19 January 2009

The Dream

Today, we observe Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  Tomorrow, we inaugurate Barack Obama as President of the United States.  Perhaps we're not just yet standing hand in hand singing that old Negro spiritual Dr. King envisioned, but we're much closer than I think most people anticipated.  It seems appropriate, therefore, to pause and reflect on how far we've come.

The Peculiar Institution
As was the case in most of the world, Africans had their own model of slavery.  When Europeans arrived, wanting a work force to supplant the natives in the "New World" (whose constitutions did not permit them to survive the brutal demands placed on them by their Portugese and Spanish overlords), Africans were only too happy to oblige.  Kidnapping and selling into slavery their rivals was commonplace, and they naively thought that the European brand of slavery was as benign as their own.  They were wrong, but no one ever returned to Africa to warn them of this.

Thomas Jefferson likened slavery to holding a wolf by its ears--you may not like it, "but you dare not let it go."  In the 1800s, as the Great Awakening spread a renewed interest in spirituality throughout America, the moral implications of "the peculiar institution" challenged Americans.  At the same time, the capitalist model began to demonstrate its appeal, and wage-earning workers came to see slavery as a competitor, unfairly depriving them of jobs.  Stories from escaped and freed slaves began to circulate, most famously Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and the fictionalized account of Uncle Tom's Cabin.  If anyone ever doubts the potential power of art, they need look no further than the reactions to those publications.

"The Great Emancipator"
President-elect Obama has frequently invoked the legacy of Abraham Lincoln as he prepares to take office.  Yes, Lincoln preserved the Union, but it should be noted that this was Lincoln's objective all along.  Had it been an option, he would have sacrificed the abolitionist movement entirely and left enslaved human beings in the hands of their cruel masters.  After the war, Lincoln himself actually favored re-colonizing the liberated African-Americans to Liberia, rather than integrating them into American society.  Moreover, the Emancipation Proclamation was little more than a war tactic.  It declared that the Union would recognize as free anyone held in bondage in states not already under Union control.  Slaves in states that had already fallen to Union soldiers remained slaves.  By war's end, it had become apparent that the abolition of slavery was the only way the North could justify the loss of life, and this was reflected in the post-war Thirteenth Amendment.

"Separate but Equal"
Following a series of federal blunders and sabotaged efforts, an agreement was reached.  Slavery was a thing of the past, but segregating the races would be the order of the day.  Beyond being legally freed, African-Americans had little legal standing.  Whites terrorized them for any reason they could think of, leading to a recorded 4,730 lynchings between 1882 and 1951.  The color barrier was solid, but many brave souls chipped away at it.  The heroic efforts of African-American soldiers in World War II (including the famous Tuskegee Airmen) earned respect, even if not love, from their white companions.  The jazz music they spread made them beloved wherever they went in Europe.

In 1944, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was elected to the United States House of Representatives from his home district of Harlem.  Powell was unafraid of his white colleagues, and regularly combated racism with Congress.  He stymied many legislative efforts by tacking on the Powell Amendment, which would have denied federal funding to any school system that segregated its students.  Powell helped wear down Congress to the point that, combined with external pressure, it became possible for the civil rights movement to succeed.

Dr. King
Besides convincing Nichelle Nichols to remain on Star Trek, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s greatest contribution to mankind was his role as civil rights leader.  Dr. King's legacy is known throughout the country, but since it's his day and all, it seems appropriate to note some of the highlights of his work.  He led the boycott that ended segregation on buses in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955.  Dr. King led non-violent demonstrators in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, St. Augustine, Florida and Albany, Georgia, culminating in his historic 1963 march on Washington, D.C.  At the Lincoln Memorial, where in 1939 Marian Anderson had famously given a concert in defiance of segregationists, Dr. King told the world of his dream.  Yesterday, on 18 January 2009, the site bore witness to a concert held in honor of the forthcoming inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Marching Forward
We must never lose sight of how much farther we must yet travel before we can say we have truly buried the last vestiges of racism and other prejudices.  Still, for the moment, we as a society have earned a pause to feel good about ourselves.  Many of my generation supposed we would one day see a non-white president, but did not suspect it would be so soon.  Most from earlier generations doubted it would ever happen, and certainly not within their lifetimes.  Those who voted in the 2008 presidential election demonstrated that we will no longer discount a candidate for what he or she may be, and that we will recognize only who he or she is. 

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