How do we build a people’s movement? We start with vision. Prophetic moral vision seeks to penetrate despair, so that we can believe in and embrace new futures. It does not ask if the vision can be implemented—questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The slaves didn’t get out of slavery by first figuring out how to get out; they got out because they were driven by a vision that said, “Oh freedom over me. / And before I’d be a slave / I’d be buried in my grave / And go home to my Lord and be free.”
If we are going to have a real populist movement in this country, we have to reinstate an imagination that is not driven by pundits but by a larger vision. Most of the time, your greatest vision comes in your darkest night, because it is then, Martin Luther King Jr. said, that you see the stars. Populist movements don’t build when everything is fine. A populist moral vision is a form of dissent that says there’s a better way, there’s a moral way.
I believe we are in the middle of a Third Reconstruction—and that we are facing the reaction to it. The First Reconstruction was built and led by a multiracial Southern fusion movement after the Civil War. It was crushed by the nation’s acceptance of Jim Crow, as codified in the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, and by decades of white terror attacks on black people. The Second Reconstruction can be traced to that glorious day in May, sixty years ago, when nine white men in black robes said no forever to the evil system of Jim Crow in Brown v. Board of Education. For the next fourteen years, young and old, rich and poor, white, black and brown risked their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to repair the breach in God’s human race. In 1968, with the murder of King, the destruction of the organizational infrastructure of the Southern freedom movement and a clever propaganda campaign based on racist appeals to white voters, “Southern Strategy” extremists began what has become nearly a half-century effort to dismantle the gains of the Second Reconstruction.