For over two centuries America has been proud to be the “land of the free.” The world looked upon America as the beacon of light. With one glaring exception. The ever prominent and glaring failings of how it dealt with racism. This is true to this day as racism is still haunting America.
During the 1800s there was a global consciousness weaving a path that led to many countries first abolishing slave trading, then to the emancipation of slaves. It was not until 1926 that the League of Nations adopted the Slavery Convention abolishing all slavery. Eventually, in 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes an article stating, “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”
Just what makes America unique among nations that propagated slavery? The most glaring event was the Civil War. No other country in the world considered warring against itself to defend slavery. Since the Civil War, the South has been adamant that the war was fought over state’s rights. This is simply not true. Without slavery the economy of the Southern states would have collapsed. And it did exactly that after the war. Had these states not received war reparations they likely would never have recovered.
But the Civil War was not alone in shaming the United States. All its Founding Fathers except for John Adams, Samuel Adams, and Thomas Paine were slave owners. It seems that creating a government based on “all men are created equal” was hypocritical to the nth degree. The cry for liberty did not include the hundreds of thousands in bondage. To be fair the British Crown was delighted to reap the benefits of slavery as well at the time and did not abolish slavery until 1807. While they officially abolished it to ease their guilt the practice still thrived. The economies of both the colonies and the crown were heavily dependent on the by-products of slavery. Slavery was alive and well in England and the newly formed American states which went on to be a benefit for both countries after the Revolutionary War.
America finally abolished slavery when the 13th amendment to the Constitution was ratified on December 6, 1865, eight months after President Lincoln’s assassination and the end of the Civil War. Though legal ownership and servitude ended, the freed slaves mostly remained as underpaid and still abused workers on the plantations. The amendment did abolish chattel slavery throughout the United States. That did not stop the use of other factors such as Black Codes, white supremacist violence, and selective enforcement of statutes that continued to subject many black Americans to involuntary labor, especially in the South.
The Black Codes were established in the South during the first two years after the Civil War. This fact alone should put to rest that the South did fight the Civil War over slavery. These codes were virtually the same as the slave codes. They were intended to limit the freedman from movement, thus making every effort to have political dominance while suppressing their newly gained freedoms. Found within these codes was the vagrancy law. This broad law allowed local authorities to arrest freed people for any minor infraction. This permitted them to be committed to involuntary labor. This in turn led to the convict lease system, which was just another name for slavery. I could go on for pages as to the efforts the South made to ensure that slavery was not dead, just renamed. Through Jim Crow and the Klu Klux Klan the South made a supreme effort to keep the status quo.
The post-Civil War years saw a flood of States passing laws inhibiting blacks. Though they were no longer “owned”, they were hardly free to pursue the American dream. Most historians point to these laws as being suppressive. They were intended to be just that. But what is not explored enough is the why.
Why were so many laws created to separate the white and black communities? This is seldom explored. It is my belief that fear was the driving factor. Fear of “others.” For all the dominance achieved by the white race in North America, they displayed a vast amount of insecurities. Economic issues certainly must enter the equation. In one fell swoop, many landowners lost their free source of labor. As important as that was, it was not as big a blow like the one that hit their egos. They simply could not fathom a world where black men could be their equals under the law. These feelings are still all too prevalent throughout the South today.
The black race in America has been persecuted systematically in one form or another since before the “first” slave ship arrived in Jamestown in 1619. The Spanish had brought African slaves into Florida as early as 1526. The plight of blacks in America has been one of suppression for centuries.
Events during the 20th century created more opportunities for blacks in America and provided more situations that forced the white community to observe blacks in a different light. The first major event was WWI when more than 350,000 blacks served admirably. Though most were segregated and performed menial tasks there were thousands that saw the battlefield. There is nothing like war conditions to create a bond of companionship. White men came home having shared a foxhole with a black man. Both relying on each other to make it through the day alive.
Then came the Great Depression when people of every race stood in breadlines. It was a humbling experience for whites to find themselves poor and destitute. The blacks spent most of their lives poor and destitute. They adapted to the situation easier than the white population. FDR’s New Deal was a boon for blacks. Ten percent of funds for the Work Progress Administration went to the black community, which was equal to ten percent of the population that was black. In June of 1941, he also issued Executive Order 8802, which created the Fair Employment Practice Committee. It was the most important federal move in support of the rights of Black Americans between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Next up was World War II. This was a real eye-opener for the black men in America. Once again, they were segregated and for the most part, left to menial tasks. Civil rights activists pushed the government for integration, but the military was largely led by Southern commanders that got their way and the blacks once again were under the influence of Jim Crow. The major lesson that the blacks serving in the war and after the war in Europe was the recognition and acceptance they received from the German people. The Germans did not see their skin color; they saw the uniform of the nation that helped free their country from the Nazis. Many of these soldiers would have preferred to stay in Germany rather than come home to the racism they would face returning to America. Upon returning these men became the next generation of civil rights leaders the likes of which Martin Luther King Jr. had the privilege of their wisdom.
Few people in the history of the planet made as much of an impact as Martin Luther King Jr. His unwavering dedication to God, justice for all, and peaceful demonstration changed America forever. His place in history is forever cemented as one of the great leaders and orators of all time. His power of persuasion was nearly as great as his power to compel those in opposition to see his point of view. Like so many great leaders, men of all persuasions flocked to his side and fought for equal justice for the black community. I was fifteen years old in 1968 when MLK and Bobbie Kennedy were assassinated. The death of these two men and the fiasco that was Viet Nam made for what was truly a horrible time in America and made an indelible mark in my life and in the nation.
On the backs of giants, the black community is making strides. Sadly, they are all fought for by tooth and nail. They are slowly gaining more seats in Congress, and saw Barack Obama, the first black president elected. The Black Lives Matter movement is now gaining support throughout the country from the white community as more horrific events of racial injustices are being exposed. It has been a long and arduous journey for black people in America. The fight continues but racism is still haunting America.
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