Possibly the greatest story ever told in the era of slavery was that of Frederick Douglass, and he was able to tell it himself. He effectively bridged the heart and soul of a former slave to the minds and thoughts of white Americans; he did this with truth and honor, but he also understood, from his own raw experience, the great harm slavery brought to all people of this nation.
As the editor of his own newspaper, Douglass wrote thousands of articles and his words of wisdom are replete with the message told so well in his 1852 address, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? “Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty millions crush and destroy it forever"Imagine the love he had for President Abraham Lincoln! And the sorrow and honor he felt when addressing the audience at the unveiling of the Freedman’s Monument in Washington DC. Not only does he honor a great man, but he honors, “the new dispensation of freedom with its thousand blessing to both races, and the old dispensation of slavery with its ten thousand evils to both races." In part, Douglass’ understanding of injustice to one is injustice to all, and his ability to convey this message with eloquence, helped move our nation through the long and arduous march towards equality-the fruits of which he only partially tasted.
But Douglass’ arguments were not only written from his passion; in Our Composite Nationality, 1869, he presents a different argument. In the diversity of our races, we, like the biological diversity of plants and animals, bring a critical balance to the planet and hence, “…the perfection and happiness of the whole is a broad and beneficent theory…”
December 1 1955, was a day not only for Rosa Parks, but a day for a twenty-six year old man who served as pastor to Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Four days later on December 5, Martin Luther King Jr., was voted by fellow black leaders to be the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association.
It could have been said of Martin Luther King, as it was said to Queen Esther, “…who knoweth whether thou art come to this kingdom for such a time as this?” His deep religious convictions fortified him with the strength to march his way to bringing to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That he demanded of his people to follow the Christian principles in the Commitment Card, gave them a bond of strength as in the body of Christ. His influence was so great, that decades after his death, when future comedian Samantha Irby was caught shoplifting, the black security guard shook his head in disappointment and said, “Is this what Martin Luther King marched and died for?”
As a humble learner, Reverend King recognized the principles and power of non-violence when taught to him by Bayard Rustin. Like the Savior in whom he believed, he brought a new way to his people, a new philosophy that was as counter to his people as the fulfillment of the Law of Moses. King espoused spiritual aggressiveness. He didn’t preach the black people vs. white people philosophy like many of his contemporaries; instead he recognized that, “The struggle is rather between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness” (The Power of Non Violence, 1957). While we called the struggle black vs. white, it had a cumulative and destructive effect on all people. Prejudice was an offence not only to blacks or whites but was a great injury to both, because it broke a higher law—the law of justice.
King also articulated an ideal that had to strike at the hearts of a people ready for change. At the end of the march in Washington DC on August 28, 1963, he succinctly said of attendant whites, [they] “have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny."
But what percentage of whites participated in the 1963 march? We know Bob Dylan and Joan Baez sang. As I scan the old news film, maybe one in four participants are white. Or was it one in ten? Change was happening, but was it enough?
Like many Americans, when Barack Obama became our 44th president, I thought we had finally seen the end of racism, that inequality had finally choked on its own vomit. We had come so far, so close to the edge, but in four short years Trayvon Martin showed us we had not yet made the leap to a higher mountain.
In Obama’s 2008 A More Perfect Union speech, he spoke of hope but reminded us of our past, “The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery.". He warned us—even though the constitution promised all Americans liberty and justice, words on a parchment were not enough to deliver all people, both black and white from the bondage of slavery. He reminded us that our change wasn’t complete; he didn’t pat us on the backs for our perfect union, but pleaded for A More perfect union. We are still in bondage because we have failed the most basic principles of justice: all men are not equal. We have not done unto others as we would have others do unto us, and because of our shortcomings, karma, the ancient Sanskrit word which means the spiritual principle of cause and effect where intent and actions of a [nation] influence the future of that [nation], our nation once thought to be the light on the hill, is still weighed down by poverty, racial division, and political strife.
Until we imbed in our hearts King’s mantra, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” until we embrace true equality for all men, the bondage of slavery still exits. And “…we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together" (Obama). Only together, are we free to break from bondage.
When I arrived at my daughter’s home in Chicago, I was thrilled to see her next door neighbors were black.
“Why didn’t you tell me you had black neighbors?” I asked. My daughter looked at me like I was an incompetent fool.
In those few seconds of her not understanding who her mother was, I saw my Civil Rights experience flash before my eyes: having grown up in the sixties and seventies, having been the first sixth grade class to be integrated, getting out of high school early because of race riot threats, having lived on the east side knowing it was dangerous to go to the west side, having heard my parents’ stories when blacks couldn’t enter hotels through the front door, inviting my tennis-camp black friend to stay at my house making my parents proud and uneasy, …meeting my daughter’s neighbors was a significant moment. Even more significant was that my own daughter didn’t think anything of it. One small step for racial equality, one giant leap for mankind.