-“One is astonished at the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over. We must not remember that Daniel Webster got drunk but only remember that he was a splendid constitutional lawyer. We must forget that George Washington owned slaves…. and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.” -W.E.B Du Bois
“Without struggle, there is no progress.” Fredrick Douglass
“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter, and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.”- Fredrick Douglass
Regardless of your politics or who you plan to vote for I think there is reason to pause and take in the historical moment our country is having.
A woman and a black American are running for the office of the presidency. I realize this is not breaking news to anyone who has been watching the primary race but a few weeks back I was sitting watching the debates and they had a split screen of Obama and Clinton and I just had a moment. It was a moment of appreciation and awe that we have come a long way.
I, of course, acknowledge the incredible struggle and on-going battle in this country for sinful man truly accept all as equal. It will never be perfected here on earth but we as an imperfect and diverse nation have been stretched and has grown.
I love history. Not just because it is interesting. Not just because it is provocative. Not simply because I see it as vital to learn about but because it makes us who we are as a people, for good and bad. The scars and triumphs of our history shape who we are today whether we acknowledge it or not.
Until 1865 slavery was not only legal but defended with money and blood. Owning another human being was “justified”, even with the Bible (which in my understanding teaches that every man, woman, and child is made in the image of God). While only about 10% of Southerners actually owned slaves just prior to the Civil War whites throughout this country directly benefited and allowed slavery to not only continue but to flourish. Northerners and Southerners alike benefited and largely remained silent on the human rights violation of the worst kind.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing”- Edmund Burke
At slavery’s beginnings in the U.S. much of the writing discussed slavery as a “necessary evil,” that every great society needed cheap labor to become what it was and for America enslaving blacks was the ticket to “greatness.” What is more disturbing is that between the 1700’s (or as early as 1619 when the first recorded slave was brought to the U.S.) and the mid 1800’s something changed drastically. Some in our society started seeing slavery not merely as a necessary but evil institution but a “positive good.” This racist ideology began to defend slavery itself as an institution. John C. Calhoun is credited with verbalizing this shift as early as 1837 “To maintain the existing relations between the two races, inhabiting that section of the Union, is indispensable to the peace and happiness of both. It cannot be subverted without drenching the country or the other of the races. . . . But let me not be understood as admitting, even by implication, that the existing relations between the two races in the slave holding States is an evil:—far otherwise; I hold it to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be to both, and will continue to prove so if not disturbed by the fell spirit of abolition. I appeal to facts. Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.” He went on to say that he takes the moral “high ground” in his argument that Southern slave holding is necessary for the growth of the black race. It is easy to dismiss this today as racist and ignorant but I cannot easily label this as the past and move on. How many times in my own life do I begin to justify something I know to be wrong or at least not the best? We, as a nation bought into the racist rhetoric and even placed all people in a racial hierarchy used by immigration officials throughout the early 20th century.
During a bloody Civil War (that was NOT solely fought for or against slavery) roughly 180,000 African American soldiers fought and by the end of the conflict these men made up 10 percent of the Union army. Looking at the way they were treated illustrates the United States ambiguity and lack of commitment to the rights of African Americans, even when they were willing to fight for not only their freedom by the preservation of the Union that even denied them person hood. After the war the 13th & 14th & 15th Amendments did guarantee that slavery would be abolished, that black men would have citizenship in this country, and that no one would be denied the right to vote on the basis of of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Immediately after Civil War there was huge strides made in equal treatment. African Americans, who only years earlier had no rights were elected to the House and Senate (1870 Hiram Revels and others) but soon fear and terror rose and reared it’s ugly and vicious head while many sat idly by and allowed rights to be taken away and power denied. It was not as simple to turn back over 200 years of oppression as our nation was so entrenched in inequality. At every turn we as a nation denied rights in de jure and de facto segregation. Indeed, up until the Civil Rights Movement America remained inherently unequal. Some would still argue; with just cause, that even today there are separate realities for minorities in this country.
Black men, who have been the target of brutal violence and hatred in our history had the right to vote before any woman.
It blows my mind that less than 100 years ago women could still not vote. Not only did their voice not matter in issues of national politics but many still thought of women as incapable of even possessing the ability to reason and thus have the right to vote.
“Men are taught to apologize for their weaknesses, women for their strengths.” ~Lois Wyse
“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” ~Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler
Women fighting for what most of us take for granted today in our basic right to participate in the politics that dictate our lives was not an easy battle. Like many struggles for power it was not merely about getting a law passed but changing the pervasive thinking of the time. Sexist ideology had been passed on from generation to generation and for many the role of women in society was clear,”Women should remain at home, sit still, keep house and bear children”-Martin Luther. Many opponents of the suffrage movement even claimed they were defending the delicate woman from bearing the burden of politics that she could not possible understand nor participate in without the aid of men. Antisuffragists associated suffrage with promiscuity, divorce, and the neglect and mistreatment of children. Not surprising, fear was the primary motivator yet again for denying equality to all. Many supporters of women’s rights were “radical” at the time and much of the late 19th century their requests and petitions fell on deaf ears. They were extremists in that their requests were based on the notion that women had “natural rights” arguing that women had the same rights as men-including first and foremost the right to vote. In 1892, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote of woman as “the arbiter of her own destiny…if we are to consider her as a citizen, as a member of a great nation, she must have the same rights as all other members.” Alice Paul and other women who were convicted in their fight for equality were even jailed and then subsequently went on hunger strikes in prison for protesting the war and the inequality of women. The suffrage movement did not gain widespread appeal in part because it was labeled and seen as radical. This changed gradually as in 1893 there were only 13,000 members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and by 1917 their membership had grown to over 2 million. In part because of well known and admired women such as Jane Addams joining the cause. The right to vote came slowly but began in 1910 with Washington became the first state to extend suffrage to women. Illinois 🙂 actually became the first state east of the Mississippi to embrace a woman’s right to vote and many more follwed. Finally, the 19th Amendment in 1920 (ratified) was the culmination of decades of struggle for women to obtain basic political and social rights. As in any struggle change was slow over time and still remnants of the sexism of the past are with us. The right to vote did not at all guarantee women equality in America. The Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Lib movement were needed to redefine equality and still much remains undone. Equal pay has been the law since 1963 but even more than 50 years later, women are still paid less than men—even when we have similar education, skills and experience. In 2005, women were paid 77 cents for every dollar men received. Similarly troubling to me as I raise a daughter is the sexism in society, the way women are portrayed and objectified, and more disturbing our acceptance of this portrayal.
The sins of the past are a part of our collective psyche as a people and make us who and what we are today.
This evil became part of our historical fabric, it seeps into everything we were (and are) as a nation. This evil, like all evil, changed what was acceptable and violated the very core of our humanity as a people. I, too, must look inside myself and find what ownership I have in the racism and inequality that exists today. Such deep and widespread sin cannot leave even subsequent generations untarnished by it’s pervasive reach. Many people; both black and white, men and women did speak up on their convictions and for their bravery I am grateful. Our triumphs are just as amazing and worthy of pause as our failings. I am proud to be an American woman. I am grateful I can write this and openly voice my opinions without fear of retribution. I know for certain many inequalities still exist but as a people we have come a long way in the fight to make America truthful in it’s claims to be a nation under God with liberty and justice for all.
Senator Clinton and Senator Obama must be put through the necessary tests of holding the highest office in this country and be deemed worthy of that office not based solely on their gender or race but I am proud to be an American in a country that can allow the political process to be open to everyone that is an American. As a nation we have a long way to go in seeking justice and liberty for all. The forum is open to those who chose to participate in the discussion about how we as Americans do just that.
“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” -James Baldwin