Civil Rights Are Backsliding. We Need a Third Reconstruction.

By Licha Nyiendo

Last month another young Black man, Tyre Nichols, was murdered at the hands of rogue police officers.  The horror of Tyre Nichols’s death is matched by the sad predictability of events like this one.

As the mother to a 10 year-old Black son, I responded as countless other Black mothers did.  I sat down with my child and had “the Talk,” telling him what to do if he is in a police encounter so that he comes home alive.  That I am a former federal prosecutor does not protect me or my family from a police culture of excessive force.

The cruel irony is that Tyre Nichols did everything right, but he still didn’t come home.  He died a stone’s throw away from his own mother’s house, crying out for her.

The question to ask ourselves is whether our society will finally take this opportunity to turn news of another unarmed Black man’s murder into a Third Reconstruction, or continue to backslide away from civil rights.

In Reconstruction, immediately after the Civil War, Congress enacted numerous measures to protect the former slaves: the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which provide protection from state-sponsored race discrimination and enshrine the right to vote; and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, affirming citizenship as a birthright and equal protection under the law.  When the federal government retreated, the Jim Crow era of racial terror began.

A decades-long movement to correct the human rights abuses of Jim Crow culminated in the 1960s with the federal government’s renewed action on civil rights.  Often referred to as the “Second Reconstruction,” the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination in public accommodations, the Twenty-Fourth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 struck down pernicious poll taxes and literacy tests in voting, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 banned discrimination in housing.  Once again, when the federal government stopped focusing on racial justice, gains slipped away.

By 2013, the Supreme Court swept away a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in its Shelby County v. Holder decision – the requirement for states with histories of voter suppression to seek the pre-approval of the Justice Department before making changes to their voting laws.

Now, in a cruel twist to the 2020 police killing of George Floyd – another unarmed African American man whose murder was captured in cell phone footage – comes the emergence of the “anti-woke” movement.

This pernicious counter-narrative to calls for racial justice, police reform, and cultural inclusion nurses the perverse view that discussion of racism itself is somehow inherently racist.

School board meetings are battlegrounds where education is labeled “indoctrination.”  Critical race theory (CRT) is a boogieman to scare parents.

Since January 2021, at least 18 states have passed laws restricting lessons in school on racism.  Florida’s “Stop WOKE law” prohibited secondary schools from teaching that any individuals are “inherently racist” or requiring a person to feel guilty over past racism committed by others.

A district court issued an injunction in November blocking such a wildly ambiguous and ill-defined law from taking effect, but Florida was undaunted.

Their education department banned a proposed AP African American Studies course from high schools.  Florida’s state legislature passed HB 1467, making it a felony for a teacher to display in their classroom books that have not been pre-approved by a librarian or “certified media specialist.”  Empty bookshelves at school libraries attempting to comply with the law are sobering.

Moreover, book banning is on the rise in school districts nationwide.  Among the ten books most banned by school districts is Nobel laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.”

Like the federal government’s efforts countering Jim Crow, it’s time for a renewed national effort – a Third Reconstruction – to continue the long march toward justice for all Americans.

While prior versions of the Voting Rights Act were routinely reauthorized, most recently in 2006 by a vote of 98-0 in the Senate, The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, failed to pass in the last Congress.  This bill, which would restore much-needed protections against discrimination targeting voters of color, should be a cornerstone of that Reconstruction.

Similarly, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which also stalled in the last divided Senate, should be passed. The bill reforms policing with national standards on use of force, remedies for racial profiling, a national police misconduct registry; and limits on qualified immunity.

The next few weeks will determine if Tyre Nichols’ death is just another tragic loss of Black life by police, or if this is the moment when we demand that our neighbors — unarmed, scared, and just trying to get home to their mother — are worth saving.

I hope I can tell my son that this is the moment we commenced a Third Reconstruction.



  • Licha Nyiendo

Published on February 28, 2023


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