Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Lincoln Freed the Slaves and Other Myths

Rev. King in Washington
As the nation celebrates the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, it seems appropriate to return to the roots of Black Americans' escape from bondage.  There are many myths associated with the battle to end slavery and obtain equal rights, and I thought that this might be a good time to address some of them.

Myth 1: Lincoln Was an Abolitionist

Not really.  He only wanted to end slavery in the states seeking admission to the Union.  He was opposed to actions that would end the practice in Southern states already in the Union. Later, Lincoln became convinced that slavery should be abolished.  However, he was still uncertain about the rights of freed blacks.

Myth 2: The Emancipation Proclamation Freed the Slaves

The proclamation only freed slaves in those parts of the country that were in rebellion.  Slavery still existed in border states such as Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri.  The proclamation was not Lincoln's idea, but developed from the emancipation of slaves in Missouri by Gen. Fremont.  Lincoln forced Fremont to rescind the edict.  The arguments made by abolitionists and the black community help form Lincoln's decision.

Myth 3:  The 13th Amendment Abolished Slavery

Approval of 13th Amendment
The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. However, Southern culture remained deeply racist, and those blacks who remained faced a dangerous situation. J. J. Gries reported to the Joint Committee on Reconstruction: “There is a kind of innate feeling, a lingering hope among many in the South that slavery will be regalvanized in some shape or other. They tried by their laws to make a worse slavery than there was before, for the freedman has not the protection which the master from interest gave him before.”  In 1935, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote:
Slavery was not abolished even after the Thirteenth Amendment. There were four million freedmen and most of them on the same plantation, doing the same work that they did before emancipation, except as their work had been interrupted and changed by the upheaval of war. Moreover, they were getting about the same wages and apparently were going to be subject to slave codes modified only in name. There were among them thousands of fugitives in the camps of the soldiers or on the streets of the cities, homeless, sick, and impoverished. They had been freed practically with no land nor money, and, save in exceptional cases, without legal status, and without protection.
Myth 4: Section 1 of the 14th Amendment Guarantees Equal Treatment Under the Law

Section 1 states, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

In the decades following the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court overturned laws barring blacks from juries (Strauder v. West Virginia, 1880) or discriminating against Chinese Americans in the regulation of laundry businesses (Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 1886), as violations of the Equal Protection Clause. However, in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court held that the states could impose segregation so long as they provided similar facilities—the formation of the "separate but equal" doctrine.  The Court went even further in restricting the Equal Protection Clause in Berea College v. Kentucky (1908), holding that the states could force private actors to discriminate by prohibiting colleges from having both black and white students. By the early 20th century, the Equal Protection Clause had been eclipsed to the point that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. dismissed it as "the usual last resort of constitutional arguments."

Myth 5: Section 1 of the 15th Amendment Guarantees the Right of Citizens to Vote

Celebration of 15th Amendment
Section 1 provides, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

From 1890 to 1910, poll taxes and literacy tests were instituted across the South, effectively disenfranchising the great majority of blacks. White-only primary elections also served to reduce the influence of blacks in the political system. Along with increasing legal obstacles, blacks were excluded from the political system by threats of violent reprisals by whites in the form of lynch mobs and terrorist attacks by racists groups.

Myth 6: The Black Codes were Only Enacted in Southern States

Black Laws and restrictions on free Blacks residing in states were enacted throughout the country
Marriage between blacks and whites was outlawed in both Northern (Ohio, Rhode Island, and California for example).  Blacks were prohibited from living in certain communities. Chicago adopted racially restrictive housing covenants beginning in 1927.  Public schools were segregated. Black children prohibited from attending Pittsburgh schools.

Myth 7: The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments Provide Rights to Black Americans

These amendments codify the rights for all Americans.  While written to provide rights to freed slaves, application of these rights have been used to provide equal protection for all citizens. 

When Rev. King made his historic speech, he said he had a " dream deeply rooted in the American dream." He reminded the nation of its Declaration of Independence when he said "one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

King presented this dream in the context of the ongoing struggle for Civil Rights for Black Americans.  However, his plea for his children could be made as well by all parents.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

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