Friday, August 08, 2008

From Emancipation Proclamation to Achievement Gap

Reading Doris Kearns' Goodwin's Team of Rivals, I was struck by a stray moment of insight from a slaveholding unionist during the deliberations of Lincoln's cabinet over the likely fallout from the Emancipation Proclamation. Members recognized fully that they were likely unleashing, in Gideon Welles' words, "a revolution of the social, civil and industrial habits and condition of society in the slave states." Most did not want integration and equality; Lincoln himself still clung to the dream of colonizing freed slaves in another country.

Attorney General Edward Bates, a Missouri slaveholder, favored forced resettlement; he believed that "amalgamation" would bring "degradation and demoralization of the white race." There was an absurdist loop in his thinking: he thought that whites would be degraded by contact with blacks because they had degraded blacks. But he recognized the the full force of his society's assault on their slaves' humanity. There's a rather extraordinary sociological insight (or was it common amongst slaveholders?) at the core of his Catch-22:

Although he conceded that 'among our colored people who have been long free, there are many who are intelligent and well advanced in arts and knowledge,' he could not imagine former slaves, 'fresh from the plantations of the South, where they have been long degraded by the total abolition of the family relation, shrouded in artificial darkness, and studiously kept in ignorance,' living on an equal footing with whites (p. 466; my emphasis).

Exacerbated by 100 further years of brutal discrimination, that "total abolition of the family relation" still takes its toll. What Stanton and his ilk did not foresee was the remarkable extent to which African Americans would embrace core American ideals and repeatedly hold the country to its founding promises (Lincoln, a fact-driven leader if there ever was one, did later get some inkling through his encounters with Fredrick Douglas and other black leaders). To revel for a moment in the obvious, here's the thread of that black buy-in/black indictment from Frederick Douglass through Martin Luther King and Barack Obama:

Frederick Douglass, Rochester New York, July 4, 1852:

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 say it with a sad sense of the disparity between 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 light 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, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me by asking me to speak today?

Martin Luther King, Lincoln Memorial, August 28, 1963:

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."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now.

Barack Obama, Philadelphia, March 18, 2008:

"We the people, in order to form a more perfect union."

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America's improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation's original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.

Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution - a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part - through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk - to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

Lincoln, as Garry Wills shows in Lincoln at Gettysburg, was a leader in casting the Declaration of Independence's "We hold these truths..." credo as a blueprint for a work in progress, an ideal always to be aspired to and progressively fulfilled. He didn't invent this conception --indeed, it's there in Douglass' 1852 speech above -- but he framed it memorably, and repeatedly, and committed the nation to it in blood, and so recast the country's self-conception. And so the threads still run parallel: black leaders continue to hold us to that ideal, and black families struggle with the brutal sabotage of it acknowledged by Stanton.

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