Writing History's Next Chapter

Scholars Timothy McCarthy and George Lipsitz discuss the connection between our responsibilities in the world today and two historical periods: the civil rights movement and the Reconstruction era.

Transcript (Text)

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Our understanding of historical movement and motion should never be one thing caused another thing caused another thing and now we're here and look at how neatly that all worked out. And so for us to understand the forces of history that move history, we need to be open to the possibility that history doesn't move in a neat line or forward progression. And that's particularly true when we're talking about freedom and equality, progress.

These things are never inevitable. They're always contested, they're always contending with forces of reaction and resistance. But studying history is the process by which we try to make sense, not just of lives and worlds long ago, but of our life and our world today.

When we talk about Reconstruction as an unfinished revolution, I think on some level, all revolutions are unfinished. People ask me, you know, why do you vote? Our party, our political system's broken. I vote because I study slavery. I vote because I study freedom and social movements that have brought about these kinds of changes. I vote because so many people died who couldn't.

I think that that's where we get inspired by history, not because any revolution is going to come to a conclusion. More often than not, revolutions come full circle. That's another definition of revolution, is that you're back to where you started. The reason why they call it the civil rights movement the second American Reconstruction and why they call the Civil War the second American Revolution is that the work is never done.

So here we are living in our time, and there's plenty of reasons to despair. There's plenty of reasons to think that even if you end slavery, even if you passed civil rights laws, you can think that maybe nothing is going to change. But if people had thought that in 1859, there would never have been the first Reconstruction. If people had thought that in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, there wouldn't have been the second Reconstruction through the civil rights movement.

And if we think that today, we guarantee there will never be another Reconstruction to try to fulfill these promises. And that would be a great tragedy. That would be a great loss for all of us. And the fact that we're familiar with this tragedy, with this betrayal of the freedom dreams of black people, it certainly is a cause for sadness. But it's also a cause to think, we know this place, we've been here before. We come from a tradition, people of all colors and all races, come from a tradition of social justice in which ordinary men and women thought it was worth risking everything to create a fair and democratic society. And the very fact that we could even know that, or that could make us feel warm inside to think that we're a part of that, indicates how powerful Reconstruction is.

So the answer to these questions about Reconstruction and what its meaning are, this is a chapter that's unwritten. And this is a chapter that the people studying it have to not only read about, but to think about how are you going to write a new chapter not in your notebooks, but in society as men and women with responsibility and opportunity.

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