Quaker Universalist Conversations

“Above the snake line”

Excerpts from Friends Journal, Sept 2016

[If] it wasn’t for the Quaker Brother Bayard Rustin, the 1963 March on Washington wouldn’t have ever gotten out of the gate….

Rustin said, “My activism did not spring from being black. Rather, it is rooted fundamentally in my Quaker upbringing and the values instilled in me by my grandparents who reared me.

“Those values were based on the concept of a single human family and the belief that all members of that family are equal.”

The wisdom, the insights, and the foundations of your faith are so needed in this moment.


I firmly believe that we are in the midst of a Third Reconstruction in America. If we fully grasp the power of the moral fusion, intersectional movement building that produced the first two reconstructions, we can bring this reconstruction into full existence.

If we understand the deconstructive tactics that always begin whenever there is a move to a reawakening to help this nation move a little bit closer to being a more perfect union, we cannot be so much in despair but understand what we must do now…..

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, (c) James Wasserman

The First Reconstruction took place in the shadow of slavery and amid the wreckage of the U.S. Civil War. African Americans joined hands with white farmers in the South and some allies in the North. Within four years, black and white coalitions ended up controlling every statehouse in the South. In fact, many of them had majority black legislatures within four years of the end of slavery….

They built the first public schools; they made education a public right. They extended the ballot to all men regardless of color. They talked about labor rights. They guaranteed people protection under the law. All this was happening in 1868: blacks and whites working together….

After four years of this powerful experiment, Reconstruction began to face immoral, powerful opposition. Many former Confederates saw black citizenship and leadership working with white leadership as inherently illegitimate. First, they went after white people.

The Klan was in some ways formed to first attack white people, not blacks. They began to wail against taxes. The first arguments about cutting taxes began around 1872. The argument was, If we cut taxes, then the government can’t keep its promises to the former slave….

You know what their marching orders were? You know what they said? They said, We are the redeemers. Sounds real good, doesn’t it? This is the redemption movement. But when you press that, what did they mean by redemption? They meant redeeming America from black-and-white fusion politics—fusion moral politics that was changing the nation.


Then you get the Second Reconstruction starting in 1954. Blacks, whites, Latinos, and young people began to come together. Christians, Jews, and Catholics were willing to march and suffer, and together they built this new fusion movement. In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court debated the Brown v. Board of Education case that would desegregate public schools.

The NAACP’s lead counsel Thurgood Marshall worked with Jewish and white and black lawyers. But he didn’t just argue the law—he also appealed to morality…. All nine justices—even one former Ku Klux Klan member—voted unanimously for the end of segregation….

In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi…. Rosa Parks sees the pictures in Jet, a magazine marketed toward African Americans that was one of the few periodicals to publish the graphic photos of Till’s corpse…. When the killers are acquitted, Parks says, We gotta go after Jim Crow.

In 1955, she refused to give up her bus seat and sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She sits down, and that allows Martin and Bayard and others to stand up, and we see the beginning of the Second Reconstruction….

And then what happened? The Dixiecrat extremists revolted. They couldn’t stand it. They turned to violence and terror. They killed Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers and Viola Liuzzo and James Reeb and many others.

They decided, We gotta have another movement now. We had the redemption movement to stop the First Reconstruction. What do we need? Southern strategy. And guess what their mantra was? We must take back America. We must make America great again. We must redeem America.


In the midst of those stories lies a roadmap for today. We must begin to think in terms of building out a Third Reconstruction that I believe has been birthed. The signs are here. The election of President Obama (not his policies because I don’t agree with all his policies), coming from the kind of campaign he ran, broke through in the South….

There’s a new electorate: blacks and whites and young people. It’s a demographic shift. Now if 30 percent of unregistered black voters registered in the South and they joined with white progressives and Latinos, the southern strategy is in trouble…. Young blacks, whites, and Latinos are coming together all over this country. That’s a sign of the Third Reconstruction….

I believe those who are the cousins of the deconstructors are trying now to kill this new Third Reconstruction in its infancy, because they know the power we would have if we hooked up and aligned ourselves in this moral fusion, this intersectional movement….

We need indigenously led, state-based, state government-focused, deeply moral, deeply constitutional, anti-racist, anti-poverty, pro-justice, pro-labor, transformative fusion movement in every state….

"Rise above the snake line," Rev. Dr. William J. Barber

My son is an environmental physicist, and he tells me things sometimes. He said to me, “Daddy, if you ever find yourself stranded out in mountainous territory, and you have to walk out,” he says, “Daddy, don’t walk out through the valley.”

I said, “Why?” He said, “Snakes live in the valley.” He said, “You might have to burn a little energy, but to get rid of the risk of snakes, climb up the mountain or climb up the hill a way.”

I said, “Why’s that?” He said, “Because every biologist knows that there’s something called a snake line. Snakes are cold-blooded animals, they can’t live at higher altitude.”

He said, “So if you get above the snake line, you can make it out. Might be hard to get up there, but if you get above there, the snakes can’t destroy you.”

Well, I stopped by to tell you, it’s our time to get America above the snake line.

Image Sources

Friends Journal’s September 2016 issue, “The Third Reconstruction: Moral Fusion Politics and Working for Justice,” © James Wasserman.

Rise above the snake line,” Nicole Sandler Show (8/22/14) and elsewhere.

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