“Things could have been different if the government had taken more of a stand during the Civil Rights Movement. As a historian, I compare it to what happened after the Civil War. We had a great opportunity, especially in the South, to deal with the legacy of slavery and racial hatred. It was a small window with the fusion of freed slaves, poor white people, and the help of Northern allies getting together and forming governments. The national government forced Southern states to rewrite their constitutions and include voting rights for African Americans. For the first time, education was also written into state constitutions with taxation to support it. After the Civil War, freedmen and the poor were very interested in education because states needed schools and teachers. The government provided protection from slave owners and their militias. They also protected the voting rights of black and poor white men. This lasted only eight or nine years, but fusion politics made a tremendous advance in a brief time. Black men were elected to office across the South. However, that ended when the federal goverment pulled out and turned the states back over to those set on re-establishing slavery and separation.
The Civil Rights Movement was the second Reconstruction and a tremendous advance. Women’s rights, labor rights, voting rights, and LGBTQ were flourishing. But once again, progress was overthrown by violence. Medgar Evers, Dr. King, and Malcolm X were assassinated. The Kennedy brothers were murdered. There was a bloodbath of terror and violence, stopping the progress that could have been made. As a historian, I compare the George Floyd protests to Reconstruction and Civil Rights. Maybe this can be called the Third Reconstruction. We have an opportunity to do away with racism as a political force and get this off of our backs for good. The difference today is that blacks and women have more power. Unheard-of things are finally happening. They changed the Mississippi flag and are dealing with Confederate monuments. We’ve been fighting to do that for decades. It is symbolic about what’s happening with people who are saying it is time to deal with this.
John Lewis and I were friends for about 60 years. I have been asked what would John Lewis say now? The first thing he would say we need to fight to save our democracy. Restore the Voting Rights Act. Make voting universal and easy. If you’re a citizen of the United States and have a valid driver’s license, you should automatically be a registered voter. Instead of having debates of minds expressing themselves, we demonize the other side and say they are immoral. John Lewis had a good answer to this. He would forgive anybody who harmed him. Forgive and not be burdened with the hate. He said hatred is not good for a man physically, mentally, or spiritually.
Does non-violent protest make a difference? Is George Wallace an American hero? Is Byron de La Beckwith, who shot Medgar Evers in the back with a rifle, an American hero? No. John Lewis is an American hero. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks are American heroes. Nonviolent protest is our better angels and our higher calling. It is also is more difficult because it’s harder to bring people together across lines of animosity than it is to push them farther apart. Making people hate each other is easy to do.
History, education, and understanding are how we come together. That is why I pass down these stories. We who made and lived the freedom movement are facing our mortality. In a few years, few of us will be left to tell the story. I have a responsibility as a survivor, like survivors of the Holocaust, to tell the story. I think this is the reason that I survived those times when it looked like getting beat by a mob was going to be my last day on earth.”
(Bob’s book, The Wrong Side of Murder Creek, was recently made into the movie, Son of the South, coming out later this year. Spike Lee is the executive producer and it is directed by Barry Alexander Brown.)