Richard Kirsch: It Is Always Darkest Just Before the Dawn

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Richard Kirsch: It Is Always Darkest Just Before the Dawn

 It's always darkest before dawn. (Photo: Albert Lynn/flickr/cc)

My mentor Lawrence A. Cremin, a great historian, attributed this saying to Charles Beard, but apparently it predates him. It is always darkest just before the dawn. Just when things seem utterly intolerable, remember that there will be another turn of the wheel. For those who were plunged into depression by the election, here is an article by Richard Kirsch of the Roosevelt Institute, that offers hope that the worst eras in American history were followed by bursts of progressivism. (Here is more about the author.)

He begins:


When we look at American history, the great progressive eras follow the darkest, most conservative times. As deeply painful as a Trump presidency will be, if we continue to build the emerging progressive movements of our day, we will accelerate the coming of the next powerful burst of progressive change in our country.

The Dred Scott decision was laid down three years before Lincoln’s election. The gilded age of the robber barons created the conditions for the Progressive era of the early 1900s. The Great Depression preceded the New Deal. The multiple progressive advances of the 60s through early 70s came on the heels of McCarthyism.

The ground for every one of these progressive eras was laid by decades of organizing leading to the emergence of movements. From the abolitionists, to the suffragettes, the Populists, the labor movement, the civil rights movement and environmental consciousness, we saw organizing in what seemed fallow ground, followed by vibrant movements and then — when all seemed lost — enormous progress towards justice.

To be sure, the excesses and contradictions of the dominant regime of the time — whether it be slavery, patriarchy or capitalism — created the conditions in people’s lives for them to demand major change. Today the excesses of capitalism and the continuing forces of racism and patriarch drive our movements: the fight for $15 and a union; Black Lives Matter; climate justice; LGBTQ equality; welcoming immigrants.

What must we do now to assure that Trump and the next four years of Republican control of government becomes the doormat to the next great progressive era? The short answer is to continue to build movement and to connect those movements to resisting Trumpism, championing bold ideas nationally and moving those ideas in states.

I have met many young people who expressed sorrow that they were not alive during the 1960s, when vibrant social movements encouraged youth to change the world. Well, their chance is now.

It is time to rebuild movements to revive unions, which are at a low ebb and which assure a reliable path to rise from poverty into the middle class. It is time to rebuild a movement to protect public education against privatization. It is time to rebuild a movement for gun control. It is time to rebuild a movement to protect the environment. It is time to rebuild a movement to fight income inequality. It is time to rebuild a movement to protect our civil liberties.

These—and many more—are issues that will not go away. In many cases, sturdy organizations exist and they should be strengthened. Join the ACLU, join People for the American Way, join the NAACP. Add the names of your own favorite organization. Be part of the change you want to see. Don’t agonize, organize.

Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education at New York University. Her most recent book is Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools.  Her previous books and articles about American education include: The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform, (Simon & Schuster, 2000); The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (Knopf, 2003); The English Reader: What Every Literate Person Needs to Know (Oxford, 2006), which she edited with her son Michael Ravitch. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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