It has often been said that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it; however, as with many clichés and trite sayings, the truth of this warning has lost its power over time. Yet the failure to learn from the past best describes today's political climate. The election of the nation's first black President in 2008, was seen by many as the end of racism in America and the ultimate manifestation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream. As our 44th President Barack Hussein Obama took office, the euphoria of his victory and its historical significance soon gave way to the sobering reality that our nation had not progressed as far as many had hoped.
Instead of uniting both parties in an unprecedented wave of bipartisanship, Congress was more divided than ever as President Obama took office. Rather than uniting all races for the betterment of the country, the United States appeared to become more divided as instances of racial intolerance increased. Finally with President Obama completing his final term in office instead of electing a president who would continue his policies, America has chosen a candidate in opposition to all he stood for (A candidate who campaigned with the promise of returning the country to the glory of its past). For many fears of going backwards instead of forward are overwhelming; however, as puzzling as today's political climate is, we have experienced similar times before.
Immediately following the end of slavery, African American experienced unprecedented political gains. After the end of the Civil War came the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Freedmen's Bureau Bill; which ended slavery, made African Americans citizens, and granted Black men the right to vote. Along with these gains came the election of African Americans to political office for the first time in US history. Black congressmen like Joseph Rainey, Jefferson Long, Robert Elliot, Benjamin Turner, Richard Cain, and many others were elected. It is believed that hundreds of African Americans held state, federal, or local offices between 1863 and 1877, with the culmination of these political advancements being the elections of Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce to the U.S. Senate.
In response to the political gains of African Americans during this period (known as the Reconstruction Era) came an effort to suppress the Black vote and to prevent African Americans from gaining political and economic power. Throughout the South, "black codes" including poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses reduced the number of African Americans who were eligible to vote. The country witnessed Presidents like Andrew Jackson and Rutherford B. Hayes take office, who were seen as sympathetic to white southerners and former Confederate States. The Ku Klux Klan and the White League were formed to further intimidate African Americans from voting and to discourage them from taking leadership roles. As a result of these events, the short term gains made by African Americans at the beginning of Reconstruction were effectively overturned. This led to an atmosphere where Plessy v. Ferguson was passed, and separate but equal being the law of the land for the next 70 years.
Although I have provided an extremely brief overview of the Reconstruction Era, a more detailed analysis of that time and today's political climate reveals many uncanny if not frightening parallels. Yet history as always serves as a lesson: Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. A look at the Reconstruction Era provides us with both warnings of what can happen, as well as lessons of what to avoid, as our new president takes office. Doing this can help us truly progress as a nation, and not repeat the mistakes of the past.