Outbreaks of violence during the past month amid street protests in Portland, Oregon, Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Rochester, New York, reflect the anger of some African-Americans over the disproportionate use of lethal force by police against Black people.
But the feeling of most African-Americans seems to be more akin to bone-weariness, borne of more than a century-and-a-half of waiting for America’s unfulfilled promise of equal protection under the law to be realized.
That weariness was conveyed in an emotional statement by Doc Rivers, the Los Angeles Clippers coach, after his team opted to sit out the rest of the NBA season in protest over racism in law enforcement. “All you hear is Donald Trump and all of them talking about fear,” Rivers said. “We’re the ones getting killed! We’re the ones getting shot! … It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back. It’s really so sad.”
The father of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old black man shot seven times in the back by a white Kenosha patrolman and left paralyzed from the waist down, expressed a similar sentiment, “What gave them the right to take something that was not theirs? I’m tired of this. I’m tired of this.”
The unfulfilled quest of African-Americans for equal protection can be aptly summed up by the phrase attributed (probably incorrectly) to Mark Twain, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
To understand their weariness, you have to study the history underlying it, because what’s happening today does rhyme with, even if it doesn’t exactly repeat, the past.
Throughout the Civil War (1861-1865) and during the post-Civil War Period known as Reconstruction (1865-1877), the fate of African-American slaves was the central issue. Yet, few in the white community, North or South, genuinely had their best interests at heart. Black people were largely seen as means to achieve political and economic ends, and their interests were often compromised in political bargains struck by white people.
Abraham Lincoln has come down through history with a somewhat undeserved reputation as the “Great Emancipator,” the president who led the Union through the bloody Civil War for the purpose of abolishing slavery.
While Lincoln did view slavery as a moral evil, he was, for nearly all his career, opposed to its outright abolition. Instead, he campaigned for the presidency on limiting slavery’s expansion into federal territories that had not yet been admitted to statehood and entertained gradualist solutions such as emancipation over a half century, paying financial compensation to owners who voluntarily freed their slaves and resettling ex-slaves overseas.
Even less did Lincoln view freed blacks as the equal of white people. As he told an audience during the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and Black races.”
Lincoln’s primary aim in during the Civil War was to prevent the breakup of the Union. Therefore, he resisted the urgings of abolitionists within his own Republican Party to ban slavery outright on the grounds that it might prompt secession by border slave states, such as Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and Delaware, which had remained loyal to the Union.
When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, it was justified as a measure of wartime necessity, not as a moral imperative. The proclamation only freed slaves in areas which were still in rebellion and outside federal control. One of its main purposes was to encourage the defection of slaves from those regions and thus deprive the Confederacy of an important wartime resource — labor for producing food and providing logistical military support.
It was not until 1865, after some 150,000 slaves had escaped the South and substantially aided the Union war effort as soldiers and laborers, that Lincoln finally decided that total emancipation was appropriate and supported passage of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. There was every indication, however, that, when the rebellion ended, he intended to set a low bar for re-admission of the seceding Southern states into the Union (namely acceptance of abolition and the swearing of loyalty oaths to the Union) and to leave the treatment of the freed slaves largely to the discretion of those states.
Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865, just five days after the surrender of the Army of Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse, placed the fate of ex-slaves in other hands.
Over the next 12 years, a multi-sided political struggle took place between various geographic sections, political factions and branches of government, all seeking to exploit the freed slaves for their own purposes.
Wealthy Southern businessmen and planters (usually former Confederate leaders) sought substitutes for slavery (vagrancy laws, penal labor, oppressive work contracts, artificial barriers to voting, and campaigns of violence and intimidation) to maintain their ex-slaves as a cheap, dependent and docile labor force and to keep them politically impotent. Poorer Southern white people, fearing that free blacks would challenge their economic and social status, eagerly collaborated in this exploitative system, known as Jim Crow segregation.
Republican abolitionists, acting under the protective umbrella of federal troops who initially occupied the former Confederacy, set up the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide education and economic assistance to the newly freed slaves.
They also succeeded in gaining passage of the 14th Amendment (1868) and 15th Amendments (1870), which guaranteed civil rights and the right to vote to ex-slaves, permitting them to briefly play an active role in civic life of the South. However, though these abolitionists were often idealists, they also had practical motives. They needed Republican votes in the solidly Democratic South, and the ex-slaves offered them a large potential voting bloc to win elections and perpetuate control of Congress.
The rest of the Republican Party held a more cynical view. Aware that the public was growing weary of continued federal military occupation of the South and that their working class constituencies in Northern cities viewed free Black people as a potential source of labor competition, this faction wanted to end Reconstruction and get on with the business of making money.
In the presidential election of 1876, a coalition of anti-Black interests won the day. A deal was struck in Congress, which allowed the Republican candidate, Rutherford Hayes, to be named the winner in a close, contested election in return for a promise to end Reconstruction and to withdraw the last federal occupying troops the South.
From 1877, when Hayes took office and fulfilled that promise, until the early 1960s, the South remained solidly in the grip of segregation, and whites, both South and North, used a variety of stratagems to deprive Black people of access to better residential neighborhoods, good schools, higher-paying jobs, and elective offices.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s revived the hope of achieving equal protection but, though it made a good deal of progress, the movement fell short of fully realizing its goals.
Today the dream of equal protection remains unfulfilled, and African-Americans are justifiably tired of waiting for it to become a reality.
Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]
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