By WILLIAM D. SUNDERLIN
The abolition of slavery in 1865 through the 13th amendment, together with the 14th amendment (citizenship for all people born in the U.S. including formerly enslaved people) and the 15th amendment (the right of citizens to vote) ratified soon thereafter, supposedly laid the foundation for racial equality in the United States. If this is true, then why is it that, a century later in the mid-1960s, the struggle for civil rights began almost as if it were starting from scratch?
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. answers this question in “Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow.” Gates sheds light on how the institutions of white supremacy, hardly deterred but instead inspired by their defeat in the Civil War, systematically dismantled the civil rights gains of Reconstruction through widespread violence, suppression and rescinding at the state level of civil rights granted ineffectually at the federal level, and through mass saturation in literature, advertising, and other public imagery of alleged inferiority of African Americans.
Gates places emphasis on this cultural battlefield because it has been largely out of sight. He also documents the rich history of courageous efforts by African Americans to right the wrongs committed on this battlefield.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1968 that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” While we have to hope this is true, Gates’ book reminds us that this arc does not bend gently, but instead lurches in accordance with whether white supremacists or racial egalitarians have the upper hand in the long-term struggle.
And that is precisely why “Stony the Road” is so important at our current juncture in history. With the failure of the “Second Reconstruction” in the 1960s to create a decisive shift toward justice, and with white supremacy emboldened and unleashed by the Trump presidency, it is vital that we understand our cultural history well. To see how deeply rooted supremacist thought, culture, and action is in history is to appreciate how virulent and dangerous it is now.
It is especially important for white people to learn these lessons, for two related reasons. First, the historical underpinnings and dynamics of contemporary racism are far more opaque to the oppressing race than they are to people of color. Second, an unstated lesson of the Gates book is that bending the arc of the moral universe decisively toward justice will require far greater participation of white people than has been the case to date.
“Stony the Road” is a difficult read because it spotlights the depth and breadth of white supremacist thinking in the decades after emancipation. But the knowledge gained provides useful guidance for understanding our ugly current impasse, and inspiration for helping to smooth the stony road.
William D. Sunderlin is a researcher, professor and activist living in Fayetteville, N.Y. He is affiliated with the State University of New York – College of Environmental Science and Forestry (Syracuse, N.Y.), the Center for International Forestry Research (Indonesia), and the Rights and Resources Initiative in Washington, D.C.
“Stony the Road” are words describing the struggle for freedom and justice in “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the African American National Anthem. Composer and pianist Jon Batiste performs part of the piece during an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” with an introduction at about the 11:30 mark.