This country faces a reckoning. The question is whether we will come together or fall apart, move forward, or descend toward a moral abyss. In this time of deep discord, of partisan divide, racial tension, extreme inequality, the outcome is far from certain.
As fraught as this time is, however, it is not unique. We have faced such moments before.
When this nation was founded on the proposition that all were created equal, the Founders could not duck the question of slavery. States with large numbers of slaves wanted the slaves to be counted for purposes of representation and taxation, even though they were considered property, without any rights. To form the union, the Founders compromised in the Constitution, with slaves counted as three-fifths of a person – three-fifth human – increasing the number of representatives from the slave states while remaining in bondage. Thomas Jefferson owned 600 slaves, but publicly denounced slavery as a “moral depravity” and believed that slavery represented the greatest threat to the new nation. “I tremble for my country,” he wrote, “when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
In the end it took a Civil War – with the most casualties of any war in American history – to bring an end to this depravity. That triumph was driven by an abolitionist movement, by increased slave revolts, by strong leaders like Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, and by whites and blacks willing to risk their lives to preserve the union and eventually to save it from the moral abyss of slavery.
Then, after a period of Reconstruction when biracial majorities transformed the South, creating the first public school systems and a new economy, a relentless reaction set in, with terrorism – lynchings, murders, beatings, intimidation – stripping the new free man of their rights and driving their allies apart. What followed was nearly a century of legal apartheid – segregation – in which blacks were deprived of the right to vote, the right to sit on juries, access to public facilities and more. Once more, America was scarred by a moral depravity.
This time, it required a nonviolent civil rights movement with courageous whites joining African Americans demanding their rights. The country responded when they witnessed the horrors of the Birmingham bombing, Bloody Sunday in Selma and more. That movement for justice forced politicians to react, and with strong leaders like Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, they reconstituted America with the passage of the Civil Rights Bill, and the Voting Rights legislation. Once more coalitions like the Rainbow Coalition came together to exercise those rights, register people to vote, and elect new leaders to lead the way.
Now, with America growing more diverse – and yet more unequal with the wealthy few capturing almost all of the rewards of growth – a new reaction is building, driven by cynical politicians who fan racial division for political profit. A reactionary majority in the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, repealed affirmative action, opened the floodgates to big and secret money in politics, and authorized political gerrymandering. Donald Trump, personifying that reaction, launched a multi-state, multi-layered effort to overturn his loss in a democratic election to stay in power. Once more America faces a reckoning.
As history teaches us, it will take a broad coalition of concerned citizens – drawn across lines of race, region and religion – to come together to save democracy. Courageous leaders can resist the efforts to undermine democracy, as Republican officials did in Arizona and Georgia.
Courageous prosecutors like Atlanta’s Fani Willis, can seek to enforce the rule of law. In the end, however, the American people will decide if the country will continue to move forward, or if those who scorn its laws to divide us will succeed. Whether or not Donald Trump and his co-conspirators are found guilty in a court of law, the threat that they represent will only be defeated by the decision of the American people at the polls. Once more we must decide the course this country will take.
Time and time again in our history, citizen movements have saved America from a moral abyss.
Time and time again, courageous leaders have responded and molded their energies into political reforms that made America better. Now once more, the country needs that movement and that leadership to move us forward.