A Beneficial History (February 12, 2012 )

posted Sep 3, 2009, 12:23 PM by Neal Jones   [ updated Apr 5, 2012, 8:03 PM ]

        Abraham Lincoln is regarded by most historians as not only one of the greatest Presidents but the greatest President, exhibiting remarkable fortitude, prudence, vision, and character during perhaps the most critical period of our nation's history.  Like all great persons, Lincoln was ahead of his time and of his time.  We remember him as the great emancipator, but we tend to forget that Lincoln was not a complete abolitionist, much to the chagrin of Unitarians like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony, and the founder of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley.  Lincoln was opposed to the spread of slavery to the western states, and he hoped that in time it would pass away in the South.  In a letter to Greeley, he wrote:

        Dear Sir, I have not meant to leave anyone in doubt that my paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery.  If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.  What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because it helps to save this Union.

We tend to forget that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation did not make slavery illegal -- the Thirteenth Amendment did that after the Civil War -- but that the Emancipation Proclamation outlawed slavery in the Southern states over which the federal government had no control.  It left untouched the half million slaves in the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. 

        When looking back on history, especially on the history of one of our heroes, we are wont to project onto them our biases and assume that they were just like us.  Therefore, we cringe when we remember accurately that Lincoln shared much of the racist bias of his day.  We tend to forget that in his famous debate with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln stated:

        I will say that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races; that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of   negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say, in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.  And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

Today, we would ascribe those words to a Klansman, but in 19th century America, these sentiments were commonplace, even among progressive people. 

        I recall them this morning on Lincoln's birthday and in this second of a series of sermons on racism because I believe that in order to understand who we are, we have to understand where we have come from.  Our nation's history, like the history of an individual, is mixed.  There is much to be proud of as well as ashamed of.  I am proud to be a Unitarian Universalist because our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors were typically on the side of peace, justice, and equality, and I have typically highlighted that history from this pulpit.  But today I want to shine a light on a dark side of American history and on the beneficiaries of that history.  I want to focus on our history of racism, in particular, on our history of racism toward African Americans, recognizing that racism has been leveled against Native Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and Jewish people, as well.  It is a history that is well known among African Americans but has been downplayed, diminished, dismissed, and denied among white Americans.

        That history begins with America's original sin, the institution of slavery.  The first African slaves were brought to what is now the United States in 1619, and from then until slavery officially ended in 1865, between 10 and 15 million Africans were brought here against their will, and another 30 to 35 million died in transport as they were crammed into the bowels of slave ships and thrown overboard when they became sick.  In all, 40 to 50 million Africans were either abducted or killed by our white American and European ancestors.  I want to pause for a moment as we take in the magnitude of these numbers. 

        In the early days of colonial America, three fourths of white Europeans were indentured servants and were regarded as property and called "slaves" in law.  In fact, during these early days of American history, white indentured servants and African slaves were seen and treated alike and saw themselves in common cause, often working together, intermarrying, and rebelling together against the wealthy landowners.  To separate white and African servants so as to better control them, the landowners created race laws to grant white servants slightly more privileges and black slaves slightly less freedoms.  The effect was to encourage the white servants to focus on race more than class, to see themselves as "white" and as superior to blacks, and to identify with the aristocratic white landowners instead of the Africans.  As I pointed out in my last sermon, a "Southern strategy" has been used ever since to pit working class whites against African Americans so that they will vote against their own class and their own self-interest, which keeps the power structure intact.  The working and living conditions of poor whites may not have been much if any better than the African slaves, but at the end of the day, they could cling to the false pride that at least they were not black.

        White people did everything possible through slavery to dehumanize, demoralize, and degrade African Americans.  They were bought and sold on the auction block like livestock.  Their families were torn apart.  They were shackled in chains like animals.  They were beaten and raped by their slave masters.  They were prohibited from marriage.  They were disallowed to read and write.  (Former slave, abolitionist, and powerful orator Frederick Douglass had to teach himself to read and write).  Any and every vestige of their native language, culture, religion, and family structure was systematically eradicated.  They were made to work without wages, and on their backs they bore the booming economy of this prosperous young nation.  Their unpaid labor enabled the South's agricultural economy to prosper, which in turn enabled the North's industrial expansion.  The new waves of immigrants, who came to this land of opportunity, found jobs that were generated by a slave economy, and jobs were available because African Americans were excluded from them.  All white Americans, North and South, whether they owned slaves or not, benefitted from slavery. 

        A Civil War was fought for many reasons, but the primary reason was slavery.  Yet hardly before the smoke had cleared, white Southerners began spinning a revisionist history of a grand, noble "Lost Cause" that had been fought for "states' rights," constitutional principle, trade imbalance, self-defense, or any other reason besides slavery.  This Southern amnesia, which rivals the attempt of Neo-Nazis to deny the Holocaust, extends to our present day.  In Virginia, the Governor issues a proclamation declaring April Confederate History Month that does not mention slavery, as if it never happened.  In Mississippi, there is an attempt to honor Confederate hero Nathan Bedford Forrest, who led a massacre of unarmed African Americans and helped found the Ku Klux Klan.  And here in South Cackalacky, women donning frilly hoop skirts and men donning frilly Confederate uniforms hold a "Secession Ball" in Charleston, where the war began, to honor, in one spokesman's words, "our ancestors for their bravery and tenacity protecting their homes from invasion."

        These history revisionists are right.  Eleven states left the union and started a Civil War over states' rights -- the right to own slaves.  They would do well to read the history they are so eager to distort.  The Articles of Secession themselves, written at the First Baptist Church of Columbia, list as the causes for the South's leaving the union:  "the current of anti-slavery feeling," "Northerners have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery," "They have encouraged slaves to leave their homes," "They have elected a President whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery," "The slave-holding states will no longer have the power of self-government."  The Articles of Secessions conclude:  "We, therefore, the people of South Carolina … have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and other States of North America dissolved."  Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy, stated: "Our new government is founded upon … the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race is his natural and moral condition."  The Daily Constitutionalist in Augusta stated:  "It is not safe … to trust $800 million worth of negroes in the hands of a power which says that we do not own the property. … So we must get out." 

To say that slavery was the cause of secession is not politically correct; it's historically correct.

        Two hundred years of slavery may have ended in 1865, but an unofficial slavery arose from the ashes of the Civil War and took the name of Jim Crow.  Segregation kept African Americans in separate and unequal schools, hospitals, waiting rooms, restaurants, hotels, swimming pools, neighborhoods, even cemeteries, so that whites would not have to mingle with them, as if their blackness would rub off and contaminate white purity.  Throughout the South, African Americans were disenfranchised by poll taxes, literacy tests, and white primaries so that while they were giving their lives in military service for freedom abroad, they were denied their basic freedoms here at home.  Segregation was enforced not only by law and police force but by violence and intimidation.  Hooded terrorists, ashamed to show their faces, burned crosses in the yards of African Americans, burned their homes, bombed their churches, and made of them "a strange fruit" hanging from trees by a noose.  Between the end of Reconstruction and the end of the Civil Rights movement, over 5,000 cases of lynching were reported, and South Carolina ranked tenth nationwide.

        This is the shadow side of American history, and we don’t like to face it.  It makes a mockery of our democratic ideal that all persons are created equal, and it contradicts our self-image of America as the land of the free and the home of the brave.  No one has exposed this hypocrisy more poignantly than Frederick Douglass, who in 1852 was invited to speak in celebration of the Fourth of July:

        Fellow citizens:  Pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today?  What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?  Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?  And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

        I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary!  Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us.  The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.  The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.  The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me.  This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.  You may rejoice.  I must mourn.  To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems are inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.  Do you mean, citizens, to mock me by asking me to speak today?

        Fellow citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions!  Whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shout that reach them.

        At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument is needed.  Oh, had I the ability and could I reach the nation's ear, I would today pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke.  For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder.  We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake.  The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed, and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

         We prefer to whitewash our history of racism by saying that slavery has long been abolished, that segregation has ended, and that everyone is now free and equal.  We don't like to admit that we white Americans have benefited from over 350 years of economic and political exploitation of African Americans and that the effects of that exploitation exist in the present.  It's not that white Americans have not worked hard.  We have, but we did not start from scratch.  Much of the infrastructure of this country was built by slave labor, then incredibly low-paid labor and prison labor of African American men and women.  Our forebears gained a foothold in this country by entering into skilled and unskilled jobs from which African Americans were excluded.  They joined trade unions which improved their wages and working conditions but which kept out African Americans.  They went to segregated schools and universities built with public money.  They received scholarships, V.A. loans, housing and auto loans that people of color were denied.  They received federal jobs, military jobs, and government contracts that were granted to whites only.  They were accepted into apprenticeships, training programs, unions, and clubs where the doors were closed to people of color.  Yes, our forebears worked hard, and most white Americans work hard today to get where they are, and because we have worked hard, it's difficult for us to see that we did not start from a level playing field.  Most of us don't see the benefits we have received from racism.

        Those benefits did not end with slavery and segregation because the present carries the weight of the past, or as William Faulkner said, "The past is not dead; it's not even past."  No matter your economic condition or level of education, if you are white you enjoy the benefits of being white in this society.  If you are white, you can generally count on police protection instead of harassment.  Depending on your financial means, you can generally choose where you want to live and choose neighborhoods that are safe and have decent schools.  If you are white, you are given more attention, respect, and status in conversations than people of color.  You see people who look like you in the media, history books, news, and music in a positive light.  If you are white, you have more recourse to and credibility within the legal system.  Nothing you do is qualified, limited, discredited, or acclaimed simply because of your racial background.  You don’t have to represent your race, and nothing you do is judged as a credit to your race or as a confirmation of its shortcomings or inferiority.  All else being equal, it pays to be white.  We will be accepted, acknowledged, and given the benefit of the doubt. 

        These benefits start early.  On average, we will have more money spent on our education.  We will be called on more in school.  We will be given more opportunities and resources to learn.  We will see people like us in textbooks.  If we get into trouble, adults will expect us to be able to change and therefore will penalize us less than children of color.  After we graduate, we will be paid on average $1.00 for every $.60 that a person of color makes, and we will more likely be promoted, and we will advance further in our careers, as well. 

        We don’t even see the benefits of being white.  We take them for granted.  President Johnson had a useful image.  If we talk about running a race for success and achievement in America, we like to think that everyone starts off at the same starting line.  But the reality is that being white allows you to start a few steps ahead of the starting line, while being a person of color means that you start behind the starting line.  If you have economic privileges, educational opportunities, are male, and are straight, you start out a few more steps ahead of the starting line, regardless of your color. 

        We did not choose our skin color, and we are not responsible for what happened in the past.  But we are responsible for how we live in the present, and that responsibility includes being aware of how we benefit from the past and how others are put at a disadvantage by it.  If we can become more aware, then maybe we can begin to do our part, each of us, to break the patterns and prejudices of the past and make the playing field a little more equal.  Or, in the words of Lincoln:

        With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

                                                                                                                Rev. Dr. Neal Jones