight. We have everything we need, but the question is: Are we going to be discouraged by a few lost elections and a few bad laws? Or will we listen to Dr. King, who said there comes a time when you have to stop being a thermometer and become a thermostat that transforms the mores of society.