In 1905, the great moral philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” He was partly right. For some folks, it’s not that they can’t remember; it’s that they refuse to.
Many people refuse to look at the long line of American history and see the repeated chorus of violence and oppression that rings out whenever we begin to repair the scars of slavery’s original sin and reach for that “more perfect union” promised in our country’s founding documents.
Don’t believe me? Think about it this way. What happened when a new generation of freedmen emerged from the crucible of the Civil War with the hope and promise of Reconstruction backed by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments to our Constitution?
They were met with newly instituted Black codes and Jim Crow ordinances. They faced armed resistance from lynch mobs, such as former Confederate Gen. Martin Gary’s “Red Shirts” and the Ku Klux Klan, determined to reestablish the old order of Black subservience and fear. They bled the ground at the New Orleans Massacre, the Wilmington Insurrection, in Reconstruction Florida, what Daniel R. Weinfield called “The Jackson County War,” and more, as their dreams were met with violence and death.
What happened when the Great Migration and Progressive Era spurred cultural and economic opportunities for Black families across America and new manifestations of possibility made headlines with the founding of the NAACP and the Urban League, the Harlem Renaissance and the emergence of Black Wall Street?
Simply, the good ol’ boys buttressed a new segregation era with legislation such as Virginia’s Racial Integrity Laws, used the filibuster to block federal anti-lynching laws, and launched a new wave of violence like the Red Summer of 1919, the Tulsa Massacre and the assassination of Marcus Garvey.
This doesn’t surprise many of us. We saw the same thing with the violent opposition to desegregation and voting rights that pretended to be a defense of “states rights” during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. We saw a repeat of history with voter ID laws and Tea Party extremism after historic Black turnout elected the first African American president. And we’re seeing the same thing now with movements trying to whitewash history by banning books and suppressing voters.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. The same goes for those who refuse to remember.
Certainly, President Biden and progressive leadership in Congress have taken some historic steps forward in the past two years. Working together, they expanded the Child Tax Credit, with an aim of cutting child poverty in half, and drove unemployment to its lowest point in 50 years.
They passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which included $15 billion to replace lead water lines across America. They capped prescription drug prices, banned police chokeholds and “no knock” warrants, and turned back the tide of mass incarceration with federal marijuana reform. They delivered on student debt forgiveness, made historic investments in America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and ensured roughly $100 billion in federal contracts would go to small, disadvantaged and Black-owned businesses.
The Biden administration has stood up to racist housing policy, championed Black maternal health and led what Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called “one of the most productive stretches in Senate history,” while managing to appoint eight Black women to 13 U.S. Courts of Appeals and confirm the first Black woman to the U. S. Supreme Court.
By any measure, that’s a big deal. But there’s still much more work to be done.
The fact is, after generations, we’re still fighting. Nearly 60 years after Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We are tired of paying more for less. We are tired of living in rat-infested slums,” we’re still fighting for quality health care and affordable housing. More than 100 years after the House of Representatives passed the Dyer Anti-Lynching Law, we’re still looking at a criminal justice system that bends for some — but breaks those of us who are twice as likely to be shot and killed by police officers because we’re Black.
We’re still fighting for decent infrastructure, for education equity, for an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. And, 148 years after the Election Massacre of 1874, we’re still fighting for voting rights that protect our ballot instead of suppressing it.
Why do we fight?…
Read More: All we want: The racial chorus of American history