In The Reagan Era, hope is hard to come by. But, we found some — five examples of resiliency from a similar period of political history that may inspire us as we prepare to enter Trump’s world.
Before Donald Trump won the 2016 election last Tuesday — becoming the 44th white, cis male to hold the office in the United States — he was already drawing comparisons from the press with another incendiary and controversial commander-in-chief, whose policies were detrimental to the lives of black Americans and working poor — Ronald Reagan.
From the disproportionate and punitive impact of his “supply-side” or “trickle-down” economic policies on the black poor to tampering with and rolling back the Voting Rights Act to the escalation of War on Drugs to his strategic peddling in historical stereotypes about African Americans, the 40th president left a lasting and tragic footprint on black lives.
In a manner similar to Reagan, Trump has vowed to “Make America Great Again” by cutting taxes for the rich, balancing the federal budget, restoring “law and order,” and putting foot to neck to all of America’s foreign enemies. Less than two months from now, we will enter — reluctantly — that world. If the conduct of Trump’s campaign is any indication of what we can expect from his administration, we’re in for some hard times, times which — in many respects — will echo the ghost of Reagan.
In our effort to help ease your anxiety as much as humanly possible — and we know that requires a huge stretch of psychological strength — we invite you to glance back at this specific piece of the past to remember some moments of resilience to come out of inarguably one of the lowest and darkest eras of black America in the 20th century.
Even though they’re hard to come by, here are four glimmers of hope to come out of the era of Reagan.
The Ratification of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
It took over a decade for Coretta Scott King and close friends and allies of Martin Luther King, Jr. to convince the federal government to approve of a holiday honoring the work and legacy of civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Reagan, a staunch conservative who opposed The Black Panthers during his tenure as governor of California, initially rejected the idea of a day set aside to honor a controversial black leader who was allegedly tied to communism. With time, he relented, and signed the House bill that made Marin Luther King Day the law of the land on November 2, 1983, three years into his first term. The holiday was set for January 20th, five days after King’s actual birthday. It would be another three years before the nation would celebrate its first official King Day. During a period when conservatives were spinning fantastic, stereotypical stories about a collective of “welfare queens” mooching off the government to delegitimize the real struggles of black mothers, King Day would serve as a reminder of what the real struggles of black families were really about — the liberation of black America.
The Rise of “Message” Rap in Hip Hop
With all the seismic social shifts that threatened to rip apart black America at the seams during The Reagan Era, it seemed only natural that the genre of black music christened with the name rap would evolve from music created to rock a block party to songs that house a political message. Songs like the Grandmaster Flash and Furious Fives’s “The Message” and Public Enemy’s “It’s Like That” not only echo the slave spirituals of the 19th century and civil rights anthems of the 1950s and 60s that is critical to maintaining the spirit of black protest but are the prototypes of some of the most powerful movement songs of this period, like Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and J. Cole’s “Apparently.”
If we’re completely intellectually honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that all music contains a message, and party music has a place in social struggle. Nonetheless, the rise of politically-charged rap lyrics that paint a picture of the dismal world of black people highlights the fact that no governmental force, no matter how bleak, has been powerful enough to stunt or crush the creativity of Americans of African descent.
The Birth of BET
Technically, Robert L. Johnson’s Black Entertainment Television, or BET — the counterpart to Music Television (MTV) — had its official launch before the era of Reagan actually began, on January 25, 1980. At this stage, the programming was minimal, confined to music shows that are now nostalgically held as classics, like Video Soul and Video Vibrations. However, the network was the first of its kind and celebrated a milestone of black professionalism. Prior to its existence, no one had ever known of a cable television show owned and operated by an African American (at least before Viacom bought it in 2001). As black people stared down long-term unemployment and unnerving job insecurity during Reagan’s two terms in office, BET would provide a regular source of inspiration.
Ben Chavis Movement Against Environmental Racism
Although the heyday of the civil rights movement seemed to be fastly approaching its end at the start of The Reagan Era — as the white backlash that began with the election of Richard Nixon continuously grew — some activists refused to reward white tyranny with defeat and carried on the fight. One of those activists was Benjamin Chavis, who had been an assistant to Martin Luther King, Jr. Chavis is credited with coining the term environmental racism to describe a new dimension of the struggle for racial parity — the deliberate zoning of black, Latinx, and marginalized communities in or near dangerous and environmentally hazardous areas. In 1986, he published Toxic Waste and Race in the United States, a landmark national investigation that quantified the thesis that blacks were targeted for tenantry in close proximity to toxic facilities. The movement to end environmental racism continues to this day.