CHAPTER 27: THE SECOND RECONSTRUCTION

Following the attempts by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson to abolish the apartheid system in the South, a period of reconstruction began in which, like the first Reconstruction, the white middle class regained its political and social power vis-a-vis black and poor Americans. This occurred not only in the South, but in the rest of the nation as well. While legal apartheid had been largely abolished, discrimination became so widespread and sociological racist theories so popular that blacks became even more heavily segregated in the centers of the nation's cities.

Like the failure of the first Reconstruction, the second Reconstruction led to a resurgence of white dominance in the political arena that took back many of the gains in the area of civil rights. Conservative attitudes once again dominated and racism came to the fore. Something new arose in American politics -- not just political retrenchment, but longing to go back to the past. The conservatives firmly reestablished control with the election of former Governor of California Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980. With this election, the conservative backlash turned into a major assault on not only civil rights, but on the welfare state itself. Reaganism went beyond backlash to a restoration of some of the inequalities that the nation had eliminated in earlier increases in equality. Indeed, one could say that the United States to some extent has retreated to the Age of the Robber Barons under the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush (see Barlett and Steele, 1992). The backlash went so far as to constitute a countercycle, one that increased rather than decreased inequality. This chapter tells the story of this conservative reconsolidation.

MIDDLE CLASS THREATENED

With the escalation of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, the mood of the country changed. In October 1966 the war was costing the nation an estimated $2 billion per month. The civil rights leaders objected to the war in large part because it took scarce resources from their drive towards greater equality. In fact, the war and the lack of progress on civil rights brought so much bitterness that blacks started to abandon Martin Luther King and flirt with a rising number of radical black leaders.

Dr. King had seriously underestimated the depth of racism in the American system. He had hoped that, by appealing to white guilt over racism, Americans would abolish the apartheid system and then racism itself. But while the worse aspects of the apartheid system vanished, the underlying racism of the equality-of-opportunity thesis remained. Only limited progress could be made by appealing to white guilt, for there is little or no guilt in an equality-of- opportunity racism, which blames blacks themselves for not working hard enough to take advantage of available economic opportunities.

In July 1967 a race riot swept Detroit leaving nineteen dead in its wake. Federal troops had to intervene. Virtually at the same time, the authorities arrested radical civil rights leader H. Rap Brown for inciting to riot. In August Brown and Stokely Carmichael, both former leaders of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), called for a black revolution in the United States. They openly talked of the necessity of using armed violence to further the black struggle.

Many college students questioned the necessity of fighting the Vietnam War and actively worked to oppose the conflict. Nevertheless, a majority continued to say "My country right or wrong." As if the anti-war protesters were not enough, a trend that really disturbed many conservative Americans was the increase in the number of youths calling themselves hippies. In March 1967 10,000 of these people held a be-in in New York City's Central Park. In October 50,000 anti-war demonstrators congregated around the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Some carried Viet Cong flags, which further infuriated conservative Americans, as well as many liberals. The rally turned violent as the protesters tried to storm the Pentagon.

In addition to internal dissension, the war set off a terrible round of inflation that President Johnson did not try to remedy because he did not want to raise taxes. After all, he had promised the people they could have both guns and butter and did not want to disappoint the nation. But disappointed the nation would be, for the bottom dropped out of Johnson's world. Americans believed their nation was undefeatable and that the Vietnam War was going well. But in January 1968 the communists attacked more than 100 cities throughout south Vietnam during a campaign known as the Tet Offensive. The campaign was a military disaster for the communists, but it was a devastating blow to America's ego and to the war effort. The Tet Offensive forever shattered the illusion that the country would be able to win the war within the foreseeable future. Anti- war sentiment grew and in March Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota embarrassed the president by doing extremely well in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. Later that month President Johnson announced that he would not run for reelection.

In April 1968 Southern racist James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King. Race riots swept the country. One fortunate consequence of this tragedy was that it opened the way for the passage of the 1968 civil rights act for open housing. The Southern congressional strategy had misfired again. The House Rules Committee, under Southern control, refused to bring the bill to the floor of the House. They played for time hoping that a planned civil rights march on Washington would lead to a backlash. But an assassin killed Dr. King and five days after his death, the Rules Committee reversed itself. The House then passed the bill, which had already been passed by the Senate under cloture, and sent it to the President for his signature.

More violence followed. In June Arab immigrant Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles, while Kennedy campaigned for the presidency. These violent trends climaxed at the 1968 Democratic party national convention when youthful taunts of the demonstrators goaded the police into rioting. Even though the incident was officially labeled a "police riot," the public blamed the young people and came to see the Democratic party as the party of riot and mayhem. The voters took their revenge in the November presidential election by choosing Richard Nixon.

EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY (CONSERVATIVE VERSION)

In the first Reconstruction there arose great myths about the process that justified the loss of black political power. Similarly, in this second Reconstruction new theories are being constructed to justify the resurgence of the political muscle of the white middle class. Currently, a debate rages about the true nature of this second Reconstruction. Republicans blame the War on Poverty programs of the Democratic party for the failure to end racism and poverty, just as white Southerners blamed the excesses of Northern politicians for the failure of the first Reconstruction. Democrats blame the conservative policies of the Reagan-Bush era. Paralleling the first Reconstruction, white middle class Americans wanted to reassert their control over the nation, and nothing could really stop them. For social scientists to keep searching for some fictional middle-way that could have satisfied all disputing parties, is to miss, as was the case for the first Reconstruction, the overall and inevitable trend of the resurgence of the white middle class.

In the field of race relations a new ideology of race slowly developed. Conservatives used code words such as "forced bussing" and "quotas" to appeal to those opposed to the liberal agenda. Patrick Moynihan advised President Nixon to begin a period of "benign neglect" in the area of civil rights. The new conservatism stressed that there is plenty of equality of opportunity in the nation, but that minorities fail to take advantage of this. Social scientists, such as Edward Banfield (1970) and Charles Murray (1984), even began to declare that now that racial barriers had been destroyed, any further failure to make progress had to be ascribed to the minorities themselves. The new conservatism became so strong that most liberal commentators found themselves pushed off television and radio and replaced by conservative spokespersons.

ELECTION OF A CONSERVATIVE PRESIDENT AND A MORE CONSERVATIVE CONGRESS

The 1968 Election of Richard Nixon to the Presidency

The conservative reaction among the voters coalesced around Richard Nixon and George Wallace. Wallace represented the tremendous anger of Southerners and many other conservative Americans at how events seemed to have gotten out of hand. Also looking south, former Vice-President Nixon, fearing the strength of Ronald Reagan in that region, refined Goldwater's 1964 Southern strategy. Nixon appealed to Strom Thurmond for assistance. In a meeting in the early spring of 1968, the two met and struck a deal (reported in Peirce, 1974:31). In return for Southern support, Nixon supported states rights, freedom of choice in the schools, and the appointment of strict constructionists to the Supreme Court. To attract even more Southern voters, Nixon picked Spiro T. Agnew of Maryland to be his running mate. In 1969 Kevin Phillips in his book the Emerging Republican Majority virtually codified the Southern strategy. The author saw the South as the cornerstone of every future Republican victory in presidential elections.

The violence at the Democratic National Convention hurt the Democratic party's candidate, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey. This in turn helped Nixon win the election. Nixon, however, was the first President since Zachary Taylor to fail to win control of at least one house of the new Congress in a first-term election. Nevertheless, Nixon's victory began the trend wherein liberal Democrats would be kept out of the White House for more than a quarter of a century.

Nixon started to dismantle Johnson's Great Society programs. He asked Congress to pass a law against busing, but his efforts proved unsuccessful. In 1973 he abolished the Office of Economic Opportunity, the cornerstone of the attempt to change America's racist economic system. Nixon also moved the nation further in the direction of states' rights. He instituted revenue sharing, wherein state and local governments received more control over previously national programs.

The political violence of the Democratic years continued even after Nixon's election. The new president began to feel absolutely paranoid and claustrophobic when a quarter of a million war protesters descended upon Washington, D.C. in November of his first year in office. Tragically, Nixon made the Vietnam War his own by invading Cambodia in April 1970. In the protests that followed, the Ohio National Guard killed four Kent State students in response to a stone throwing incident at a demonstration against the American invasion.

Watergate, Ford, and Carter

When government official Daniel Ellsberg leaked an internal government report critical of the origins of the Vietnam War to the press (published in the summer of 1971 and known as the Pentagon Papers), followed by another leak (this one on arms negotiations with the Soviets), Nixon and his staff panicked. Chuck Colson's department established an enemies list, and a unit known as the plumbers came into existence with the task of stopping further leaks. This latter unit soon engaged in extra-legal activities, such as breaking into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist. The unit disbanded but eventually regrouped to break into the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. on June 17, 1972 in order to access the headquarters of the Democratic party. An alert security guard discovered the break-in and, subsequently, the police arrested the political burglars. Just six days after the break-in, Nixon sealed his fate by approving a plan to cancel the FBI investigation into the affair by trying to make the entire incident appear as a national security operation by the CIA. Nixon's ultimate fate would be delayed until after the 1972 presidential election. The Democrats became so disillusioned with the Vietnam War that they chose North Dakota anti-war senator George McGovern to be their candidate. Poor McGovern quickly got the label of "radical" and Nixon gained reelection by a landslide, winning every state except Massachusetts.

The Vietnam War dragged on, but via a massive Christmas 1972 bombing of north Vietnam, Nixon forced the Vietnamese to agree to sign a peace treaty in January 1973. Nixon's popularity soared to a 70 percent approval rating. This would not last.

A special Senate committee, headed by white-haired Senator Sam J. Ervin Jr. of North Carolina, opened the investigation into the Watergate affair in May 1973. This led to ever increasing allegations about President Nixon's involvement in the scandal. Government official Alexander Butterfield dropped a virtual bomb when he revealed that Nixon's conversations in the White House had been recorded via an internal taping system. This proved to be the president's downfall, for without these tapes it would have been unlikely that Nixon would have been forced to resign.

In October 1973 Vice-President Agnew resigned after agreeing not to contest a government charge of income tax evasion. To succeed Agnew, President Nixon immediately chose Gerald R. Ford, the sixty- year-old Republican leader of the House.

Nixon fought the courts so that he would not have to release the tapes, but constant pressure slowly forced him to do so. The tapes clearly showed that the president had tried to cover up the Watergate revelations. Caught red handed, Nixon resigned in August 1974. Vice-President Ford assumed the office of the presidency.

President Ford sought election in 1976 but his pardoning of Richard Nixon hurt his campaign. Bothered by the Watergate scandal, the public decided to throw the rascals out. Voted into office was the conservative Democrat, the former Governor of Georgia Jimmy Carter, who ran on an anti-government platform. Schlesinger (1984:33) writes that Carter was the most conservative Democratic president since Grover Cleveland a century earlier because the Georgian rejected the commitment of the modern Democratic party to affirmative government. "He derided the federal service, advocated deregulation, promised to balance the budget, combated inflation by high interest rates and recession and encouraged the injection of religion into public affairs. From a longer perspective, the differences between Carter and Reagan will seem less consequential than the continuities. Both Presidents responded with ardor to a perceived conservative surge in the nation."

The oil crisis that began in 1973 set off an inflationary spiral for which President Carter received the blame. To make matters worse for the Georgian, ominous rumblings began in the center of the once great Persian empire. In 1979 the Iranians overthrew their ruler, the Shah of Iran. When the United States allowed the Shah into the country for medical treatment, the Iranian rebels seized the American embassy in Teheran and held the Americans there hostage. In response, President Carter decided to hold himself hostage in the White House. Unable to obtain the release of the hostages and remaining a virtual prisoner in the executive mansion, Carter appeared incompetent and weak. His ineffective presidency, inflation, and the continuance of polarization in the country, led to his defeat for reelection by Ronald Reagan.

COMPARISON OF THE FIRST AND SECOND RECONSTRUCTION PERIODS

There are two great periods of substantial change in American civil rights history, the first American civil war, 1861-1865, and the second civil war, 1954-1966, under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. Referring to these two crucial periods as civil wars encourages us to look for parallels between the post-Civil War period and the post-King period. This comparison can help foretell the future political path of the United States.

THE MYTH OF THE SECOND RECONSTRUCTION

The debate over Reconstruction is much like the current debate over the success or failure of the War on Poverty during the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson. The debate deliberately ignores the fact that neither conservatives nor liberals were ever committed to erasing racism or poverty in the nation. The Johnson administration deserves credit for at least trying to alleviate poverty and racism, but liberals never acknowledge the deliberately limited nature of the programs. Like the first reconstruction, in the second reconstruction the policies that were adapted were weak and not powerful enough to really change the situation. And like the first reconstruction, the policies of the second reconstruction did not allow for possible and continued resistance from the larger society.

In the first Reconstruction there arose great myths about the process that justified the loss of black political power. Similarly, in this second Reconstruction new theories are constructed to justify the resurgence of the political muscle of the white middle class. Periodically, debates rage about the true nature of this second Reconstruction. Republicans blame the War on Poverty programs of the Democratic party for the failure to end racism and poverty, just as white Southerners blamed the excesses of Northern politicians for the failure of the first Reconstruction. Democrats blame the conservative policies of the Reagan-Bush era. Paralleling the first Reconstruction, white middle class Americans wanted to reassert their control over the nation, and nothing could really stop them. For social scientists to keep searching for some fictional middle-way that could have satisfied all disputing parties, is to miss, as was the case for the first Reconstruction, the overall and inevitable trend of the resurgence of the white middle class.

Government as Primary Source of Monies in Second Reconstruction

Most of the progress made by blacks has come because of the actions of government. This is absolutely necessary and a good thing, but if the monies continue without substantial progress in other areas, they become corruptive. Like Frederick Douglass, the black middle class becomes complacent and self-satisfied. Only the cold cruel slap of worsening events can wake them out of their complacency. As in the first reconstruction, the intellectual, educational, and social welfare communities in America has been corrupted by government money. The American government has given money to support multi-cultural efforts mainly in an attempt to get rid of the noise of the complaints of the various spokes persons of the ethnic/racial groups. This money has created an intellectual community greatly dependent on government funds and also committed to keeping this money coming in to the multi-cultural community. The government supported multi-culturalists are not interested in challenging their vision of multi-culturalism.

White women have been the main beneficiaries of the policies of the second reconstruction. And white female civil rights activists are likely to give at least lip-service to multiculturalism as long as it promotes their group. This alliance, however, is extremely fragile and will not survive the oncoming overall white backlash, including that of both male and female whites.

The Myth of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Modern liberalism, the liberalism that dealt with the triumph of the industrial order, is over a century and a half old in the United States. It can be traced back to the time of Andrew Jackson when the working men voted for Jackson. At that time there was a good deal of anti-government feeling, because the Jacksonians felt that eastern money interests dominated the country. Government was regarded with suspiciousness and in a negative way. It had to be taken over so it could not be used to hurt the workers and the poor. They wanted to change the government so that it served their interests more than the monied interests. With the increasing power of industrial companies, especially following the Civil War, liberalism began to adopt a more positive attitude toward government as seen in the progressive movement. The progressives wanted government to more closely regulate the workings of American capitalism.

On ethnic matters liberals believed that the various ethnic groups would come together eventually in a new melting pot that would create a unique nation known as the United States of America. All ethnic groups would give up their cultural beliefs as regards secondary relations (primary relations, those involved around family issues and religion, were exempt) so that the ethnic groups could become one without a great deal of cultural friction. Of course, the thorn in the side of American liberalism, just as with all of America, has been the issues of blacks. In all liberal statements a exemption of exception would have to be made because liberals always knew that there was a continuing failure of all of American, including liberalism, to deal with racism. They felt that with the banishing of the laws supporting segregation, that racism would eventually disappear (they hoped at least).

With the coming of the Great Depression, liberalism became even more pro-government seeing that government could insure at least a minimum level of support for those less well-off economically. Government intervention took another step forward with the support of liberals for the civil rights movement under Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Liberalism got a great boost from the Civil Rights movement.

One of the ethnic groups that have traditionally been associated with American liberalism have been the Jewish Americans. Friedman (1995:15) writes "I remember the euphoria I felt when the Supreme Court struck down public school segregation on May 17, 1954. Perhaps now, I recall thinking, America is on its way to wiping out prejudice and discrimination once and for all and making amends for its shameful past in regard to race relations. . . . There was never any doubt in my mind that the black-Jewish alliance stood at the center of the great American experiment in democracy."

At heart even Allard Lowenstein was not a revolutionary but a prototypical Jewish liberal reformer, who liked to play the role of broker between SNCC and other civil rights groups. He favored sharp confrontation with Mississippi's racist institutions, not as a form of nihilist expressionism, but to spotlight abuses and force federal intervention. To that extent he believed in working within the system. (Friedman 1995:205)

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great man, just as was Lincoln. However, there are a number of myths about the man some of them which have just been recently revealed (Branch). One of them is that the civil rights revolution started with King himself. The truth is that King fell into the job. He was chosen because he had just recently arrived in Montgomery to replace the controversial Rev. Vernon Johns as pastor to the Dexter Avenue Baptist church. He wanted changed, after all, he had been introduced to the teachings of Vernon Johns through Johns' disciple, Ralph Abernathy, but he had not been active at all in civil rights activities (see Branch).

With the 1954 bus boycott events started happening with seeming lightning speed. King had all he could do just to prevent events running away from him. But certainly while King remained in the south, which was the only place he had real success, he was a liberal. It was not until he tried to bring his philosophy to the north that he became somewhat embittered. Unlike Lincoln, King lived to see much of his philosophy increasing rejected. In fact, he live to see himself surpassed gradually as the main leader of the blacks. According to Halberstam, King acknowledged that he was becoming a more radical critic of society. He agreed that the term "domestic colonialism" reflected his view of the North's treatment of blacks. (Friedman 1995:243)

Whites, like blacks, see Martin Luther King, Jr., as a christ-like figure who died trying to bring about racial harmony in the United States. Compared to the multi-culturalists and afro-centrists King is looking very good these days to the whites. And now many whites are thinking what would it have been like if Martin Luther King, Jr., had not been killed?

The multi-culturalists, however, have turned Martin Luther King, Jr. into a multi-culturalist himself. This is quite a stretch, especially if one focuses on the realm of his real success: the fight against apartheid in the South. In fact, we will see that multi-culturalism has more in common with Malcolm X than Martin Luther King, Jr. But nevertheless, King, like Lincoln, has all things to all peoples, regardless of their differing philosophies.

The real life of King, however, is something far different than what current thinking allows. The revolt against King's optimistic liberalism began relatively early. November 1962 James Baldwin wrote an article that became the book The Fire Next Time. Frustrated by the failure of the hope and promise that the civil rights revolution had once offered, Baldwin caught the growing anger and resentments of virtually all segments of the black community. He said it was time for blacks to control their own destiny. He was still an integrationists, but it wasn't long before black militants repeated one of the essay's most haunting questions: "Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?" (Quoted in Friedman 1995:216) Baldwin became the chief spokesman for the new black extremism, and The Fire Next Time became the model for a new generation of black writers seeking to vent their rage against white society. (Friedman 1995:217)

The national Democratic party's rejection of the MFDP at the 1964 convention was to the civil rights movement what the Civil War was to American history: an event after which things could never be the same. From then on in the civil rights movement, the term "white liberal," previously used as a neutral or even praiseworthy description of a person's politics, became an epithet. (Friedman 1995:211)

The Vietnam War soon started to unravel the best of liberal intentions. Martin Luther King came to oppose the war creating further splits in the liberal camp. Of course, King had great problems of his own. In January 1966 King moved into a tenement apartment on Chicago's west side and announced that he would lead a rent strike unless the city's landlords improved their properties immediately. The campaign soon foundered, however, as rioting by working-class whites brought King one of his most humiliating defeats. (Friedman 1995:241)

At the time of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death, he was pretty much no longer seen as an effective leader. David Lewis (1978:355) writes that the year 1967 became one of "an open hunting season on Martin King and the nonviolent movement." He came to be seen increasingly irrelevant and that has only grown stronger over time.

Dr. King had seriously underestimated the depth of racism in the American system. He had hoped that, by appealing to white guilt over racism, Americans would abolish the apartheid system and then racism itself. But while the worse aspects of the apartheid system vanished, the underlying racism of the equality-of-opportunity thesis remained. Only limited progress could be made by appealing to white guilt, for there is little or no guilt in an equality-of- opportunity racism, which blames blacks themselves for not working hard enough to take advantage of available economic opportunities.

 

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