1619 anniversary: Black freedom struggle made U.S. more democratic for all
On the fifth day of an Alabama voter registration march, thousands of civil rights marchers mass together to begin their three-mile walk on the Capitol in Montgomery, Ala., on March 25, 1965. Leading the group is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., center, with his wife, Coretta Scott King, at right. Later that summer, the U.S. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. | AP

On Sunday, the New York Times unveiled “The 1619 Project,” a journalistic series in the Sunday magazine that seeks to tell the “unvarnished truth” about slavery and its impact on America’s history.

In 1619, just 12 years after the founding of the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, the Jamestown colonists bought the first slaves, 20 to 30 enslaved Africans, from English pirates.

The Declaration of Independence, penned by Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, issued America’s founding creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, … among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

As Nikole Hannah-Jones writes in her stunning introduction in the New York Times Magazine, at 43, she is part of the first generation of black Americans in the history of this country to be born into a society in which blacks had equal rights of citizenship.

Blacks suffered under slavery for 250 years, and brutal racial apartheid for a century more.

We have been legally free for just 50.

Americans prefer not to face this reality. Our history classes address it gingerly, if at all.

Even as President Donald Trump and cynical politicians stoke racial divisions for political profit, we too often look away from it. Trump has recently decided to make four young, newly elected congresswomen of color a central target of his already launched campaign for re-election, scorning them as un-American, suggesting that if they don’t like America, they should go back to where they came from.

This though all four are American citizens, and three were born right here. Trump is poisonously invoking the old lie of slavery and segregation that people of color are somehow not real Americans.

Yet, as Roger Wilkins wrote in his book Jefferson’s Pillow and Hannah-Jones in her introduction, it is the freedom struggles of black Americans that propelled the cause of equal rights for everyone.

The Constitution excluded women, Native Americans, and black people, and did not provide the right to vote to most Americans. It is the laws born out of the civil rights movement that extended the right to vote to everyone and banned discrimination not simply on race, but on gender, nationality, religion, and disability.

The quiet beginning of the slave trade in the United States is pictured in this undated engraving. The setting is Jamestown, Va., where in 1619 the captain of a Dutch ship traded 20 Africans for food in a deal with John Rolfe and other settlers. The Africans probably had been hijacked from a Spanish vessel. The 20 slaves were to grow to more than 15 million Africans imported and enslaved before the trade was stopped. | NY Public Library via AP

Without the idealistic and patriotic struggle of black Americans, as Hannah-Jones notes, “our democracy today would most likely look very different—it might not be a democracy at all.”

Recently, Ken Cuccinelli, Trump’s acting director of the Citizenship and Immigration Services, sparked outrage when he brazenly re-worded Emma Lazarus’ famous poem found at the foot of the Statue of Liberty that reads “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

What Cuccinelli probably had no clue about is that the Statue of Liberty was a gift to the people of the United States from the people of France and was dedicated in 1886 to celebrate the national abolition of slavery.

It is the figure of Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom.

A broken shackle and chain lie at her feet as she strides forward, commemorating the abolition of slavery in 1865, an abolition that turned out to be the first step in America becoming in fact, as well as in word, the land of the free.

In telling the “unvarnished truth” of slavery, we will face the horrors of our past, as well as the triumph of our progress. It is a telling that is long overdue.


CONTRIBUTOR

Jesse Jackson
Jesse Jackson

The Rev. Jesse Jackson is the founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. He was a leader in the civil rights movement alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was twice a candidate for President of the United States. His articles appear here courtesy of Rainbow PUSH.

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