In honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., several of Dr. King’s sentiments in his “letter from Birmingham Jail (1963) addressed to ‘My fellow clergymen” are interspersed throughout this story.
Thomas Jefferson capsulized the essence of the ‘American Experiment’ in 1776 with these Declaration of Independence words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Those words, I’m sure, rang hollow in the ears of the black slaves that the 3rd President owned, as well as the ears of the two million other slaves throughout the South. At the time, Blacks in bondage in America traveled an endless dirt road, sans billboards signaling a better life, sans exit ramps. Back then, America was no country for black folk. Is it still?
“We have waited for 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward the goal of independence, and we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. We know through painful experiences that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. – mlk
Eighty-seven years later, Abraham Lincoln, the 16th U.S. President, despite virulent opposition, ended slavery when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Count Lincoln among the brave men and women throughout history who have stepped forward in desperate times and against heavy opposition to become rescuers of the oppressed. “I know there is a God and that He hates injustice and slavery,” said Lincoln, days before the 1860 election. “I see a strong storm coming and I know that His hand is in it. If He has a place and work for me – and I think He has – I believe I am ready.”
Not all white Americans, however, were ready to accept blacks as fellow citizens, friends, neighbors, school mates or church members. The Jim Crow era of ‘Separate but Equal,’ prevailed throughout the South and seeped into other regions, as well. I spent my formative years in Hampton, Va. and experienced firsthand the disrespect, indifference and hatred that most whites harbored toward blacks. Blacks and whites lived in different neighborhoods, attended different schools/churches, drank from different public water fountains, used different public restrooms and were buried in different cemeteries. Ironically, relatives of those who died – black or white – asked the same Christian God to provide in heaven something their departed loved ones rarely shared on earth: peace and happiness for all.
“When you have to concoct for a five-year-old son who is asking in agonizing pathos, Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean? When your first name becomes nigger and your second name becomes boy … and when your wife or mother are never given the respected title of ‘Mrs.’ When you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tip-toe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued by inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a denigrating sense of “nobodiness”- then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. I hope you understand, sirs, our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. – mlk
The South’s ‘separate but equal’ laws were declared unconstitutional in the 1954 Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision spurred by Chief Justice Earl Warren, another historical savior from black oppression. Led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Congress passed the 1965 Civil Rights Act, which assured blacks the right to vote. That law is now threatened by Republican state legislators throughout the nation, who have proposed and/or enacted laws that will deny people of color access to the ballot box in future elections. With oligarchs funding Republican representatives at every level and far right militia group providing the muscle and presence in the streets, dishonorable Republicans are fully committed to retake the reins of power, with Jan. 6, 2021–style bloodshed, if necessary.
“My friends I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without legal and nonviolent pressure. History is the long tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and give up their unjust posture; but as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals.” mlk
If the 50 Republican Senators stand firm in support of the Republican state legislators to restrict voting rights of millions of people of color and Democratic Senators John Manchin and Krysten Sinema won’t support a change in the Senate filibuster rule, democracy, as we know it, can’t survive.
“Let us hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away, and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities and in some not to distant tomorrow, the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all of their scintillating beauty.” mlk
I commend Doug Smith on his outstanding article. It reflects the truth of the peril that is facing our country. That being said, I have faith that we will overcome the current challenges as we have previously done during our 403 years in North America.