Forging a more perfect, just union

April 13, 2011 | John Burbank

From the Everett Herald:

john burbank

John Burbank, Executive Director

One hundred fifty years ago this week South Carolina troops fired on Fort Sumter, beginning the Civil War.

The seeds of war were planted in 1619, when the first Africans were forcefully kidnapped and brought to Virginia. Their status at that time was akin to indentured servants brought over from England. By 1700 they had become slaves for life and “were defined as chattel property, meaning that they had no more rights before the law than any other piece of property, such as a cow or even a plow.” (Virginia Slave Law Summary and Record.)

The United States Constitution counted slaves as three-fifths of a whole person. Congress passed the fugitive slave law, forcing runaway slaves to be returned to their owners. Ten of our first 12 U.S. presidents were slave-holders — the father of our country, George Washington, owned more than 250 slaves.

There is nothing chivalrous or idyllic about slavery. It was not a “peculiar institution” as it is often referred to. It was despotic, dehumanizing and evil. White men who owned slaves determined their work, their sleeping quarters, their food, their clothes. It was illegal for slaves to learn to read. Slave-owners had the right to punish, whip, rape and kill their slaves. They could sell them off, breaking up families, mothers from daughters, fathers from sons. They even sold off their own sons and daughters, the offspring of consensual couplings or rape of slave women.

The Civil War was pre-ordained, much as President Abraham Lincoln stated in his second inaugural: “…if God wills that (the war) continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword … so still it must be said.”

There are historians, politicians and newspaper editors who say the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but merely states’ rights — as if states’ rights include the power to enslave other human beings. Perhaps that is why pictures of slaves picking cotton were printed on confederate currency.

But the stated reason from the South Carolina Declaration of the Causes of Secession is clear: “(Northerners) have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery. … We, therefore, the people of South Carolina … have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and other States of North America is dissolved.”

A few years after Lincoln’s assassination, reconstruction of the South, which enabled political rights and economic opportunity for freed slaves, was rolled back — through intimidation, violence, lynchings, voter fraud, organizing of the Ku Klux Klan and the unwillingness of the North to defend the rights of black people.

Slavery and Jim Crow split whites from blacks, and destroyed democratic solidarity for economic progress. What could have been a united people achieving widespread democracy and prosperity has been more of a story of racial conflict and economic stratification among the great majority of non-wealthy citizens.

The ramifications continue today. How else do you explain that the 600,000 residents of the District of Columbia, of which a majority are African American, still aren’t allowed to elect a U.S. senator? How is it that so many elected leaders are allowing Detroit, with a population that is four-fifths black, to melt down in poverty, depopulation, apathy and hopelessness?

Sure, we have an African-American president. But he presides over a country in which the economic gap between the wealthy and the rest is accelerating. It’s not only about black people — it’s about working people who fear the growing economic uncertainty. The folks in Darrington and in Grays Harbor, like those in Detroit, have watched their economies shrivel not for years but for decades. Across the mountains, in Wapato, Yakima and Moses Lake, you’ll see Hispanic citizens facing both job loss and growing discrimination.

The only people who benefit from this legacy of discrimination, war, hatred and prejudice are the very wealthy. While identity-based politics pit us against each other, the economic war continues unabated: today the top 400 American families own more wealth than the bottom 50 percent, and the top 10 percent of Americans get as much money as the bottom 90 percent — that is, everybody else!

The Civil War ended slavery. Now it’s time to end the war on the middle class, and forge a nation in which all people can enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Doing that would make Abraham Lincoln proud.

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