Harding__We_the_People__1_31_08

Harding__We_the_People__1_31_08 - PROLOGUE WE THE PEOPLE...

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Unformatted text preview: PROLOGUE WE THE PEOPLE: THE LONG JOURNEY TOWARD A MORE PERFECT UNION By Vincent Harding Constitution of the United States PREAMBLE We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the com- mon defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Con- stitution for the United States of America. ' I 'he images strike us, sometimes touching home at levels deeper than we dare acknowledge. Images: Men and women, many of them still alive in our own time, there on the screen, standing firm, unarmed, facing gun-wielding, menacing police and state troopers, standing their ground, refusing to give in to fears, discovering powerful weapons, old and new, at the center of their lives. Men and women, possessed by new power, determined to be counted as full citizens of this nation, committed to trans— form this grand and needy country, in search of “a more perfect union.” Images: Women, men, and children, standing, sometimes being smashed down to the ground, paying the price for wanting justice, for believing in a more perfect union. Broken bones, bleeding heads, but spirits undaunted, returning from beds and hospitals and jails to stand and struggle again“ for justice, for freedom, for the right to vote, for equal access, for a “domestic tranquility” that we have not yet experienced, for a new society for us all. 2 ' THE EYES ON THE PRIZE CIVIL RIGHTS READER Images: Young people, often children, full of life and play and seri— ousness. Marching, facing dogs and fire hoses, singing freedom songs on the way to jail, rocking the paddy wagons with “Ain’t afraid of your jail, ’cause I want my freedom now.” Young people, walking the gauntlets of hate, ignorance, and fear, listening to the less-than—human shrieks, just to go to school—~really to redefine “the general welfare,” to educate America and the world to the meaning of “the blessings of liberty.” Teenagers, children, not purposelessly wandering through the fantasy worlds of con- sumer malls, but sitting in jails, singing in jails, determined to create a land of justice, committed to move with new dignity and hope in their lives. Images: Black and white women and men, braving the storms of violence and hatred together, marching with King and Fannie Lou H amer together, taking on the hard, explosive rock of Mississippi together, murdered and hidden underground together, rising as great inspirations and new hope together. B lack and white, discovering their common ancestry, their common pain, and their common hope. U nashamed to cry together. Swaying, singing together: “We shall overcome.”Singing, “We’ll never turn back/ Until we’ve all been freed . . .” Living, arguing, sharing together, “to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity . . .” ho are these people? Where did they come from, especially these black people, who seemedwat least for a time—to offer direction, purpose, and hope to an entire generation of Americans of every racial, social, and religious background? What did they mean then when they spoke of “redeemng the soul of America”? What do they mean now? For us, for African—American us, for Hispanic-American us, for Asian-American us, for Euro— American us, for the Natives of this land? What do they mean for our personal, collective, and national prospects, for our “posterity”? The images and questions insinuate themselves into our beings and raise fundamental issues about our nation’s past and future. They present us with many surprises, not only about the historical similarities between our land and South Africa, but more impor- tantly they surprise us about humans, ordinary humans like us, whose names we have never learned, whose faces are both familiar and unknown. Ordinary human beings at times acting with extraordinary courage, vision, and hope (at other times stumbling PROLOGUE: we THE PEOPLE - 3 and falling into all the internal and external traps we know so well). Who are they? How are we related to them . . . we the people? It is often this way: Women and men who look carefully, persistently into the face of history are often rewarded with breathtaking surprises—and a host of questions. Of course, in our own time, after the furnaces of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, after the gulags and the “disappeared,” in the midst of South Africa abroad and the human—created epidemics of joblessness, home- lessness, and drug addiction at home, some thingy-unfortu- nately—do not surprise us. We no longer consider it noteworthy to be confronted with our stunning human capacities for harsh, ruthless, and inhuman oppression. But considerable evidence shows us that we are yet capable of being amazed by unexpected revelations of the great, still largely untapped human potential for resistance and hope, for compassion and grandeur, for courage and visionary self—transcendence—even when pressed against all the walls that oppression has created. In the annals of our own young nation, no greater repository of such unexpected testimonies to the re—creative powers of the human spirit exists than the history of the black struggle for freedom, equality, and social transformation. In the public tele— vision series Eyes on the Prize—America’s Civil Rights Years, we are drawn into just one generation’s experience of that struggle, especially as it developed after World War 11. But no human history is rootless, and we see the fullest meaning of the post— 1945 events only as we dig deeper. Such probing work could take us back to the coast of Africa, to the earliest liberation struggles there and on the prison slave ships, and could open up the long, unbroken history of black resistance to slavery and the concomitant movement toward freedom in this country. Digging deep, we might explore the period of great hope and profound betrayal after the Civil War, examining the unpre— dictable ways in which a people who had been largely defined as humanly inferior, ignorant chattel slaves, came bursting out of the furnaces of the Civil War, bearing the traditions of resistance and hope, to create their own powerful and impressive postwar testimonies to the meaning of freedom, democracy, and justice in America. ' i 53 e i wmcmmiumm‘r 4 ' THE EYES ON THE PRIZE CIVIL RIGHTS READER Indeed, if we looked closely we would discover that the com— mitment of these former slaves to the transformation of their own lives and the life of the nation was often so great that it could not be borne by the majority of white America. For this majority was not prepared for fundamental changes toward justice, especially if the changes involved redistribution of landed wealth in the South and the abandonment of white supremacy everywhere, in exchange for a truly shared community, a more perfect union. So we would also need to see the ways in which the postwar black communities and the relatively small band of white allies who offered themselves as full participants in the political, economic, and social/spiritual process to re—create the nation, were effectively, often brutally, driven back from the footholds they had begun to gain. We would see this especially in the political institutions of the postwar South, the region that was home to more than 90 percent of Black Americans. To probe that deeply would bring us to a history of antiblack repression that had possessed the entire South (and too many northern outposts) by the end of the 1870s. We would witness lynchings, ritual burnings, and mutilations, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and other paramilitary organizations, all im— plicitly or explicitly approved by much southern white leadership, with increasing acquiescence from the northern keepers of power. To dig so deep would reveal to us harsh economic intimidation in the development of a kind of peonage, often called sharecrop- ping. It would recount through much of the 18705 and 1880s the misuses of political, legal, and social systems in a ruthless attempt to deny, subvert, and destroy the power of blackness that had briefly appeared in the land during Reconstruction. In other words, we would see the ways in which a nation—led by southern white elites, and often in cooperation with the federal govern— ment—sought to create an ersatz “domestic tranquility,” by re— pressing the voices, subverting the power, and destroying the lives of those black people who insisted they were part of “we the people,” who dared dream of a just society. For this African- American minority the “manifest destiny” of the United States was something much richer and deeper than “winning the West,” destroying the Natives of the land, and acquiring material wealth anywhere, and by any means necessary. ii: i PROLOGUEI WE THE PEOPLE ' 5 Then in 1895, Frederick Douglass died. The great black symbol of the movement from slavery to freedom had not been very active for several years, but he represented something powerful. He bore within himself a history of protest and challenge, a tradition of black determination to claim all the rights and responsibilities of a renewed American citizenship. So it seemed like an even greater loss when, in the same year, the nation’s attention was called to Booker T. Washington, head of Tuskegee Institute. Coming to national prominence after more than a dozen years of building an important black educational institution in the heart of Alabama’s dangerous white supremacy, Washington’s voice carried a different message which seemed to discourage bold, direct, open challenges to white power on behalf of the beleaguered black communities. It was a hard time, and for many black persons, it seemed as if all the broken promises of Reconstruction were finally, ironically epitomized in the actions of the Supreme Court of the United States. Ever since the 18705, the Court had been eviscerating the congressional legislation and constitutional amendments which had been established at the height of Reconstruction to protect some of the basic citizenship rights of black people. In 1883, reversing the intentions of the Reconstruction congresses, it had claimed that the Reconstruction—bred Civil Rights Acts did not guarantee black people the same unhampered access to public accommodations that was due to all citizens. Finally, in 1896, the court brought to a climax its trashing of the hopes of Reconstruc- tion, and essentially gave its blessing to a status of second-class citizenship for African-Americans. The infamous Plessy V. F ergwon decision ruled that state laws mandating separate facilities for black citizens did not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, if the separated facilities were “substantially equal.” With that action, separate—but—equal became both the law of the land and the symbol of the fundamental schizophrenia at the heart of American democracy. But there was more: From that moment on the decision also became the target of a steadily rising, unrelenting black—led attack against the fundamental injustice of the court’s action, against its betrayal of the most humane under- standings of “we the people of the United States.” So Plessy v. 6 ‘ THE EYES ON THE PRIZE CIVIL RIGHTS READER Ferguson became a stimulus to struggle and defiance, a signal to resistance. It was not surprising, then, that in the same year that the words of the Supreme Court were hurled against black (and white) freedom, it was possible to hear the voices of resistance. During the 18905, Nashville, Tennessee (source of much lead- ership for the continuing freedom movement) was the base of john Hope, a professor at the city’s Roger Williams University. Speaking in 1896 to a gathering of black people, immersing himself in the tradition of Douglass, preparing the way for the coming times, Hope urged his audience to resist all temptations to acquiesce and despair. He said, Rise, Brothers! Come let us possess this land. Never say “Let well enough alone.” Cease to console yourself with adages that numb the moral sense. Be discontented. Be dissatisfied. . . . Be restless as the tempestuous billows on the boundless sea. Let your dissatisfaction break. mountain- high against the walls of prejudice and swamp it to the very foundation. Then we shall not have to» plead for justice nor on bended knee crave mercy; for we shall be men. Then and not until then will liberty in its highest sense be the boast of our Republic. This was a response to oppression, but it was more. just thirty years after the official end of slavery, here was the articulation of a free people’s fierce determination “to possess this land” that had enslaved them, to claim a land they had worked so hard to create. It was an amazing statement of faith in the best possibilities of our republic, and therefore an expression of profound belief in their own capacities—and those of their fellow citizens—to create a more perfect union. Such a complex, powerful, and explosive cluster of human intentions was at the heart of almost all the struggles for justice, survival, defense, and transformation which were carried on by black people as one century ended and another began. This claiming of the land, this determination to speak the black- envisioned truth and create a new American reality—~all these are part of the roots of the struggle that became impossible to hold back. PROLOGUE: WE THE PEOPLE - 7 All these were present in a crusader like Ida B. Wells—Barnett, who was born into the last years of slavery in Mississippi and became another of the living bridges between the black freedom struggles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By the time she was in her late twenties, the articulate and courageous Wells— Barnett had been teacher, newspaper publisher, unrelenting pub— lic scourge of injustice, fugitive from southern mob action, and preeminent international lecturer and organizer in the antilynch— ing campaigns of the turning centuries. She spoke and acted in defense of black rights and life, but she always knew that her campaign was for the future of democracy in the United States. That is why, in one of her major speeches (which included a report on her exile from Memphis, Tennessee, because of her bold newspaper attacks on white mob rule) she could say to the nation: In one section, at least of our common country, a govern« ment of the people, by the people, and for the people means a government by the mob; where the land of the free and the home of the brave means a land of lawlessness, murder, and outrage and where liberty of speech means the license of might to destroy the business and drive from home those who exercise this privilege contrary to the will of the mob. Although she was describing her own situation and the fate of other outspoken black heralds, the nature of Wells’s language made it clear that she was also reaching beyond the personal. For her, as for many others, this truth-telling tradition, this protest against injustice, this unrelenting demand for the maturing of American democracy was a part of the larger commitment to possess the land. For them, a necessary part of that process was the action of forcing white America to recognize the degradation of democracy that accompanied all attempts to throttle the voices of black discontent. So the children of the slaves became the major carriers of the dream of freedom, the quintessential visionaries of a more perfect union. But there was always a tension in the heart of black America, a tension that continues yet, one expressed with typical eloquence 8 ’ THE EYES ON THE PRIZE CIVIL RIGHTS READER by the man who was already becoming the nation’s preeminent Afro—American scholar-activist, W. E. B. Du Bois. For Du Bois, as the nineteenth century ended, black people could not possess this land unless at the same moment they claimed, nurtured, and possessed their own souls, their African—American heritage, their history, their culture. Du Bois, child of the diaspora by birth and by choice, born in the North, educated at Fisk, and Harvard, as well as in Berlin, felt this tension at the center of his being. Later he would speak of it as an “eternal twoness,” this life of blackness and of Americanness. But in 1897 he described it less as a tension than as a calling, and he proclaimed, “For the development of Negro genius, of Negro literature and art, of Negro spirit, only Negroes bound and welded together, Negroes inspired by one vast ideal, can work out in its fullness the great message we have for humanity.” This audacious young intellectual said he saw black people as “the advanced guard of Negro people” of the world. So he urged his people to see their calling and to recognize that “if they are to take their just place in the vanguard of Pan—Negroism, then their destiny is not absorption by the white Americans . . . not a servile imitation of Anglo-Saxon culture, but a stalwart originality which shall unswervingly serve Negro ideals.” For Du Bois, the vision was worldwide. While he agreed on the need for Afro-Americans to lay full claim to the U.S.A., he cautioned against being possessed by America and its worst values. Du Bois was setting forth a large, messianic, freedom-fighting, freedom-shaping task for Afro—Americans. So his statement put the community of former slaves in its fullest light, declaring that they “must be inspired with the Divine faith of our black mothers, that out of the blood and dust of battle will march a victorious host, a mighty nation, a peculiar people, to speak to the nations of the earth a Divine truth that shall make them free.” (As his language constantly indicated, while Du Bois conscienv tiously avoided any commitment to conventional religious creeds, he was—~like most of his contemporary black colleagues—steeped in the language, literature, and imagery of the Bible. The Afro- American freedom movement cannot be fully apprehended with— out that context.) One of the most fascinating elements of the post—Reconstruction black movement toward new freedom and extended equality PROLOGUEZ we THE PEOPLE - 9 was the continuing work of creating independent and semi— independent black institutions. Without them the black community would have been lost. In addition to the central institution of the family, they included schools at every level, churches and other religious institutions, newspapers and other journals, fraternal and sororal organizations, mutual aid societies, women’s clubs, banks, insurance companies, unions, farmers’ alliances, and eman- c1pation soc1et1es. These were only a portion of the internal, self-claiming, self— defining work that was constantly re-creating the black com- munity. Sometimes the institutions were a necessary response to the legal and extralegal exclusion of black people from most white— dominated American institutions. just as often, they were expres- sions of the Du Boisian search “for the development of Negro genius.” Often they were both. For many wise men and women clearly understood the paradoxical necessity of developing insti- tutions which would be the grounds for creating and training generations of younger people who would eventually venture out to let their “discontent break mountain—high against the walls of prejudice and swamp it to the very foundation.” At the turn of the century, black people who were committed to challenging the fundamental injustice of the nation’s institutions knew that they must always deal with yet another paradox. In a country almost 90 percent white, in a society permeated by conscious and unconscious white supremacist beliefs and social Darwinist assumptions, black people needed dedicated white allies in the struggle for justice. Hope, Wells—Barnett, and Du Bois knew this, as did black miners, farmers, forest workers, and many others. As a result, the struggle for, with, and against white allies was t...
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  • Spring '07
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