by Stephen Kantrowitz •

The dream of a postracial nation which lushly flowered with Barack Obama’s election now seems faint and faded: the 2012 presidential campaign witnessed the continuing fantasy that the president was an ineligible non-citizen of African birth, racialized campaigns of voter intimidation, and an election-night racist outburst by white students on a red-state university campus. Whatever else he may accomplish during his second term, Mr. Obama seems unlikely to plunge back into the conversation about race that has so often (remember the “beer summit”?) left him at a disadvantage. Yet the hope that the United States may somehow vault past its history of racial inequality will inevitably spring back to life, for its roots lie deep in our history, tangled together with the history of real social change.

In 1831, as an interracial movement against slavery took form, a radical abolitionist published “A Dream,” imagining a future, postracial America. In the tale, a white man awakes to find that race has ceased to be a meaningful divide, and that an election had been the key. A black man had run for president, a person of such extraordinary ability that white voters would not “risk their own reputation for discernment” by failing to support him. Thereafter, “African inferiority was heard of no more.”

The anonymous author of this “dream” was part of a fledgling social movement devoted to the end of slavery and of racial distinctions. Tiny and unpopular, that movement often seemed hopeless. No wonder the writer cherished the hope that social change could come through a single man’s election.

But the growing band of black and white abolitionists did more than dream and hope. They forced confrontations over fugitive slaves. They battled in “Bleeding Kansas.” They pounded a wedge into American politics that drove white Northern and Southern voters ever farther apart, until national unity itself fractured. In short, their movement helped spark the Civil War.

Soon, another such movement turned the Union’s war against the rebellion into a war for black freedom. Abraham Lincoln’s opponents dubbed him a “black Republican,” but he was at first opposed both to abolition and to equality. On both these scores, Lincoln was converted by the era’s other great social movement–that of the slaves themselves. Enslaved people ran to Union camps, made themselves essential to the army, and finally served in its ranks. They made it possible for Lincoln to see them as essential allies and for him, finally, to declare the Civil War a war of emancipation. By the time of his assassination, he was even suggesting that some freedmen might deserve the right to vote.

In the war’s aftermath, former slaves and former abolitionists together demanded broad equality. Their efforts appeared to succeed. Amendments remade the U.S. Constitution. Voters across the South and the North, mostly in places where blacks had scarcely ever cast a ballot, elected black men to political office. Black officeholding suddenly (and, for many whites, uncomfortably) became a feature of daily life.

Yet these political victories did not mark the end of white supremacy. Campaigns of terror, fraud, and disenfranchisement soon hobbled black access to political power and made a mockery of more encompassing visions of equality. The former slave and lifelong radical Frederick Douglass still hoped, late in the century, that “when a colored man could be elevated to the Vice-Presidency or had a seat in the Cabinet the color line would no longer be significant.” Wistful and diminished, the dream clung to life.

Barack Obama’s candidacy in 2008 reinvigorated these fantasies. With his election many declared that the end of the color line was at hand. Yet ours remains a profoundly unequal nation in terms of infant mortality, wealth, education, incarceration, and a host of other measures. And the insults, attacks, and denials leveled at Mr. Obama himself confirm that for a swath of Americans “black president”–despite his re-election–remains a contradiction in terms.

But the abolitionists and the slaves teach us that transformative change is possible. With persistence and creativity, they confronted the seemingly indomitable system of American slavery. They won. If we are to overcome the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, from the ways we fund our schools to the ways we fill our prisons, we need to learn from their example. Our efforts may include electoral politics, but they can never again be confused with the election of a single person.

What would those nineteenth-century visionaries do, were they to awake from a long sleep into an America—our America–in which one black man is president, but one out of four can expect to be incarcerated? I believe they would give up the fantasy that millennial change comes in the form of one man. But they would not give up the fight. Neither should we.

Stephen Kantrowitz is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889.