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The Tea Party Movement Is a Challenge to the U.S. State, And Its Bigots Are Dangerous

Attacks on black and gay members of Congress over healthcare have prompted comparisons to the civil rights movement. In fact, we need to move the historical lens further back.

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I appreciate the parallels to the civil rights movement drawn by the MSNBC crowd, but they are inadequate. When protesters spit on and scream at duly elected representatives of the United States government it is more than act of racism. It is an act of sedition.

John Lewis is no longer just a brave American fighting for the soul of his country -- he is an elected official. He is an embodiment of the state.

Commentators and observers need to move their historical lens back a little further. The relevant comparison here is not the mid-20th century civil rights movement. The better analogy is the mid-19th century period of Reconstruction. From the end of the Civil War in 1865 until the unholy Hayes-Tilden compromise of 1877, black Americans enjoyed a brief experiment with full citizenship and political power sharing.

During this decade black men voted, held office and organized as laborers and farmers. It was a fragile political equality made possible only by the determined and powerful presence of the federal government. Then in 1877 the federal government abdicated its responsibilities to new black citizens and withdrew from the South. When it did so it allowed local governments and racial terrorist organizations like the KKK to have the monopoly on violence, force and coercion in the South for nearly 100 years.

As I watch the rising tide of racial anxiety and secessionist sentiment I am not so much reminded of the Bloody Sunday protests as I am reminded of D.W. Griffith's Birth of Nation . This 1915 film depicts the racist imagination currently at work in our nation as a black president first appoints a Latina Supreme Court Justice and then works with a woman Speaker of the House to pass sweeping national legislation. This bigotry assumes no such government could possibly be legitimate and therefore frames resistance against this government as a patriotic responsibility.

There are historic lessons to be learned. But they are the lessons of the 19th century not the 20th. We must now guard against the end of our new Reconstruction and the descent of a vicious new Jim Crow terrorism.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, is completing her latest book, Sister Citizen: A Text for Colored Girls Who've Considered Politics When Being Strong Isn't Enough.