President Trump and the perils of another Post-Reconstruction era

By the Rev. Dr. Marvin A. McMickle

As a result of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, our nation has come to a crossroads that has significant historical importance. Donald Trump campaigned on the promise of overturning most of the significant domestic and foreign policy accomplishments of Barack Obama. That echoes in some disturbing ways the end of the Reconstruction era (1865–1877), and the beginning of the Post-Reconstruction era that entered on the heels of the election of Rutherford B. Hayes.

That pivotal presidential election in 1876 set in motion a systematic attack on all the gains awarded during the Reconstruction by the 13th Amendment that ended slavery, the 14th Amendment that guaranteed equal protection under the law for all citizens, and the 15th Amendment that guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race or previous condition of servitude.

All of those gains came under immediate assault in 1877 by those who wanted to turn back the clock on progress that had improved the lives of those recently set free from human slavery. Through changes in state laws and sheer intimidation fueled by racism and economic anxieties, the path of progress was blocked so that those who felt that their way of life had been threatened could “get their country back.”

“This Is a White Man’s Government,” political cartoon by Thomas Nast, published in Harper’s Weekly, Sept. 5, 1868. Depicted standing atop a black Civil War veteran are a “Five Points Irishman,” Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Wall Street financier and Democrat August Belmont. [Thomas Nast/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (neg. no. LC-USZ62–121735)]

Then, as now, many in the United States had grown weary with being challenged to address the concerns of racial and ethnic minorities. Then, as now, a disgruntled white majority exercised its political power, while working to suppress the political power of others and to recapture what they believed had, somehow, been taken from them.

Rather than build on the progressive agenda that was in place, then, as now, racial and class resentments resulted in a very different path being taken that was far less friendly to anyone who did not fit the profile of who and what our country was meant to be. The election of Donald Trump results in the immediate concern about every progressive issue now being advanced in this country: affordable health care, ending the school-to-prison pipeline for people of color, responsible gun-control policies, environmental/ecological practices that care for the Earth and the atmosphere, protection of the rights of LGBTQ persons, women’s reproductive rights, community-police relationship in urban neighborhoods, and the rights of persons from other religions and regions of the world to enter this country and live in peace and safety.

A potentially dangerous chapter is about to begin in the history of the United States. Bullying, bigotry and bombast may drown out civility, mutual respect and a warm embrace of the wide tapestry of colors, cultures and calls to prayer that currently describe the nation that so many are trying so hard to shape and to sustain. The 2016 election demonstrated that the United States is a deeply divided nation in terms of party affiliation, world view, social policies, tolerance of racial and religious diversity, and the steps needed to create our “more perfect union.” As during the Post-Reconstruction era, plans have been announced to roll back policies that have helped and empowered the lives of millions of Americans, largely because of the aforementioned racial and class resentments.

However, our nation has faced such moments of division before and managed to overcome them. The Civil War, the Jim Crow era, Suffrage and then Civil Rights movements, the conflicts during the Vietnam War and the civil unrest over worker’s rights, women’s rights and the rights and needs of the poorest and neediest among us have all tested our nation’s strength and endurance. In every case, voices arose that pointed us to what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature.”

Such voices must also be heard today, following this divisive and unsettling election. In an effort to “Make America Great Again,” will we be led in an effort to return to a time when millions of Americans were unable to vote, to live free of lynch mob violence, or to go to the school or buy a home in the neighborhood of their choice? When is the “again” to which we are being pointed, and who will be able to enjoy the freedoms made available once that golden age has been restored?

The church of Jesus Christ must lay hold to Matthew 25:31–45 and declare it from every pulpit, every pew and every public proclamation:

“Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

The Rev. Marvin A. McMickle, Ph.D., is president of Colgate Rochester (N.Y.) Crozer Divinity School.