Written by Joanne Reed
According to the American Declaration of Independence, every person has the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Unfortunately, history is full of examples where theory and practice are two different things.
Right now, America is a very divided country with violence caused by racial tensions making headline news. Discrimination based on race in the United States has existed since the colonial era, where owning slaves was legally permitted by law. Over the years formal racial discrimination has been banned thanks to the activism of minority groups who fought for equality in legislation and civil rights. In the 20th century racial discrimination is illegal and it is perceived as being socially and morally unacceptable, but the demonstrations across many cities in the Unites States following the death of George Floyd are showing us that, although progress has been made, there is still a long way to go to allow everyone the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“I have a dream”
— Martin Luther King Jr.
In order to understand the present and be better prepared to take effective, long-lasting action, we need to know the history behind it all. Let’s take a quick trip down ‘History Lane’ right to the start of all of this…
The American Declaration of Independence
According to the American Declaration of Independence every person has the unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Unfortunately, history is full of examples where theory and practice are two different things.
Thomas Jefferson, who was the President of the United States from 1801 to 1809, wrote the US Declaration of Independence in 1776 near the beginning of the American Revolution. The second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independence starts as follows:
“We hold those truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Despite the libertarian rhetoric that followed the Declaration of Independence, liberty and equality became more and more muted in real life; people started realizing that even if the constitution clearly declared that all men are created equal, in real life some men were more equal than others. As the American people fought for independence against British tyranny and drafted their Declaration of Independence, one can only notice the obvious contradiction between advocating liberty on one hand and owning slaves on the other. Widespread talk of liberty gave slaves high expectations for a better future and assumed that the Declaration of Independence would also apply to them. However, the slaves soon realized that the revolutionary rhetoric of the Founding Fathers did not include enslaved black people. The Declaration of Independence promised, on paper, liberty for all men but failed to put an end to an institution that thrived on depriving people of their freedoms. [Extract from Chapter 7 of my book “This Is Your Quest”].
Slavery in America
Slavery in America began in 1619 when the first African slaves were brought to the North American Colony to aid the production of crops such as tobacco and cotton. Slavery was practiced throughout the American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The movement to abolish slavery started in Europe and its colonies during the late 18th and early 19th centuries and encouraged free blacks and white supporters of the black cause in the Northern United States to start their own movement to emancipate slaves in the South. On 6 November 1860, Abraham Lincoln, known for his “free soil” stance of opposing both slavery and abolitionism, was elected President of the United States; within three months, seven Southern states had seceded to form the Confederate States of America – four more would follow leading to the Civil War (1861-65). The war bankrupted much of the South, left its roads, farms, and factories in ruins and all but wiped out an entire generation of men with a death toll of more than 620,000 men, more than any other war in the American history.
Though Lincoln’s anti-slavery views were well established, the Central Union’s aim at first was not to abolish slavery but to preserve the United States as a nation. Abolition became a war aim only later. On 1 January 1863 Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation:
“slaves within the states, or designated part of a state … in rebellion … shall be then and forever free.”
The 13th Amendment of the Constitution abolished slavery in the United States; it was passed by Congress on 31 January 1865 and ratified on 6 December 1865. The 13th Amendment states:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Former slaves received the right to citizenship and “equal protection” under the Constitution in the 14th Amendment and the right to vote in the 15th Amendment, but the provisions of the Constitution were often ignored or violated. Despite seeing an unprecedented degree of black participation in American political life, African American rights were infringed upon for many years to come even after the official abolition of slavery; the re-birth of white supremacy groups such as the Ku Klux Klan in the South made it even more difficult for African American to make headway . [Extract from Chapter 7 – page 70 of my book “This Is Your Quest”].
It is worth pointing out here that despite what most people believe slavery should not be automatically associated with ethnicity. Slavery has existed since the beginning of time; the color of someone’s skin was not a key factor to determine whether that person could find himself in the unfortunate position of being a slave or being a master instead. Those who became slaves were chosen because of their vulnerability compared to another dominant group and not because of the color of their skin. Since the beginning of times, Europeans enslaved other Europeans, Asians enslaved other Asians, Africans enslaved other Africans and Arabs enslaved other Arabs. A slave is a person who is the chattel or property of another. The etymology of the word “slave” finds its origin in the medieval Latin word “sclavus,” originally “Slav” because of the many Slavs sold into slavery by conquering people [Extract from Chapter 7 – page 76 of my book “This Is Your Quest”].
Jim Crow Laws
From the late 1870s, Southern State legislatures passed laws requiring the separation of whites from persons of color in public transportation and schools. The segregation principle was extended to parks, cemeteries, churches, hospitals, theaters and restaurants in an effort to prevent any contact between blacks and whites as equals. The facilities allocated to the blacks were usually inferior to facilities to white people although the laws called for the separate facilities to be of equal quality, advocating the concept of “separate but equal”. ‘Jim Crow’ has long been a derogatory slang term for a black man, making it a fitting name for the laws that enforced discrimination in the Southern States between black and white people.
In the 20th century, Jim Crow laws continued to govern life in America, prohibiting black and white interaction. Blacks who violated these laws could be physically beaten by whites without reprisal; lynching occurred with startling frequency when blacks violated Jim Crow Laws.
The Civil Rights Movement
Resistance to the lingering racism and discrimination in the United States that began during the slavery era would lead to the civil rights movement of the 1960s; it would force Americans to confront contradictions between practices of racial segregation with the concept of equality and freedom proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. The American Civil Rights movement started in the mid-1950s and was ignited by Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man.
This led to mass protests against racial segregation and discrimination, mainly in the Southern states. Through these nonviolent protests, the civil rights movement broke the pattern of public facilities being segregated by race and achieved the most important breakthrough in equal rights legislation for African Americans, with the enactment of the Civil Rights Act 1964.
Two key figures emerged during the Civil Rights movement, Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. Martin Luther King Jr was born in Atlanta Georgia on 15 January 1929. He was educated, religious, organized and participated in a series of peaceful protests that eventually changed many equality-focused laws. Martin Luther King Jr was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and on 4th April 1968, was shot and killed while in Memphis, Tennessee. Although his life ended that day, the work he has accomplished changed the nation.
Martin Luther King nonviolent philosophy is best illustrated by the following quote
“A riot is the language of the unheard. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that. The past is prophetic in that it asserts loudly that wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrow.”
—Martin Luther King
Malcolm X was born on 19 May 1925, he was an African American Muslim minister and human rights activist who was also a popular figure during the civil rights movement. A naturally gifted orator, Malcolm X exhorted blacks to cast off the shackles of racism by any means necessary. He was also a prominent spokesperson for the Nation of Islam. On March 1964, he broke his relationship with the Nation of Islam as he became disillusioned by its rigid teachings. Less than a year later, Malcolm X was assassinated on 19 February 1965.
“It is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself. I always believed that clashes between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and who those who want to continue the system of exploitation are inevitable. People should fight for equality and liberation of the black people by any means necessary.”
Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X often clashed over the best tactics to end racial discrimination and prejudice. They had very different approaches to the Civil Rights Movement. King was advocating non-violent civil disobedience protests as the means to attack racial prejudice in America, whilst Malcolm X called for a more militant approach, achieving equality and black liberation by any means necessary.
Malcolm X was very critical of King’s non-violent approach believing King’s actions to be too slow moving and too accommodating to the white Americans. King was also very vocal about Malcolm X’s approach, beliving that:
“Fiery demagogic oratory in the black ghettos, urging negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence, can reap nothing but grief.”
—Martin Luther King
Despite those differences, both men admired and respected each other because ultimately, they were fighting for the same cause. Those two very different approaches to a common cause did not impact the fight for equality in a negative manner, on the contrary, it demonstrated to the white Americans what a radical and violent approach looks like, making Martin Luther King’s approach and his moderate position a more acceptable alternative.
Martin Luther King and Malcolm X met briefly on 25th March 1964, both were on Capitol Hill watching a Senate hearing regarding legislation aimed at ending segregation in public places and race discrimination in employment. The bill had been proposed by President John F Kennedy following intense lobbying by Martin Lurther King and was now being championed through congress by President Lyndon Johnson. After heated debates and fierce opposition from Southern members of Congress, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed and signed into law on 2 July 1964. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. No longer could blacks and other minorities be denied service simply based on the color of their skin.
It is around that time, that Malcolm X started to adopt a more conciliatory approach towards the fight for equality, he made the following statement in April 1964:
“I was not less angry than I had been, but at the same time the true brotherhood I had seen had influenced me to recognize that anger can blind human vision.”
I have a dream…
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