Monday, November 10, 2008

The long march of those who came before us

(Barack Obama, A More Perfect Union address, Philadelphia, March 18th 2008)

The election of Barack Obama represents the victory of a remarkable politician and brilliant orator who also happens to be the first African American president in the history of the nation. The historical nature of the win has electrified the world and represents a momentous step along a long and hard road in search of equality and true democracy in America. The victory is even more poignant when one remembers that it took place in a nation whose very philosophy, as written by Jefferson in the words of the Declaration of Independence, is “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

But if only it were that simple. Taken at their face value Jefferson’s words present a noble ideal. Yet how does that square with the fact that Jefferson himself owned nearly two hundred slaves? Presumably he didn't expect those ideals to apply to them. Yet not only was Jefferson said to be very fond of many of his slaves, he actually had an intimate long term relationship with one of them, Sally Hemings, with whom he had 7 children. Annette Gordon-Reed's famous book 'Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy' brought the issue to the world's attention, subsequently proved by DNA testing of Hemings' descendants (more information on Jefferson's 'other family' can be found here). Both Jefferson and his colleagues in those early days of government for the large part spoke out against the evil of slavery, but the fact is of the founding fathers of America only two, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, didn’t own slaves. Furthermore, of the first 18 presidents of the U.S. i.e. up to the abolition of slavery in the U.S. in 1865, 12 owned slaves (8 of whom owned slaves while serving as president); they include Washington (317 slaves), Jefferson (187 slaves), Madison (106 slaves), Monroe (35 slaves), Jackson (150 slaves), Van Buren (1 slave, named Tom, who ran away but who was later found and ‘sold’), Harrison (7 slaves), Tyler (70 slaves), Polk (25 slaves), Taylor (100 slaves), Johnson (8 slaves), and Grant (1 slave, eventually freed).

[N.B. slave numbers are taken, where figures are available, from the presidents’ final estates. For a break down of President Monroe’s 35 individually named slaves, as recorded in his will, and the price President Polk paid for his 25 slaves, see the addendum at the foot of this blog.]

It’s almost as if there are two Americas here. One begins with the most noble of concepts and the country becomes a shining beacon of enlightenment. The other inherits the worst aspects of the European empires, in a story filled with hypocrisy, that leads down a long tortuous road filled with suffering and injustice. The two countries seem to proceed with their separate histories side by side and depending on your perspective and point of view either history seems to ring true. And so perhaps the reason the election result of November 4th 2008 is so symbolic - for it changes nothing of the past, and as yet of the future – is that for the first time in the country’s history all the hypocrisy, all the original sin of slavery can be wiped away, and all the goodness and greatness of the nation, as embodied in Jefferson's famous words, can now finally ring resoundingly true for everyone, and President-elect Barack Obama can say, with more sincerity and real meaning than any President before him, as he did on election night:

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

Civil rights legislation

Frederick Douglass, the great 19th century African American orator, writer and statesman, and a former slave, felt there was no need to rewrite the words of the American Constitution for the benefit of the freedom of African Americans. This might strike us as odd bearing in mind in three places in the original Constitution biases in favour of slavery are actually codified:

In Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 representation apportioned between the states is measured by one vote per free man and “three fifths of all other Persons” (i.e. those who aren’t free). The ironic thing here is that this was a compromise put in to please the southern plantation states as it obviously boosted their representation since they had the largest slave population; the north on the other hand didn’t want to give any representation at all to those held in slavery! The irony of this point, of course, is that if the north had had their way, though their position was as offensive as the south's 'three fifths' position, then the north might have had more sway in government and perhaps therefore slavery might have ended earlier, or without a civil war; as it was the south was given greater representation by this three fifths ruling.

In Article I, Section 9 Clause 1 “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.”. In other words, for economic reasons, because the wealth that slavery brought into the country was recognised and regarded as an important factor in maintaining the security and independence of the nation, slavery would be allowed to continue for a further 20 years, and that a taxation would be imposed on slaves imported during that time, thus providing further revenue for the government out of slavery.

Acticle IV, Section 2, Clause 3: “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”. This dealt with the problem of escaped slaves fleeing to other states, and put an onus on those states to return the slaves to servitude if discovered by their former ‘owners’, i.e. that an escaped slave would not be safe anywhere within the union.

One of the great strengths of the U.S. form of government is it’s ability to evolve and change. And as people gradually ‘wisened up’ to the evil of slavery so they were able to amend the Constitution and also bring in new laws to fight the prejudice and bigotry that have sadly played a major role in the suppression of democracy and justice in states within the United States.

First and foremost of these would be Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation of January 1st 1863 which was a first step in committing the Union to ending slavery. Then, during Reconstruction following the Civil War, came three amendments to the Constitution: the Thirteenth Amendment (December 6, 1865) banned slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment (July 9, 1868) defined U.S. citizenship overruling Dred Scott v. Sandford which had excluded slaves and their descendants from possessing Constitutional rights, and the Fifteenth Amendment (February 3rd 1870 ) banned race-based voting qualifications. At the same time in 1866, 1871 and 1875 a series of Civil Rights acts were introduced; these were necessary to counter the racist Black Codes that all confederate states had adopted after the Civil War in an attempt to keep the African American population in a form of quasi-slavery, even after emancipation.

Unfortunately things were to take a turn very much for the worse once Reconstruction ended and Federal troops ceased their post-war occupation of the south in 1877. In particular two Supreme Court decisions, the 1883 Civil Rights Cases ruling and the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, opened the door for institutionalised segregation and allowed the ‘separate but equal’ philosophy to flourish. In both Supreme Court rulings only one justice dissented, John Marshall Harlan, who in the latter case made the famous statement “The Constitution is color-blind: it neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” These two Supreme Court decisions seemed to give a green light to the south to reintroduce all kinds of racist legislation that took southern states back to a pre Lincoln era of civil rights (or rather lack of civil rights).

Not till 1954 with Chief Justice Warren’s Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education did things begin to change when the first nail was put in the coffin for segregation with the ruling "separate facilities are inherently unequal". But more was needed to restore full democracy and equal rights. On July 2nd 1964 the Civil Rights Act of 1964 came into law, which ironically contained many of the same points as the failed Civil Rights Act of 1875, introduced 89 years earlier! Then came the still necessary Voting Rights Act of 1965.

None of these extra laws and amendments, from 1854 to 1965, should have been necessary if the sentiment of Jefferson's words in the 1776 Declaration of Independence had been taken literally and seriously, or perhaps written into the Constitution. Though in any case, laws in themselves are not enough to turn around people’s prejudices. The recent Jena Six case of 2007 in Louisiana shows that, even with all these laws in place, removing prejudice through legislation alone is an impossible task.

Studying American history it’s shocking to realise that African Americans had less freedom, and were more disenfranchised, in the 1950s and early 1960s than in the brief era of Reconstruction of 1866-1877, following emancipation of slaves after the Civil War and the three ‘civil rights’ Constitutional amendments. This doesn’t mean it would have been a barrel of laughs for African Americans living in southern states between 1866 and 1877 needless to say. But it’s a tragedy that the freedoms won at such a high price in the Civil War and in the abolitionist movement which preceded it, were subsequently reversed by a stream of racist legislation, the result of which was to institutionalise racism and basically create an apartheid government in the southern states of the U.S.. And it’s hard to grapple with the fact that almost a century before Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream' speech Frederick Douglass, an African American born into slavery in 1818, had in 1872 achieved the remarkable honour of becoming the first African American nominated as vice-presidential candidate. Clearly between the 1870s and the 1960s the high ideals of Lincoln and others were trampled on with disastrous consequences.

Frederick Douglass (1818 - 1895)

Some of the most eloquent words written or spoken during “the long march of those who came before us’ came from Frederick Douglass, a former slave, U.S. statesman and, as already mentioned, the first African American nominated as vice-presidential candidate. On December 3rd 1847 he launched his North Star newspaper, which among many other issues promoted the anti-slavery movement from its columns. The funds that enabled Douglass to found his newspaper were raised by him during a lecture tour he gave in Britain, where he enjoyed tremendous support, in the 1840s. In his autobiography Douglass points out that he had a clear purpose and goal in founding the newspaper, as he explained to his fund-raising gathering in England:

I told them that perhaps the greatest hinderance to the adoption of abolition principles by the people of the United States, was the low estimate, everywhere in that country, placed upon the negro, as a man; that because of his assumed natural inferiority, people reconciled themselves to his enslavement and oppression, as things inevitable, if not desirable. The grand thing to be done, therefore, was to change the estimation in which the colored people of the United States were held; to remove the prejudice which depreciated and depressed them; to prove them worthy of a higher consideration; to disprove their alleged inferiority, and demonstrate their capacity for a more exalted civilization than slavery and prejudice had assigned to them. I further stated, that, in my judgment, a tolerably well conducted press, in the hands of persons of the despised race, by calling out the mental energies of the race itself; by making them acquainted with their own latent powers; by enkindling among them the hope that for them there is a future; by developing their moral power; by combining and reflecting their talents--would prove a most powerful means of removing prejudice, and of awakening an interest in them. I further informed them--and at that time the statement was true--that there was not, in the United States, a single newspaper regularly published by the colored people; that many attempts had been made to establish such papers; but that, up to that time, they had all failed.

In other words, Douglass realised how important it was to change people’s mindset if there was to be any hope to ending slavery.

In the editorial of the first day’s edition, addressed to fellow African Americans, Douglass wrote: “We have drunk to the dregs the bitter cup of slavery; we have worn the heavy yoke; we have sighed beneath our bonds, and writhed beneath the bloody lash; - cruel momentos of our oneness are indelibly marked on our living flesh. We are one with you under the ban of prejudice and political disenfranchisement. What you suffer, we suffer; what you endure, we endure. We are indissolubly united, and must fall or flourish together.

Douglass later became an important advisor to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War though he was initially critical of what he saw as Lincoln’s slowness in embracing full and comprehensive emancipation. Douglass recalled, in his autobiography, the tension and anxiety he and others felt on the night of December 31st 1862 as they anxiously awaited the announcement of Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation: “We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky...we were the dim light of the stars for the dawn of a new day...we were longing for the answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries." Lincoln held Douglass in high regard, as witness the following account, which was verified by more than one eye-witness: on greeting Douglass in the East Room of the White House, following his second inaugural address on March 4th 1865, Lincoln is recorded as saying: “Douglass, I saw you in the crowd today listening to my inaugural address. There is no man's opinion that I value more than yours; what do you think of it?

In 1841, just three years after escaping from slavery, and eight years before founding the North Star newspaper, Douglass was recruited by William Lloyd Garrison to lecture on abolition for the Anti-Slavery Society. He travelled a great deal around the U.S. and acquired a remarkable reputation for his powerful speeches. According to the Concord Massachusetts Herald of Freedom: “as a speaker, he has few equals…He has wit, arguments, sarcasm, pathos - all that first rate men show in their master effort."

In 1845 Douglass travelled to Britain to escape the fugitive hunters who were on his tale following the publication of the first of his three autobiographies. Even in northern states escaped former slaves were not safe from being recaptured and returned to servitude in the south. Douglass spent nearly two years in Britain, arriving there in March 1845. He lectured across the country, from London to Belfast, and was extremely successful. As well as lecturing on the subject of abolition he also took up and supported other causes including the growing movement for Irish independence from British rule.

In January 1846 he wrote to William Lloyd Garrison from the U.K.: "Instead of the bright blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft gray fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe and lo! The chattel becomes a man. I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as a slave, or offer me an insult." He was astonished to encounter so little racial prejudice among the British during his trip:

I can truly say, I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life since landing in this country. I seem to have undergone a transformation. I live a new life. The warm and generous co-operation extended to me by the friends of my ‘despised’ race; the prompt and liberal manner with which the press has rendered me its aid; the glorious enthusiasm with which thousands have flocked to hear the cruel wrongs of my down-trodden and long-enslaved fellow-countrymen portrayed; the deep sympathy for the slave, and the strong abhorrence of the slaveholder, everywhere evinced; … the spirit of freedom that seems to animate all with whom I come in contact, and the entire absence of everything that looked like prejudice against me, on account of the color of my skin--contrasted so strongly with my long and bitter experience in the United States, that I look with wonder and amazement on the transition.

While in Britain two English friends raised the one hundred and fifty pounds sterling ($710.96) necessary for Douglass to ‘buy his freedom’ in the U.S. so that he would no longer be a target of the fugitive hunters. Some of Douglass’s supporters in the U.S. felt this was selling out in that it seemed to acknowledge the legitimacy of slavery and slave ownership. Douglass on the other hand saw it as a purely practical measure so that he would be free to mount a truly effective anti-slavery campaign in the U.S.. On his return to America he moved with his family to Rochester New York where he launched his newspaper, the North Star.

J.M.W. Turner (1775 - 1851): "The Slave Ship"

Below is a reproduction of J.M.W. Turner's "The Slave Ship" or "Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhoon coming on". The 19th century English artist Turner, one of the greatest landscape painters of all time, completed this dramatic painting in 1840, just 5 years before Frederick Douglass made his successful trip to Britain.

The subject of the painting is the horrific practice of 18th century slave traders who would throw the dead and dying human 'cargo' overboard during the Atlantic passage from Africa to the Americas in order to claim the insurance for 'drowning'. By choosing such an emotive subject Turner was firmly aligning himself with the abolitionist movement. In the painting's foreground the shackled limbs of the drowning slaves can be clearly seen.

For this painting Turner was also inspired by lines from 'The Seasons: Summer' by the Scottish poet James Thomson (1700-1748):

Increasing still the Terrors of these Storms,
His Jaws horrific arm'd with threefold Fate,
Here dwells the direful Shark. Lur'd by the Scent
Of steaming Crrouds, of rank Disease, and Death,
Behold! he rushing cuts the briny Flood,
Swift as the Gale can bear the Ship along;
And, from the Partners of the cruel Trade,
Which spoils unhappy Guinea of her Sons,
Demands his share of Prey, demands themselves.
The stormy Fate descend: one Death involves
Tyrants and Slaves; when strait, their mangled Limbs
Crashing at once, he dyes the purple Seas
With Gore, and riots in the Venegeful Meal.

Abraham Lincoln (1809 - 1865)

Some of the most powerful words uttered against slavery came, of course, from Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s first significant recorded speech was given in Peoria Illinois on October 16th 1854, uttered during his senatorial campaign against the racist pro-slavery senator Stephen Douglas. At stake were the terms of the Kansas-Nebraska Act which gave settlers in those territories the right to decide for themselves whether or not to own slaves. An eye witness to Lincoln’s Peoria speech was the journalist Horace White, then working for the Chicago Evening Journal: “It was a warmish day in early October, and Mr. Lincoln was in his shirt sleeves when he stepped on the platform. I observed that, although awkward, he was not in the least embarrassed. He began in a slow and hesitating manner, but without any mistakes of language, dates, or facts. It was evident that he had mastered his subject, that he knew what he was going to say, and that he knew he was right.

Lincoln’s words that day, as recorded by him shortly after giving the speech, include the following famous lines: “Little by little, but steadily as man's march to the grave, we have been giving up the old for the new faith. Nearly eighty years ago we began by declaring that all men are created equal; but now from that beginning we have run down to the other declaration, that for some men to enslave others is a 'sacred right of self-government.' These principles cannot stand together. They are as opposite as God and Mammon; and whoever holds to the one must despise the other.

The following year, 1855, Lincoln wrote to Joshua Speed: “How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes." When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read "all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics." When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be take pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.

Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, so eagerly awaited by Frederick Douglass, was finally issued on the first day of the year 1863: “I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-In-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States … do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States and parts of States are, and henceforward shall be, free; and that the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

Harriet Tubman (c.1820 - 1913) and the Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was an elaborate network of secret routes, established to help slaves escape to freedom, either to northern states, or to Canada where escaped slaves enjoyed complete safety under protection of Great Britain; unlike the northern states of the U.S. Canada had no legislation in place to force the arrest and return of fugitive slaves. By the 1830s the Underground Railway was firmly established in all parts of the north. In Ohio alone, from 1830 to 1860, as many as 40,000 fugitive slaves were helped to freedom. The number of local antislavery societies increased at such a rate that by 1838 there were about 1,350 in existence with a membership of perhaps 250,000, even though most white northerners held themselves aloof from the abolitionist movement or even actively opposed it.

Many of the names of those whose brave and selfless actions saved so many lives during this dark period in U.S. history have not been recorded for posterity. But one name that stands out is Harriet Tubman. Her heroic deeds and remarkable determination made her a legend even within her own lifetime. Born into slavery in c.1820, she suffered serious seizures throughout her life as a result of a severe head injury inflicted on her by a slave owner while still a child. After several failed escape attempts she eventually managed to escape to the north in 1849. Almost immediately she risked her own freedom again by travelling back to the south to rescue her family and other slaves. Unfortunately she was too late to rescue her three sisters who had already been transferred to a plantation further south making their fates unknown. Time and time again, from 1850 onwards for a period of 11 years, Harriet crossed between northern and southern states guiding at least 300 slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Her heroic efforts became so well known she was nick-named the ‘Black Moses’.

During the Civil War Harriet Tubman worked for the Union forces, as both a nurse, and commander of several scouts; she also more importantly conducted spying operations on behalf of the Union forces, and was, according to evidence presented to the House of Representatives “virtually in charge of the intelligent services in the Department of the South”. But in a sign of the inequality of the times her frequent applications for veteran status after the war, in order to qualify for a war pension, were all denied. Her feisty spirit is evidenced in the following story: On being asked to vacate her seat on a train at the end of the war by a white train conductor she refused and explained that her government service entitled her to sit where she liked; the conductor then brutally removed her from her seat, and she was thrown violently into the baggage compartment, sustaining several broken rips and an injured shoulder in the process. All the while though she let the white conductor know in no uncertain terms what she thought of him!

Despite her severe childhood head injury Harriet Tubman lived a long life and died in 1913 at the age of c.93. She spent the latter part of her life working tirelessly for the poor, the elderly and disabled, and raised money for schools and for former slaves, despite not having much money herself. She also became involved in the women‘s suffragette movement. In 1908 she opened the Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People in Auburn New York, where she died on March 10th 1913. Today Harriet Tubman is hailed as a true American hero, and one of countless thousands of individuals who helped shape the true character and destiny of the nation.

Elijah Lovejoy (1802 - 1837)

In a previous blog I highlighted the life and tragic death of newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy, regarded by many as one of the first martyrs of the abolition movement, as well as an important advocate for freedom of speech. On November 7th 1837 he was brutally murdered by a pro-slavery mob who objected to his ‘radical’ abolitionist views. You can read more about Lovejoy at my previous blog here.

Todd Duncan (1903 - 1998) and Anne Brown (1912 - 2009)

A less dramatic act of defiance, but no less courageous, took place in Washington D.C. in March 1936 when Todd Duncan and Anne Brown, two previously unknown African American singers chosen by Gershwin himself to sing the lead roles in Porgy and Bess, refused to perform to a segregated National Theater during the first tour of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in 1936. At the time the National Theater wanted to exclude African Americans from all performances with the exception of a ‘blacks only’ evening. Under pressure the theater managers then suggested African Americans could attend all performances as long as they were seated separately in the balcony. However Duncan and Brown bravely stuck to their guns. Duncan stated that he would never perform in a theater that barred him from purchasing tickets to certain seats because of his race. Todd Duncan and Anne Brown led the entire African American cast in a stand-off that could have potentially ruined their careers. Anne Brown later recalled the events of March 1936:

As expected we were told that the National Theater would be a segregated house. Todd and I refused to perform and were threatened by the Theater Guild who said we had to sing or there would be reprisals. We cared less. We were adamant. With help from other cast members and political figures like Mary McLeod Bethune and Ralph Bunche, we succeeded and the National Theater admitted African Americans to a desegregated house. But after our performance, it returned to its original policy of segregation.

This important performance of Porgy and Bess, the first time that the National Theater in Washington D.C. had a desegregated audience, was the last performance of the opera attended by Gershwin himself. He died the following year, July 11th 1937 at the age of 38. Gershwin was not trying to make any statement about race in writing his opera, which was based on Dubose Heyward’s novel Porgy. Gershwin simply saw it as a great story and a perfect vehicle for his music. But his unselfconsciousness about the subject, and the portrayal of the opera’s characters as real people with real, heartbreaking emotions, was significant in 1935, when the opera was written, as the country was still severely divided racially.

Anne Brown (chosen by Gershwin to sing Bess) here reenacts the original 1935 Porgy and Bess production as part of the Hollywood biopic of Gershwin, 'Rhapsody in Blue', filmed in 1945:

Martin Luther King Jnr. (1929 - 1968) and the civil rights movement

The “long march” against inequality and social injustice continued long after the Civil War generation had passed away. In addition to the racist so-called ‘Jim Crow laws’ that former confederate states adopted to restrict the rights of African Americans other laws not directly connected with racial issues were equally pernicious in their impact on race. One example was the Social Security Act of 1935 which the NAACP at the time described as “a sieve with holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through”. In this act excluded from receiving social security benefits were domestic and agricultural labourers many of whom were African Americans. The perpetuation of conditions that kept people in poverty or from being able to advance their economic condition was seen by Martin Luther King Jnr. and others as a major obstacle to freedom and social justice in the African American community.

Things came to a head in the 1950s and 60s with the rise of a more organised civil rights movement. The death of Emmett Till and subsequent farcical trial, and Rosa Park’s stubbornness in refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery Alabama in 1955 became the catalysts for the American civil rights movement; John Lewis’s quiet determination to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge toward Montgomery in 1965 before encountering the full force of racist law was a similarly defining moment in the civil rights struggle. Sadly the “long march” continued to claim innocent lives including Addie Mae, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb ... the list is in fact endless: for example in a recent apology issued by the U.S. Senate in 2005 (proposed by Senators Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and George Allen of Virginia) for failing to enact federal anti-lynching legislation in the first part of the 20th century, the figure of 4742 was quoted for the number of recorded lynchings in the U.S. between 1890 and 1960, with the actual numbers believed to be much higher.

On April 4th 1968 less than 24 hours after delivering his famous ‘I've been to the mountaintop’ speech in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King Jnr., Nobel Peace Prize laureate, world respected advocate of non-violent action to overcome oppression, became the latest victim of racial hate crime. The words of his last speech seem almost prophetic:

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Martin Luther King Jnr. is now recognised as one of the most important people of his era. In London England his image has been carved in stone into the west face of Westminster Abbey, the country’s most revered medieval cathedral, as part of the cathedral’s statues of great Christian martyrs. In his lifetime King was admired around the world for his non-violent stance against injustice, just as Gandhi – one of King’s mentors – had been admired for his stance against the British in India. On December 10th 1964 Martin Luther King Jnr. was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in Oslo Norway. Within weeks of receiving the award he was once again arrested by the apartheid government forces of Selma Alabama. Today he is remembered as much for his inspiring words as for his brave actions. Like others before him, Douglass, Lovejoy, Lincoln, Martin Luther King’s use of language was a powerful force within the civil rights movement.

On August 28th 1963, one hundred years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.: "I have a dream that 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.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. … I have a dream that my four 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. I have a dream.

Barack Obama (b. 1961)

Forty-five years later, on November 4th 2008, Barack Obama spoke to a crowd of over 100,000 people in Grant Park Chicago Illinois following his election as the 44th President of the United States:

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

On Tim Russert’s Meet The Press on NBC on May 4th 2008 Barack Obama was equally uplifting and eloquent: “I'm somebody who is born to a white mother and an African father. It's in my DNA to believe that we can bring this country together, that people are the same under the skin. And that's what I've been fighting for all my life, and to a large degree everything that I've done as a community organizer, everything that I've done as a state legislator and a United States senator embodies those ideals: that we can get people who look differently or speak differently or come from different experiences to recognize what they have in common.

In his famous 'A More Perfect Union' speech in Philadelphia on March 18th 2008 Obama spoke of the long march to freedom: “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. This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign - to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.

The last time a politician went from Illinois to the White House was in 1860. His name was Abraham Lincoln. There are many people in the US today who now believe that “the pursuit of Happiness” is more than just a dream, it’s an actuality.

If your view of the world is like mine you may have noticed how often some of the happiest moments in life seem balanced by some of the saddest on the other side of the coin. Even in Obama’s triumph, everyone was surely aware that the greatest moment of his life, his great achievement, could not be witnessed by his parents or his maternal grandmother. This strange contradiction of feelings and duality of emotions - perhaps not unlike the contradictions of American history - is, in my opinion, at the very heart of what makes music such a profound form of human expression. It’s a topic I will be expanding on in future blogs, because it goes to the very core of the “pursuit of happiness”.

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Slaves of James Monroe

From the will of James Monroe here is a list of the 35 slaves still in his keep when he died. After his death, in May 1836, they were ‘sold’ to one Samuel L Gourvernaur. Unusually the slaves in this list have surnames, which doesn’t make the reading any less horrific:

Date of will 22 Jan 1836

Negro man Natus Berryman 24y old
George Harris 55y old
Samuel Jackson 46y old
boy Anderson Harris 16y old
James Carr 63y old
Samuel Love 49y old
George William 50y old
Harry Short 36y old
Peter Maloney 72 y old
Zachariah Boot 45y old
Joseph Short 30y old
Jno. Harford (crippled) 25y old
Alfred Gantt 16y old
Ralph Gantt 14y old
Molly Jackson 65y old
Judy Gantt 36y old
& her 5 children James (Catherine has fits) Henry, Edmund & Washington (crippled)
Nancy Gantt 18y old & her infant child
Mema Baker 22y old & her 2 children Jno. & Sally
Nancy Harris 42y old & her 2 children Priscilla & Cornelia
George Harris 18y old crippled in the knee
Betsy Thompson 40y old too fat for any use
Solomon Green 45y old
Nancy Green 75y old
Scy Harris 60y old
Tamory derry 60y old (crippled)

Inventory of the Slaves of James Polk

According to the inventory of Polk’s slaves, Polk, with his brother-in-law, Dr. Silas M. Caldwell, purchased a lot of slaves for $8,025.00 in 1833; men were valued at $600 each, women $450 each, and children $75 each; Polk purchased more slaves while President of the United States between 1845 and 1849. Slaves were often offered and sold in lots. In 1833, for example, the New Orleans slave house of Hewlett and Bright conducted the sale of a lot of valuable slaves on behalf of the owner who was leaving for Europe; these slaves were all sold at half cash down, the other half payable a month later with a mortgage offered on the slaves until the final payment was complete.

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