History will judge America by how well we truly make Black lives matter

History will judge America by how well we truly make Black lives matter
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“[W]hy am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. … Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. … This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.” 

One could be forgiven to think that these words were spoken recently, perhaps at a Black Lives Matter protest. In fact, however, they were delivered 168 years ago, by Frederick Douglass, at the invitation of the Rochester, N.Y. Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. Their resonance with the racial justice protests invites a reconsideration of Douglass’s speech, and of the relevance of the Declaration of Independence to today’s widespread unrest. 

It is unclear what the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society expected to hear when they invited Douglass to deliver a Fourth of July address. But the invitation, in 1852, came at a time of mounting national rancor over the persistence of slavery. 

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The nation had been founded and had endured since 1776 upon a series of compromises that had enabled the “peculiar institution” of slavery’s survival as the price of national union. By 1852, however, the increasingly desperate compromises that had held the union together were becoming untenable. Proslavery and abolitionist views had polarized to the point of incompatibility. Two years prior, Congress had passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which required officials in the free states to cooperate in capturing and returning escaped slaves to their owners, penalized those who assisted them, provided incentives for kidnapping and returning alleged slaves, and denied alleged escaped slaves any rights to legal recourse.

In 1852, Dred Scott was denied his freedom and citizenship by the Missouri Supreme Court, which extolled the virtues of slavery, stating that slavery brings “that unhappy race within the pale of civilized nations.” Scott’s subsequent attempt to win his freedom in federal court failed when, in 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice Taney, ruled that because African Americans were not considered citizens at the time the Constitution was ratified, Dred Scott was not a citizen and thus could not sue in federal court. The court went on to hold that the Missouri Compromise, which had limited slavery’s expansion, was invalid.       

As a consequence, historian David Blight points out in his masterful biography of Frederick Douglass, “abolitionists turned more toward violent means of resistance, and political parties began to tear themselves asunder.” Rising to speak on July 5, after a dramatic reading of the Declaration of Independence, Douglass, as Blight describes it, “channeled all of this tension into a kind of music.” That music, however, amounted to a dirge that anticipated the bloodbath that would follow in the next decade and the century-and-a-half of future struggle. 

Douglass “pulled no punches,” as Blight describes the scene, “making the good abolitionists and the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society squirm as he dragged them through a litany of America’s contradictions.” Said Douglass: “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.” Distilled to its essence, Douglass’s message was simple and stark: The ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence were mocked by the American reality that Black lives didn’t matter.  

Douglass’s words are worth reconsidering today, in light of the outrage around the country at continued examples of police brutality and institutional racism. 

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To be sure, progress in the nation’s treatment of African Americans is undeniable. Slavery was ended by the Civil War and by constitutional amendment. Citizenship was assured. The pernicious doctrine of “separate but equal” eventually was struck down by the Supreme Court.  Voting rights were protected by law, and discrimination in public accommodations was outlawed.  An African American was elected President of the United States. 

It is also undeniable, however, that progress has been halting, if not begrudging, at best, frustrated by a persistent undercurrent of racism in both overt and subtle forms. The Jim Crow laws passed during Reconstruction denied Blacks fundamental rights and attributes of citizenship; the poll taxes and literacy tests required for access to the ballot worked hand in hand with policies designed to assure persistent poverty and illiteracy. Thousands were lynched, shot, tortured in the century preceding the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Few were convicted by usually all-white juries. Police came to be seen as instruments of white oppression.  America’s elite institutions of higher education and finance began admitting a select few Blacks, such as Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Hill's Campaign Report: What to watch for in Tuesday's primaries Obama announces first wave of 2020 endorsements Red flags fly high, but Trump ignores them MORE, to the halls of privilege, but not in numbers sufficient to effect a cultural change in those institutions, or to lift the African American community as a whole.  

Despite our nation’s progress, in short, we have fallen short of achieving for Black Americans the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that the Declaration of Independence held to be “self-evident” truths. Slavery was our nation’s original sin, a grave moral evil that haunted the founding and the Founders. As Thomas Jefferson admitted, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that His justice cannot sleep forever.” Slavery’s extirpation came close to requiring, in President Lincoln’s terms, that “every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”

Because of the hypocrisy present at our nation’s founding, history will judge the success of the American experiment in self-governance by how well it extends the principles of its founding to those who were excluded, by how successfully the nation acts upon the principle that Black lives matter.    

Douglass foresaw the bitter strife ahead of the nation in 1852, but despite railing against the hypocrisy of the Founders, he did not dismiss their Declaration of Independence; to the contrary, he counseled that only by adhering to the principles espoused in the Declaration could the nation survive. The Declaration, he said, is “the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny,” and urged Americans not to abandon those principles in the stormy times to come: “That bolt drawn, that chain broken, and all is lost. Cling to this day — cling to it, and to its principles, with the grasp of a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight.”

Sound advice, it turns out, for his time and for ours.

John Farmer Jr. is director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney, counsel to the governor of New Jersey, New Jersey attorney general, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, dean of Rutgers Law School, and executive vice president and general counsel of Rutgers University.