As I write this the nation is celebrating the 237th anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence. It’s pretty rainy here in Athens, but we will drag the grill under the porch and cook some hot dogs (actually chorizo) and hamburgers later today. Flags are everywhere, on my Facebook feed and on the streets, and there are the usual references to patriotism, freedom, and plenty of pictures of eagles. Maybe it’s the dreary weather, but I find my thoughts turning to the less savory parts of the nations past, and to the ways in which they continue to play out today.
One of history’s ironies is that the nation most associated with liberty permitted slavery, and that many of the founding fathers were slave owners. The tension between freedom and oppression was thus with us from the beginning, leading to many conflicts in government, spawning the three fifths compromise, and building to a crescendo with the Civil War.
We marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg yesterday. The bloodbath in the south of Pennsylvania lasted for three days and was the pivotal battle of the war, leading inexorably to the end of the Confederacy, and thus to slavery. Lincoln, in his dedicatory speech several months later, referenced the Declaration of Independence and its ideals, telling the crowd, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”
In the years that followed Southern states implemented a system of leasing convicts for labor. This was a way of providing labor to the landowners who had so recently lost their most prized possessions: their slaves. The leasing system was notoriously corrupt, and many African Americans, particularly men, found themselves compelled into servitude on trumped up charges and serving unjust sentences. Thus the oppression of African Americans continued.
Politically, the North and the Republicans abandoned the former slaves and their descendants to the mercies of the resurgent Southern aristocracy at the end of reconstruction. Laws and policies worked to keep African Americans under the thumb of their former masters. These injustices continued unabated well into the twentieth century and the modern civil rights movement.
Today, though inarguably some progress has been made, the direct effects of both slavery and Jim Crow are still with us. The destruction of family cohesion, loss of tradition, theft of capital to pass on to descendants, economic disempowerment, structural violence, disenfranchisement, and denial of education that began hundreds of years ago continue to play out. Indeed, they continue to be perpetrated by society.
African Americans continue to experience all of the social ills at a greater rate than the rest of the population, including poverty, teen pregnancy, unemployment, housing discrimination, poor education....the list is long. As students they are more likely to be disciplined, and to be more harshly punished. They face more contact with the police, are more likely to be charged and receive stiffer penalties when they go to court. It doesn’t take an in-depth study to see the blatant differences between the races.
So today I listened to the Declaration of Independence, but I also listened to Frederick Douglas’ Fourth of July speech from 1852. Much of it still applies. You can hear it here, read by Brian Jones.
I will eat my hot dogs and I’ll call my dad, a veteran, to thank him for his service to the nation. But I’ll also read something by Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, and reflect on how far we have yet to go if we ever hope to realize the idealistic vision laid out for our nation more than two hundred years ago.
These kinds of reflections can be troubling, but they don’t leave me hopeless. Instead, such thoughtfulness only increases my determination to continue to work towards those “self-evident” truths; “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.” Let us continue the work to make that dream a reality for all.