“Democracy in the South and in the United States is hampered by the Southern attitude.”
—W.E.B. Du Bois in Black Reconstruction
Du Bois’ words in response to the failed attempt to reconstruct democracy in the United States post-slavery echo with meaning today. Reconstruction, a short-lived era between the 1860s to 1880s, was the chance to rebuild, redefine and reimagine the possibilities of a democracy that served all: formerly enslaved Black people, dispossessed Native people and poor white people. Unfortunately, the opportunity for reconstruction was not only missed but misused. Instead of honoring the principles of democracy to build a vibrant, inclusive and just nation, the desire for power and wealth cemented the legacy of white supremacy. And the failure of the federal government to support protections offered by the constitutional amendments along with the overturning of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 combined with the proliferation of Black Codes (discriminatory state laws) to institutionalize white supremacy. The promotion of the racial bribe, intended to divide groups, allowed the relegation of Black, Native American and poor white people to a revised system of racial caste. Pressure and influence originating in the South and corroborated in the North channeled white backlash to develop a form of social, economic and political order and power that ensured the placement of Black people at the bottom of the caste system.
In “The Rebirth of Caste,” chapter one of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, author Michelle Alexander brilliantly takes the reader through the ebbs and flows of power and justice in U.S. history. Using history as a guide, she captivates the reader by illustrating the death and birth of racial caste systems, depicting how Black people have exerted collective power to disrupt systems of control and how white backlash has been coordinated to uphold the principles of white supremacy in new and revised systems of control. Alexander emphasizes how the seeds to revise and reconstruct new systems of control are planted well before the death of the old system. This rhythmic movement of the death of one system and the birth of another demonstrates the reciprocity of power and justice in action.
Power and justice in relationship to place is a critical nexus to explore. History and the current moment both reveal how power has been positioned in the South to limit justice based on race. The interlocking significance of power, justice, place and race is why the Southern Poverty Law Center’s president and chief executive officer, Margaret Huang, has repositioned the organization’s mission and aligned its impact strategy to increase power and capacity for a multi-racial, inclusive democracy in the South. This involves a deep commitment to the work in Black and Brown communities in five key Southern states—Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia and Florida. The specificity of the SPLC’s focus is critical to the greater movement for racial justice as each of us who is committed to true justice must be reminded by the words attributed to Du Bois: “As the South goes, so goes the nation.”
The battleground for racial justice remains in the South, and the victories for justice must be fought for and by ordinary people in the South together with allies from other parts of the nation. Although the pestilence of racism has historically affected the lives of Black and Brown people, its reach extends to all who counter the ideals of white supremacy. A shared story of us is clear as we collectively reconstruct a democracy that is real for all, not just some. Centering Black and Brown communities must not become lost in what can be described as a contemporary iteration of Reconstruction. Acknowledging the deep-rooted legacies of power and justice in these communities anchors the battle of today. We must not be cajoled into the thinking that centering Black and Brown perspectives in the current movement for justice minimizes injustices experienced by others. The story we share is that all our liberation is bound together. We are at a point of reconstruction where we must secure and guard our shared liberation.
The current threat to our shared story leads us to the urgency of now. We now witness in real time how the seeds of divisiveness and anti-inclusion are being planted on fertile ground made possible by far-right, conservative leaders specifically, but not exclusively, in Southern states, counties, cities and towns. Therefore, supporting existing and establishing new bases of organized local power that demonstrate bold and radical models of service, advocacy and justice are critical to the success of our new public narrative. This moment more than ever requires a strategic focus on the South for the greater good of our democracy and nation. And power is in the autonomy of local people engaged in this narrative of liberation.
We are in another iteration of the great exchange of power and justice. And we will fight for both and not concede for less. As we grapple with this phase of the reckoning and reconstructing of our democracy, let’s be inspired by the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”