This week I got to experience a special treat, attending a lecture at Mercer County Community College by a professor of mine from college, Eric Foner, on Reconstruction, the period right after the Civil War. It was also the subject of the class of his I took years ago so it brought back many memories of sitting in a lecture hall and learning about one of the most pivotal moments in American history.
It was striking how many of the issues the nation was struggling with in the 1860s and 70s are relevant today. Professor Foner mentioned that the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, had a clause in it exempting prisoners. It appears historians don’t know why it was included; most state constitutions barring slavery also had it so it was probably just copied over.
No one thought much about the exemption until recently when the issue of mass incarceration has come to the fore. For the last 150 years prisoners have been subject to slavery, and many believe the criminal justice system has been used for the purpose of social control and racial discrimination after the success of the civil rights movement.
One of Foner’s themes was the idea that in American history rights can be given, but they can also be taken away, whether through court decisions or the efforts of entrenched power. The 14th Amendment introduced birthright citizenship to the constitution, but just last year the president indicated that he would try and end the practice.
One other relevant moment from his lecture was the case of the 15th Amendment, which gave the right to vote to all adult men in the U.S. Foner noted that this proposal split the women’s rights movement at the time. Some supported the amendment to get the country closer to racial equality, while others opposed it on the grounds that it would set back the cause of women for generations.
In fact it would take another 50 years for women to get the right to vote. The movement for black suffrage sacrificed feminism to achieve its goal, and, Foner argued, the deed was repaid during the campaign for the 19th Amendment which wasn’t adopted until 1920. Women’s activists needed the support of Southern states so they promised that the new amendment wouldn’t give the vote to black women in their states. And in fact black women were disenfranchised in the South until the 1960s.
Unfortunately, the struggle for freedom and justice sometimes keeps groups apart, which we see today. Representative Ilhan Omar is again in the news using anti-Semitic tropes, in this case implying that Jews have a dual loyalty. Many American Jews, who might otherwise support her defense of social justice and Palestinian rights, are hurt by her comments, while she feels targeted for undue criticism because of her Muslim background.
As American history has shown, fighting for greater civil and human rights is not easy. Even allies struggle to stay united in a system where others try to sow division. Some groups may find more acceptance and power and that can create resentment, but no one is truly free until all are free. As Martin Luther King wrote, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”