By Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.
America celebrates July 4, 1776 annually in the name of a tea-dumping party but leaves Black folks uninvited to the party. We don’t see our history or ourselves in the celebration.
No, we can come to the nation’s Capital and enjoy the music and pageantry on the Mall. But America leaves us out of our history because of the big lie of white supremacy and Black inferiority. The idea that whites are the host and Blacks are the parasites still lives in the psyche of many whites and is present at the celebrations even today. There’s nothing on July 4, as currently celebrated, that speaks to our history or presence during this day.
Slavery was a worldwide phenomenon. The year 1772 was a watershed of sorts in the history of slavery. It could be called the beginning of slavery’s end, because the legal framework upon which it was based began to crumble in England with the landmark decision in Somerset v. Stewart.
James Somerset was a slave bought in Virginia by Charles Stewart, a Scots merchant and customs official with quite close Chesapeake ties. Stewart left Virginia for England in 1768, taking Somerset with him. In 1771, Somerset took his leave of Stewart and refused to return to a state of permanent servitude. He was soon arrested and imprisoned, but his case was taken up by Granville Sharp, an inveterate opponent to the institution of slavery as antithetical to the British constitution and English common law.
In a decision handed down by William Murray, (Baron later Earl) of Mansfield and Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench, the court narrowly held that “a master could not seize a slave in England and detain him preparatory to sending him out of the realm to be sold” and that habeas corpus was a constitutional right available to slaves to forestall such seizure, deportation and sale because they were not chattel, or mere property, they were servants and thus persons invested with certain (but certainly limited) constitutional protections.
Although Mansfield took great care to phrase his holding in such a way that it could not be used for a broader precedent in determining the legal status of slaves or their rights, it was widely perceived quite differently on both sides of the Atlantic. Many, including many slaves, understood Somerset to have effectively abolished slavery in England (Somerset himself believed so). Its impact was profound in the American colonies as some slaves invoked it to seek their own freedom.
In America, by July 4, 1776 African Americans had been here since 1619, already in slavery for 157 years. The international slave trade and our free labor had made cotton king and America rich. What made Britain determined to hold on to its American colonies was the profitability of the slave trade and the free labor of Black slaves in the production and harvesting of cotton, tobacco, rice and indigo.
As we reflect back, for us the American Revolution of 1776 only meant that our lack of humanity would be denied for another 75 years after ratification of the Constitution by Rhode Island on May 29, 1790 and 85 years until the 13th Amendment ending slavery was ratified on December 18, 1865.
After the 1776 revolution and the failure of the Articles of Confederation to form a strong enough central government, in 1787 the Founding Fathers came together in the Philadelphia Convention and were wrestling with many governing issues, including what to do with the slaves and the slave states in their new U.S. Constitution. They came up with three compromises: (1) the North was significantly outnumbered in the southern slave states in population so the South proposed to count their slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of congressional representation in the U.S. House to better balance their lack of congressional power; (2) they agreed to continue the international slave trade for another 20 years until 1808; and (3) they continued to augment southern slave power in the slave-holding states by creating the Electoral College to elect our president.
In 1820, the Missouri Compromise occurred admitting the slave state of Missouri and the free state of Maine simultaneously in order to keep the free-and slave-state balance of power in the U.S. Senate and, except for Missouri, prohibited slavery above the Mason-Dixon line.
In 1822, an educated and skilled carpenter in Charleston, South Carolina, Denmark Vesey, was accused of plotting a slave revolt – the rising – for July 14, but whites discovered it and executed him on July 2.
Rev. Nat Turner destroyed the idea that slaves were content with their status by leading a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831 that killed more than 50 whites and took two months to put down.
The Compromise of 1850 following the Mexican-American War temporarily settled the issue of the spread of slavery westward into the newly acquired Texas territory by using the idea of “popular sovereignty,” possibly delaying the start of the Civil War. It also included a strengthened northern hated Fugitive Slave Law, allowing slave owners to hire bounty hunters to track down escaped slaves and return them to their southern masters.
Frederick Douglass gave his speech, “What Does Your 4th Of July Mean To Me,” on July 5, 1852 in Rochester, New York, where Douglass had made his home after escaping from slavery and becoming the pre-eminent anti-slavery spokesman of his day. Douglass’s condemnation of slavery was brutal and unsparing.
His speech was just two years before Sen. Stephen Douglas introduced the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act around the idea of “popular sovereignty,” allowing settlers to decide whether slavery would exist in a new state, and that rekindled Abraham Lincoln’s interest in politics. The Kansas-Nebraska Act also led to the 1854 founding of an anti-slavery Republican Party in Ripon, Wisconsin; it was five years before the Dred Scott decision denied Black citizenship and said we had no rights a white must respect. The speech eventually led to the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates in the Illinois senate race; it was given seven years before the 1859 John Brown Raid at the Harpers Ferry munitions plant to give guns to slaves to fight for their freedom; eight years before Lincoln was elected the first Republican president; and just nine years before the start of the Civil War in 1861 after the secession from the Union of 11 Confederate states.
Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation as a propaganda piece on January 1, 1863 “freeing the slaves” and allowing him to enlist Colored Troops to fight the Confederates and change the course of the war; the Civil War was followed by three Reconstruction Amendments, the 13th, 14th and 15th; the compromise of 1877 removed federal troops from the South leaving the freedmen unprotected. An 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision established 58 years of apartheid; a Brown decision in 1954 that ended legal apartheid; and a Civil Rights Movement that delivered a 1964 Public Accommodations Act, a 1965 Voting Rights Act and a 1968 Open Housing Act.
Even today the coronavirus has exposed African American life—that we are dying the most because we have the most pre-existing conditions of diabetes, heart and lung disease, obesity and more, making us more vulnerable; that we have many of the most essential, but lowest paying jobs as workers at senior homes, as ambulance, bus, cab, Uber and Lyft drivers, meat packers and chicken processors; and we are the people most in need but without health insurance.
The protestors are saying, what is your Independence Day to me when I can have a knee put on my neck and “lynched” in public view with the camera rolling like George Floyd, shot in my bed like Breonna Taylor, shot in the back like Rayshard Brooks or shot by extra judicial racist forces like Ahmaud Arbery.
I can’t celebrate a day when the Black unemployment rate, even in good economic times, is twice that of whites. It’s hard to celebrate public inner-city schools filled with Black, brown and poor white students who are de facto more segregated today than in 1954 when Brown was decided, because whites moved to the suburbs and took their taxes and jobs with them. It’s hard to celebrate when you can’t afford the rent because the minimum wage has been $7.25 for over a decade or a bank won’t give you the same home loan they give to a white with similar income and credit.
But I see hope on the horizon. Never has the cause of Black Lives Matter and equality for African Americans been so widespread with whites, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans marching in the streets together for justice. Removing the Confederate statues and military base names and the names of people like Woodrow Wilson from buildings—whose white race supremacy views are offensive—gives me hope.
It has become increasingly clear that Blacks are not the bottom of the economy in America; we’re the essential foundation of the nation’s economic strength.
I look forward to a 4th of July when Blacks, too, can celebrate the riches and all the benefits of our 400 years of labor.