George Floyd gasping for breath and Reverend Al Sharpton’s elegiac refrain, “Get your knee off our necks,” are painful historical metaphors of black life and black death under racism’s enabling socio-economic structures. Floyd’s murder is uniquely an American tragedy. Whether enslaved or free, Black contributions to America have been legion in every way. Yet African Americans are being picked off like pigeons in increasingly bizarre ways. At Floyd’s Houston homegoing, when his broken-hearted, articulate young niece said, “America has never been great,.” I thought of Langston Hughes’ poem: “Who said free? Not me. Equality is the air we breathe. There’s never been equality for me. America never was America to me.”
We historians cut our molars on America as exceptional — the home of enlightened principles of equality, freedom, humanity, and of open doors. Not me. We did not land on Plymouth Rock, Malcolm X said. Plymouth Rock landed on us. Abraham Lincoln began his Gettysburg Address in 1863 by invoking the Declaration of Independence’s “created equal” preamble. However, Lincoln claimed an American vision far beyond what the Founding Fathers intended. Lincoln had recruited nearly 200,00 African American men to help save the Union. Their valor made Lincoln a believer. Nonetheless, a racist wrote the Declaration of Independence. In Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Thomas Jefferson proclaimed Blacks physically, biologically and intellectually inferior. He dismissed Black scientist Benjamin Banneker and said young Phillis Wheatley’s poetry was “below the dignity of criticism.”
The Constitution, as the “law of the land,” codified institutional racism and white supremacy. African Americans counted as 3/5 of a person to increase slaveholders’ representation; the Atlantic slave trade continued for another 20 years; federal authority put down enslaved insurrection and returned “fugitives;” the Second Amendment empowered states to create slave patrol militias and permitted individuals to bear arms so slave masters could protect themselves. From the nation’s beginning, seeking Black freedom was a federal crime.
Black Lives Matter allies in the streets are part of America’s anti-racist tradition. The American Antislavery Society was the first national, biracial organization. In 1854, armed Black and white Bostonians stormed the Court House to free Anthony Burns who had fled slavery via the Underground Railroad. The activists killed a white deputy. Nine were charged with “high treason.” President Franklin Pierce sent 2,000 Calvary, marines, militia and national guards to take one man back into slavery. At a massive July Fourth protest, Society president William Lloyd Garrison took the platform. He burned a copy of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law and then the Constitution. “So perish all compromises with tyranny! And let all the people say, Amen.” The response was “tremendous.”
But a Supreme Court decision proclaimed that African Americans had no country. Enslaved Dred Scott sued for freedom because his owner took him to a free state. In 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote the decision: the “Negro” was “an article of property … held and bought and sold as such.” The Constitution, “was not meant for the Negro.” Before and since the Constitution’s ratification, Blacks were “regarded as beings of an inferior order, altogether unfit to associate with the white race … and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Even Frederick Douglass, who broke with Garrison over the Constitution, now contemplated emigration.
Associate Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall called the original Constitution “defective” and denied that the Founders placed America on a road to justice and equality. Instead of Founders’ wisdom, foresight and integrity, African Americans earned their birthright in the Civil War, which also exposed the Constitution’s past weaknesses and glaring omissions. ”We the people,” read “the whole numbers of free people” minus women, Blacks and even some whites. Despite war, the 13, 14 and 15 Amendments and the 1875 Civil Rights Act, white supremacists would not relinquish domination or share power unless compelled. As founder of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and lead attorney in the historic Brown versus Board of Education case, Marshall believed that the “living Constitution” compelled enforcement and could right the original document’s wrongs.
Students in my senior seminar on the American South, 1863-1927, struggled through pandemic blues, dampened enthusiasm, the awkwardness of online education and my zoom inexperience. They also were eyewitnesses to events reminiscent of their reading and viewing. In real-time, they watched primordial state-sponsored violence and murderous manifestations of Klan-type white supremacy. The destruction of “Rosewood” and George Floyd’s murder became one.
George M. Fredrickson’s classic Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro- American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914, inspired our best discussions and some thoughtful writing. Fredrickson explores racism’s philosophical, cultural, literary, social and scientific dynamics, much of it institutionalized. Herrenvolk egalitarianism is his umbrella term to explain racism’s pervasiveness. This white nationalism writ large is “master race” democracy and subordinate group tyranny. The poorest white is better than a Black millionaire and whiteness is a unifying principle of common interests. Louis Agassiz, a leading scientific racist and Herrenvolk democracy practitioner whom Fredrickson writes about, is honored with a plaque in Cornell’s Sage Chapel. As some of us told the Administration, Agassiz belongs in a museum, not in the chapel with stained-glass images of the martyred, young civil rights activists.
“Today, it is “Déjà vu, all over again.” Ahmaud Arbery was killed by vicious Klan-type racism. Ethnic prejudice and misogyny landed Sandra Bland in a Texas jail for no reason. Months before her death, Sandra sent out an eerily prescient post about police power: “You could stand there, surrender to the cops, and still be killed.” Kentucky’s provincial, casual, long ignored systemic contempt for Black life is the pillar of Southern institutional racism, as native son Muhammad Ali often testified. In Louisville, body cam-less police killed unsuspecting Breonna Taylor in bed by mistake; they shot seven unarmed protestors and killed a Black small-business owner who often served them bar-b-que at no charge.
Such daily news is almost too much to process and its historical sameness is frightening. In 1951, William L. Patterson, representing the Civil Rights Congress, presented “We Charge Genocide” to the United Nations.” Urban uprisings in 1967 gave rise to the 1968 Kerner Report. Rodney King’s merciless 1991 slave patrol flogging produced the Christopher Commission. Because nothing has changed, tens of thousands of young energetic protestors who look like America fill the streets. But the dead are Black America’s life blood. Systemic racism and state violence continue a genocidal march. Racism can cause genocide, said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but it is not inevitable.
Is it time to give true meaning to “We the people,” by claiming the Declaration and the Constitution? Justice Louis Harlan’s lone dissent in Plessy versus Ferguson called the Constitution “color blind.” Justice Marshall called it a “living” document and the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan agreed. So does Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative. What do we the people want under the “color blind” “living” Constitution? What would public safety look like? How can we remove white supremacy from Washington? In the spirit of Ella Baker and Black Lives Matter, if the people will lead, the leaders will follow.
Margaret Washington is a professor of American History at Cornell University. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.