Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He’s one of America’s leading thinkers and has a great ability to put current social and political situations in their historical American context.
Last week, the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research awarded its W.E.B. Du Bois Medal to seven leaders: Muhammad Ali, Marian Wright Edelman, Mellody Hobson, Eric Holder, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Nasir “Nas” Jones, and Carrie Mae Weems.
As part of that ceremony, Henry Louis Gates Jr. have a speech in which he looks at the Black Lives Matter movement through the lens of Du Bois and American history titled Is This the End of the 2nd Reconstruction?. I urge you to read the entire piece (it’s not very long), but below is an excerpt:
…My concern is that the end of the Second Reconstruction is upon us now, or that there are too many in power who are trying to achieve that pernicious end. W.E.B. Du Bois said of the beginning and end of the first Reconstruction, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery. The whole weight of America was thrown to color caste. The colored world went down. … A new slavery arose.”
Following the first Reconstruction—that decade after the Civil War in which the Union was to become whole again, the slave was to become free and property was to become citizen—the economic relation of slave to master was essentially reconstituted through sharecropping and disenfranchisement mounted mischievously in fits and starts, and then confirmed and maintained as the law of the land. As Du Bois again put it:
The most magnificent drama in the last thousand years of human history is the transportation of ten million human beings out of the dark beauty of their mother continent into the new-found Eldorado of the West. They descended into Hell; and in the third century they arose from the dead, in the finest effort to achieve democracy for the working millions which this world had ever seen. It was a tragedy that beggared the Greek; it was an upheaval of humanity like the Reformation and the French Revolution. … [But] we fell under the leadership of those who would compromise with truth in the past in order to make peace in the present and guide policy in the future.
The legacy of the ending of Reconstruction, the redemption of the Confederacy, was a debilitating blow to the status of the newly freed slaves and their descendants: sharecropping, convict lease (both actually forms of neo-slavery), Jim Crow and lynch laws, poll taxes and literacy tests, and the scandalous sanctioning of separate but equal as the law of the land by the U.S. Supreme Court. These are just some of the items in the catalog of horrors that kept the majority of black people systematically separate and decidedly unequal throughout the first half of the 20th century. Still, miraculously, many of our ancestors persistently rose, and stories of success were beacons of hope and a promise of better days to come. …–Henry Louis Gates Jr.