Monday, January 19, 2009

Martin Luther King Day

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

On the eve of the day when we inaugurate the first President with African ancestry, it's especially important to remember the words of one of the people who helped bring that event about:

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest -- quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

Martin Luther King: I Have Dream

That last sentence is particularly noteworthy. As historian Simon Schama said the other day in an interview on Bill Moyers' Journal:

America begins with an act ... of profound bad faith. Jefferson writes the Declaration of Independence in which liberty and equality are offered as the defining principles that make you American, while he is himself a slave owner. And then the Constitution is made at the moment in which African Americans are defined as three-fifths of a human in order to give the South enough clout to perpetuate slavery.

And, you know, Lincoln's conversion coming up to the Civil War and then during the Civil War, from someone who found it morally loathsome but pragmatically had to be kept that way, to someone who, for whatever reasons, to win the war or not, was responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation, was an enormous change.

Lincoln, simply in the end, found it unbearable to hold up his head as an American and keep that act of bad faith going. But then we had a hundred years of Jim Crow and we had the civil rights movement. So this moment, it does seem to me to finally wipe clean that original sin, that profoundly repellent act of bad faith at the very beginning.

Bill Moyers Journal: Transcript for January 16, 2009

The provision in Article 1, Section 2:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

U.S. Constitution

is as close as we as a nation come to original sin. That "other Persons" in the phrase I emphasized meant "slaves". It was as if the framers wanted to have as little to do with this dreadful idea as possible in a document that was to guarantee the freedoms of the rest of us. The Fourteenth Amendment did away with that provision, by declaring that no state could allow the rights of Americans to be abridged without cause.

In his most famous speech, Dr. King remarked:

In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

Martin Luther King: I Have Dream

I'd be the last to suggest that we're now living in a land where "all men are created equal". As a society, we still view people who are members of other ethnic, religious, or sexual identity groups as being less American somehow. But in the half century that I've lived, we've come a long way. Had Barack Obama lived fifty years ago, people would have argued whether he could stay in a "white" hotel, or use a "white" restroom in many states in the Union. When it occurred, his parents' marriage would have been illegal in almost half of the states. Yet today, many think it only mildly remarkable that we have elected a black man as our President. Many probably wonder why it took so long.

Martin Luther King's life is an example of why it took so long. The history of the American civil rights movement is a long, inspiring tale of standing up peacefully to grave injustice, and persevering. Those people who he referred to having been in jail included him. His letter from a Birmingham jail was a ringing denunciation of the idea that the fight for civil rights should only be waged in the courts and legislatures. In the end, his view prevailed, and the shameful laws known as Jim Crow laws that codified racist discrimination, were repealed.

Tomorrow, we will finally ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, and remove the mark of our original sin. We have Dr. King and his supporters to thank for that. At the same should also thank them for demonstrating how remarkable a people we can be.

UPDATE: Added link about miscegenation laws, and altered the text to reflect the number of states that had them.

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