I wrote this essay in the immediate aftermath of the January 6th assault on the U.S. Capitol but was uncertain whether I should share it. Today, however, three weeks since that assault, it is all too clear that the public’s attention is already moving on. We are drifting into national forgetfulness, as we have done so often before and as we must not do again. It is crucial that we remember what happened on January 6th and that it has happened many times before. Otherwise, it will happen again.
The storming of the Capitol by a violent mob on Wednesday, January 6th, left many Americans stunned. It should not have. Violent white supremacists committing insurrection with impunity is business as usual in the United States of America. January 6th was simply a repetition of one of the oldest themes in our history.
In the news and on social media, people have repeatedly said that they could never have imagined such an event. Many have said that the scenes on television and the internet looked like something from a distant, unstable foreign country—you know, the ones we think we’re better than. Even those who say we should have seen this coming support their arguments by pointing to the political rhetoric of recent years, the conspiracy theories accepted by a shocking percentage of the U.S. population, and the calls for violence on social media. Only a handful of scholars, most of them black, have pointed out that this is part of a pattern that we have seen many times before.
For the last 155 years, U.S. history has witnessed repeated cycles of movement towards racial justice followed by backlash. The myth that we have made steady progress on issues of racial equality is no more than a myth. The reality is that the civil rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s was struggling to regain rights that African Americans already enjoyed almost a hundred years before, during Reconstruction. How did they lose those rights? The white southern aristocracy—who had received the equivalent of a slap on the wrist for committing open rebellion—pressured, cajoled, and maneuvered until northern white patricians decided that their personal profits were more valuable than the freedom and lives of southern blacks. While the Gilded Age tycoons gathered half the wealth of America into their hands, the former Confederate states passed a series of laws to keep black people from voting or holding public office—both of which they had done in large numbers during Reconstruction. Thus began the Jim Crow era.
What couldn’t be accomplished by law was accomplished through violence. The first race riots in the U.S. were not led by blacks but by whites determined to keep blacks under the thumb of white supremacy. Lynching, rape, and arson were their tools. Like the rioters of January 6th, they felt no need to hide their identity. They took photos of themselves standing proudly beside the bodies of the black people they had just murdered. They feared no repercussions, and their fearlessness was justified. None of them was ever prosecuted. That precedent, repeated countless times, explains a puzzle that should have perplexed us all, but which has largely passed unnoticed: Why didn’t the Capitol rioters try to hide their identities? Like the race rioters and lynch mobs of the past, they proudly recorded and publicized their crimes—because they assumed they would never be held accountable.
The key turning point in the post-Civil War period was the disputed election of 1876—the very election that some cited as a precedent for dealing with the false claims of election fraud witnessed today. In fact, the two elections were nothing alike. In 1876, voter intimidation was obvious and violent all across the South and was directed both at blacks and at white Republicans. Election fraud was committed so openly it could not be doubted. South Carolina had a voter turnout of 101%—that’s right, more people voted than were eligible to vote. Congress had no choice but to intervene. The commission they created, however, did not resolve—or even address—these problems. Instead, it brushed them under the carpet by means of a cynical, backroom deal. The Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, was made president, and in return the Republican party agreed to the removal of federal troops from the southern states. Reconstruction was over. Our nation, which had recognized African American citizenship less than ten years earlier, betrayed black people and left them without protection as their rights were stolen, their freedoms trampled, and their lives imperiled.
It may seem ironic that such a corrupt, racist, and shameful moment from our history was held up as an example for us to follow. It is not. Since Reconstruction’s failure, the U.S. has seen multiple 1876s. In 1896, when the Supreme Court ruled that separate but equal was constitutional, it was 1876 all over again. After WWII, when black soldiers returned from fighting for freedom in Europe and the Pacific only to find that they were not free at home, it was 1876. At the end of the 1960s, when the nation turned its back on the civil rights movement?—1876. In the 1980s, when the white majority became convinced that affirmative action and other programs that helped minorities were a form of anti-white racism? Yet another 1876. When the election of the nation’s first black president brought white nationalism into the mainstream? You guessed it, 1876. As we consider how to respond to the events of January 6th, 1876 is the perfect year on which to reflect, because the question facing us today is: Will 2021 be 1876?
The fact that no electoral commission was created to investigate the supposed irregularities of last year’s election does not answer the question. Neither do the arrests of rioters that have occurred so far. They are steps in the right direction—away from the edge of the cliff on which we are walking—but bigger questions remain. Will we accept the reality Black Lives Matter has made it impossible to ignore—that police brutality against African Americans is the rule and not the exception in our country? Will we accept the reality of our history—that for more than four hundred years black people have been oppressed here and the white majority has mostly failed to acknowledge or remedy their sufferings? Will we understand that until we face up to our history, it will continue to hound us? Will we embrace the opportunity we have today to finish reconstructing America and make it what it was meant to be?
Langston Hughes called America “The land that never has been yet—and yet must be.” The question we must answer today is whether we will again default on the “promissory note” of the Declaration of Independence or whether we will finally create a land in which all people are truly equal. I have no doubt that the U.S. is capable of living up to its creed, but whether it will do so remains to be seen. The violence on January 6th was business as usual in our country. If the perpetrators are allowed to get away with it, we will know that nothing has changed. Calls to overlook the crimes of Wednesday—in the name of national unity and healing—are also business as usual. We tried the same thing in 1876 and in every one of the 1876s that followed. It didn’t work then; it won’t work now. There can be neither unity nor healing without justice.
If we wish to move forward, we must begin by prosecuting and punishing as many of the rioters as possible and by holding accountable, in whatever way possible, all those who incited and encouraged the violence. Then, we must own up to our sins against our black sisters and brothers and do what we can to make amends. At the very least, we must bring an end to the injustices they face here and now. If we fail to do so, we will—at best—have doomed our country to another 1876 and the injustice and violence that must follow. At worst, our failure to clear our moral debt may doom our country. Contrary to the popular narrative, the U.S. has been a multiracial society since before its founding. We are bound to one another by ties stronger than “bonds of affection” and more durable than “chords of memory.” No part of our society will have freedom, peace, and prosperity until everyone in our society shares them. It’s time for us to live up to our ideals and at long last bring an end to 1876.