Our nation’s first black president will be inaugurated on Dr. King’s holiday; Myrlie Evers, wife of slain Mississippi human rights activist Medgar Evers, will be giving the invocation. We must remember the American counter-voices that made Barack Obama’s presidency possible.
E Pluribus Unum … Out of many we are one
The preamble of the Declaration of Independence is essentially an article of dissent; a statement that outlines the framework of a new nation and simultaneously illustrates why this new nation is necessary: When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
The American counter-voice in our history highlights the disconnect between the rhetoric and the realities of life of the marginalized in the United States. They tell a very specific story in regard to the American experience and yet their message is transcendent and applicable to all. Their narratives are rooted and steeped in the language and ideals of the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but it is America itself that they are making their appeal to.
Frederick Douglass, in his famous speech in New York on July 5, 1852 (he was asked to speak at an event celebrating Independence Day), paid homage to those ideas and the men who gave birth to them:
“Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too-great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.”
Nevertheless, he also gave voice to the conflict that was still raging in the hearts of many blacks in America at the time. He voiced the dissent of those voiceless ones whose stories for far too many years and far too many times, had gone untold:
“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 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.”
When a nation’s actions falls pitifully short of its best ambitions; when a country’s deeds are woefully out of step with its highest stated values, then the counter-voices within that society become all the more important. The noble, piercing and eloquent words uttered by Frederick Douglass, were voiced by a man who, for all intents and purposes, was a runaway slave; an outlaw; a fugitive from justice — who could have at any time, according to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, been seized and sent back to his master or his heirs. This makes his prescient words all the more courageous.
“My Dungeon Shook” is one of the greatest pieces of American literature. James Baldwin challenged the agenda of the then-current, national conversation about freedom, liberty and justice. In a letter written to his nephew in 1963, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Baldwin paints a powerful portrait of America as seen through the eyes of those who had not been able to fully declare their liberty as Americans:
“This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that, for the heart of the matter is here, and the root of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born, and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do (and how you could do it) and where you could do it and whom you could marry.”
In the preceding passage, Baldwin gives voice to the conflict of the disenfranchised; he channels Douglass’ dissection of America’s paradoxical relationship with its children of African descent (and with other groups as well). And yet, beautifully and wonderfully, Baldwin offers hope and instruction to his nephew James — and by extension, to all of us:
“You, don’t be afraid. I said that it was intended that you should perish in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go behind the white man’s definitions, by never being allowed to spell your proper name. You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention; and, by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these men are your brothers—your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become. It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved and unassailable and monumental dignity.”
The often forgotten aspect of the achievement and overcoming by the oppressed is the backdrop against which it occurred. Baldwin reminds America that blacks and people of color received no free ride, but rather overpaid the full price for freedom. He brilliantly renders the notion that people of color were mere spectators in the American experiment impotent. No, they were not bit role characters in the building of the United States, but rather constant and consistent protagonists.
In a time of hostility and rage; in an era of interposition and nullification, Baldwin points to love. To be sure, this is not a centrally sentimental and ineffectual love. It is of the bold and confrontational variety; it does not flee from harsh reality but faces it and endeavors to change it. He gives a compelling counter to the hatred and vitriol that personified the opposition to full human rights for the disinherited of America.
Dr. King, in addressing the well-intentioned white clergy of his day, deconstructs the impact of systemic and institutional racism. In a “Letter From A Birmingham Jail,” he places Jim Crow and white paternalism under the microscope.
“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
In a present day America of hyper-partisanship — where the calls of foreigner and un-American are being hurled at the president of the United States from certain segments of our society — the belief in the interrelatedness of all communities is non-existent. The xenophobic impulse that was present then is still with us — and not covertly.
American citizens who are Muslim, Hispanic, black and poor are still being considered outsiders in a nation that they call home.
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”
Here, King reminds us that righteous causes cannot be placed on the calendar of convenience. The cry of ‘this is not the appropriate time” was recently heard in the wake of the Newtown massacre and it has been a staple of human behavior since the beginning of time. Every moment that we wait to do the right thing; to pass the right law; to craft the right policy, injustice becomes more entrenched and its champions become more intractable.
Even now, it is the vast majority of those who haven’t been called rag-head, nigger or wetback; it is those who have not been told to go back to where they came from, that can’t perceive the pain and unreasonableness of waiting.
Sometimes it isn’t the enemies of justice that slow the progress toward freedom, but rather justice’s supposed allies:
“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice …”
This writer has been reminded throughout his life that the lack of dissent does not necessarily mean that peace or righteousness is present. There’s no arguing among the occupants of a cemetery, but there’s no life either.
And what life does a nation or society possess when the issues that are most critical to its treatment of its most vulnerable citizens are marginalized? What is our collective legacy if those who purport to stand for equity become the unwitting obstacles to its fulfillment? Nevertheless there is reason to hope:
“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained.”
Let us be reminded from within ourselves and without, that great things in the cause of freedom have been done before and can be again. Let us celebrate this virtuous strand in the American narrative; let us inaugurate within ourselves the same passion and commitment heard in these and other American counter-voices.