This Thanksgiving season I have been thinking a lot about a Thomas Nast cartoon from 1869, "Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner." He drew it as the 15th Amendment, banning racial discrimination in voting, was being ratified. That Amendment represented the high point of Reconstruction and its revolutionary ambitions.
Most Americans know very little about Reconstruction. Those that do possess a rudimentary understanding of American history (probably a minority), know that Jim Crow followed slavery, but are generally unaware of the time in between when black men represented Southern states in Congress. Most people, regardless of their level of historical knowledge, tend to assume that "back then" racial attitudes were unenlightened and bigoted, unlike "nowadays."
Well, the recent news certainly gives plenty of evidence that "nowadays" plenty of white people are super racist. The past, however, also gives us clues that plenty of white people "back then" had progressive ideas about race. In this cartoon Nast presents us with a vision of America as a diverse and welcoming place. There are African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and various immigrant groups sitting at the same table. The centerpiece reads "Universal Suffrage" and Nast frames the picture with the phrases "Come One, Come All" and "Free and Equal."
The revolution of Reconstruction, bolstered by people like Nast, would be destroyed by the Klan, "Redeemers," and other white vigilantes as the federal government looked on and did nothing. It is an event that should remind us, more than any other, that history does not move in a straight line. Progress does not simply "happen." It is not inevitable or the natural arc of history. Every time there has been an advance for equality, its opponents have come back harder. I am reminded of Ibram X. Kendi's brilliant formulation in Stamped From The Beginning, where he reminds us that "racial progress" has always been met with "racist progress" in American history.
When Barack Obama was elected, many people saw it as a sign that the image of American society presented by Nast in this cartoon was finally a reality. Instead it was the catalyst for a reorganization of American politics around issues of white nationalism. If we truly want a "free and equal" society, we have to fight for it, not simply expect it to happen naturally through the tides of history. This Thanksgiving I want to give thanks to the fighters, and to pray for others to get the fighting spirit.