When the Civil War came to an end, it was important to take the big accomplishments and transition them into the law of the land before any ground was lost as reconstruction returned the nation to one country rather than two warring parties. The upheaval of society that the abolition of slavery represented and the massive surge forward for black history was so important that it was important to make it permanent with amendments to the constitution so the gains made during that bloody battle would not be lost again.
The work that needed to be done to change a nation from one of slavery to one of equality started with three important amendments to the constitution. The thirteenth amendment abolished slavery forever and the fourteenth amendment reversed the negative effects of the Dred Scott decision providing equal protection under the law for all citizens of this country regardless of race, color or creed.
But the fifteenth amendment went further than just establishing the basic human rights of the African American community. It made a change so fundamental to how America works that its ramifications were sweeping and far reaching down to this day. The text of the amendment is direct and elegant…
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
This was a tremendous leap forward for the black community when this amendment was ratified on February 3, 1870 because it finally meant that the African American population in this country could stand up and be counted and start making a mark on politics and with it how decisions are made in this country. It was a proud moment when the very first black man to cast a vote came the very next day when Thomas Mundy Peterson voted in a school board election in the town of Perth Amboy, New Jersey
But like so many other great advances in black history, earning the right to vote didn’t automatically make it easy to vote. There was staunch resistance to actually allowing blacks to go to the polling booth in many communities across the country. The Klu Klux Klan engaged in intimidation tactics to try to keep African Americans home from the polls. In Louisiana, the mob attempts to stop the institutions of a legally elected and integrated local governments had to be broken up by federal troops sent in by Ulysses S. Grant.
Probably the most serious threat to the actual workability of the fifteenth amendment was the introduction of the poll tax and other registration tricks that were used such as literacy tests and voter qualification tests clearly designed to deny the right to vote to African Americans. This practice became such a problem that it instigated the passage of the twenty fourth amendment which outlawed poll taxes which were only designed to usurp the rights of African Americans to vote.
But these desperate attempts could not stop the march of justice and democracy to assure that voting rights were available to all Americans. Before long blacks were occupying positions of influence and decision making in state legislatures and even at the federal level. It’s been a long struggle but even in the last few decades we have seen positions of high honor and influence held by qualified African Americans such as Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. And if Barrack Obama wins the democratic nomination, that will be yet another break through for a proud man and a proud people.
Looking back on it now, it’s almost amazing to any modern American that we ever needed something like The Thirteenth Amendment. The very fact that the United States government had to take this step to outlaw slavery in this country once and for all tells us that the more liberated way we think in modern times was not always the way life was viewed just a few hundred years ago. In light of the long uphill struggle black history in this country represents, it is worthwhile to look back at this simple but powerful amendment which simply states…
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
This amendment to the constitution of the United States, along with the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments represent the most dramatic changes to the fundamental law of this land in regards to civil rights in American history. And it took strong and courageous leadership by Abraham Lincoln to assure that these provisions were so imbedded into the core definition of what America was and is that there would never be a chance that slavery would rise again inside our borders.
The date to remember of the passage of this history Amendment is April 8, 1864. It was the end of the civil war and the south lay in defeat, still separated from the north before reconstruction could begin the long task of making this nation one again. The wisdom President Lincoln had to take action while the sounds of battle were still fresh in the ears of all Americans to set in stone the achievements of this bloody war cannot be overlooked.
Up until the Civil War, slavery was a common part of American life. It is painful for all Americans, black and white, to look back on a time when most Americans considered it normal for one human being to own another. While the many great strides for civil rights and equality in the decades to come would stand tall in black history, this very basic restoration of the right of African Americans to be treated as humans had to be a fundamental start to becoming full citizens of this great land.
And so with the guns of the Civil War just recently silenced by the North’s victory, President Lincoln moved swiftly to make slavery a thing of the past forever. First, in 1863, he issued The Emancipation Proclamation stating in no uncertain terms that…
“all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
But despite the power of this proclamation, Lincoln knew that The Constitution had to be amended to make the good intent of the Emancipation Proclamation the irrevocable law of the land. And so he championed The Thirteen Amendment through congress to assure that it was made law and that slavery could never again become a common and accepted part of American life.
It was an important start. But we all know that true freedom was still had many more battles ahead of it. When slave owners around the country, released their slaves, African Americans everywhere knew a freedom they had only dreamed of before. But it was just one step in a long uphill struggle for equality and freedom that continues on to this day.
Let us all look back on President Lincoln’s vision, forward thinking and courage and let it inspire similar vision and courage in us to find ways to make American society free and equal for all citizens, black, white and for all races, creeds and colors. If we can achieve that, then we have done our part to join President Lincoln in seeking freedom for all men.
From 1955 to 1965 there was a war right in the middle of America. No, it wasn’t a war like World War II or the Revolutionary War. It was a war for the heart and soul of this country to determine once and for all if America was really going to be a land of equal opportunity for all. It is a war that eventually took on the name of “The Civil Rights Movement.”
We must make no mistake, this was not just a shouting match. Some of the events that we even remember today became quite brutal and deadly. Those who fought in this war on both sides were deadly serious about the causes they represented and willing to fight and even die to see their cause succeed. The war waged for years and steady progress was made but not without tremendous sacrifice by the leaders of the movement who were committed to a giving a new meaning to the phrase “set my people free.”
In all of black history, there may be no more significant a time since the Civil War when the rights of African Americans were so deeply fought and won. The tensions in the country had been building. When the Supreme Court mandated desegregation in the schools in the historic case Brown versus the Board of Education, the stage was set. But it was on December 1, 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama to a white man that the movement finally took shape and became a titanic struggle for the rights of African Americans in America. That first battle brought to the front line one of the most important figures to fight for Civil Rights of that era, the Reverend Martin Luther King.
This tremendous struggle for freedom was never easy and was often marked with violence. Over the next ten years some of the most important milestone in black history took place including…
* 1957 – President Eisenhower had to send federal troops to Arkansas to secure admission to Central High School by nine black students.
* 1960 – The sit-in at Woolworths lunch counter in Greensboro North Carolina set the stage for nonviolent protest that was used with great success for the rest of the struggle. Nonviolent protest and civil disobedience became a staple of the civil rights movement because of the influence of Martin Luther King.
* 1963 – The historic March on Washington in which over 200,000 people gathered to hear Dr. Kings famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
* 1964 – President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill that was the most significant event of his presidency and one he believed deeply in, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
* 1965 – The assignation of Malcolm X and the Watts race rights.
* 1965 – President Johnson takes another bold step to accelerate the civil rights movement implementing Affirmative Action when he issues Executive Order 11246.
The Triumph at the Berlin Olympics
There have been many truly memorable moments in black history where the blatant wrongness of racial discrimination has been dramatically put on display. The 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Germany may be one of the most dramatic because of what the madman wanted to happen and what really happened.
Hitler was pleased to host the Olympics because he felt it was a chance to put on display one of his core philosophical concepts which was the superiority of the Aryan race. Or to put it more bluntly, Hitler wanted to show the superiority of the white man on the Olympic fields. Looking back on his arrogance, and knowing what we do today, you wonder how he could have been so deeply wrong about something. But if he had never questioned that theory, he should have given it serious review after the Berlin Olympics.
Once again, it was a man whose name in black history has become one of great pride that turned the day for justice and equality. That man was Jessie Owens who came to those Olympics not to make a racial statement or start a movement but to do his best and show his pride as a black man, as an American and as an athlete. And that pride shown through as he won four gold metals and turned Hitler’s hopes for an Aryan romp over the black man to dust.
Hitler’s response was infantile and nauseating storming out of the stadium as Owens won event after event and then refusing to shake Jessie’s hand when the time to award the metals came. But there is another side to this story that sheds another light on where we were in black history at that time. And that was the experience Jesse Owens had in Germany from the other athletes and from the German citizens who were warm and welcoming to him and treated him as the athletic hero he was as a result of his great accomplishments.
History tells us that during the long jump competition, Jesse’s German competitor Lutz Long gave him advice and was friendly throughout the competition. As he continued to put on display his remarkable athletic ability, the German citizens, some 110,000 strong cheered him enthusiastically and eagerly asked him for his autograph when he was on the streets after the competition. In fact, Owens enjoyed equality that is common among athletes as he traveled with his fellow white athletes, ate with them and stayed in the same living accommodations with them, something that would have been out of the question in America at the time.
There are many lessons we can gather from Jesse’s experience beyond that obvious that Hitler’s ideas of Aryan supremacy were deeply wrong and offensive to all mankind, not just to the victims of discrimination. We see that even in a society that has become characterized as racist, such as Germany in the 1930’s, the people, the common everyday folk of Germany had no room in their hearts for such racism that was being pushed upon them by their leadership. This can be a source of inspiration and hope for all of us and an encouragement not to prejudge a people who we might even perceive as being racists because many times the good people, the common everyday people will have nothing to do with such evil.
And we can celebrate this great victory in a very difficult circumstance in which it wasn’t speeches that proved that race or color or creed don’t make a man superior. Instead it is the talent, the integrity and the hard work of each individual that shows the quality that is from within. Jesse Owens demonstrated that even to the likes of Adolph Hitler. And we have that opportunity to demonstrate that same principle every day in our daily lives.
There is leadership that talks and there is leadership that works and in the hall of fame of great black leaders over the decades, George Washington Carver was a leader that worked. His leadership was not the kind that tried to capture publicity or make great fame for himself. He didn’t try to start a movement or achieve change through violence or confrontation, although those things are sometimes necessary.
Instead George Washington Carver showed leadership by making contributions to the welfare of his people that would last a lifetime. His selfless spirit is an inspiration to all peoples of any race, creed or color.
George Washington Carver is probably best known for his discoveries in the use of the peanut. And while it’s true that Carver was credited with over 300 discoveries to find new uses for the common peanut, his innovations did not end there. He continued his research to find important uses for other common agricultural products such as the sweet potato, pecans and soybeans.
George Washington Carver truly took the hands of his people where they were at the time and lead them forward to a better life. And where the black community was in the nineteenth century was agriculture. This was where a black family looked for their food, their living and their opportunity to better themselves. And that is what George Washington Carver made possible.
He was in every way a self made man, setting out at a young age to attain a better education for himself, he set an example to all that education was the path to freedom for his people and for all people. He truly had to struggle to achieve his success as he worked his way up through high school and then at Simpson Collage in Iowa where he was the first and only black student and then on to Iowa Agricultural College.
His success at Iowa Agricultural College came from determination and his ability to use his natural genius to succeed against all odds. But his breakthroughs were nothing short of revolutionary introducing such ideas as crop rotation to southern agriculture that revolutionized how farming could be done and gave his people the chance to become genuinely profitable in their daily work.
As he found success in his private career, he never used his discoveries to gather wealth of fame for himself. Instead he wanted his work to benefit his people and all of mankind. He was quotes as saying concerning his talents, "God gave them to me. How can I sell them to someone else?"
These were not just idle words that he spoke because he lived that philosophy evidenced by when he donated his life savings to start the Carver Research Foundation at Tuskegee to make sure that an institution existed to continue his important work in agriculture. Small wonder that the fitting remembrance that was etched on his grave read “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world."
The legacy of George Washington Carver would be one that set the standard high for black leadership in decades to come. It was a legacy of servant leadership, of concern for his people and for making genuine contributions to improving what was really important, the living standard and well being for all African Americans, not just the fortunate few. He is truly an inspiration for all of us who look at the struggle the black community has endured over the centuries and a figure to celebrate as a bright and shining leader in black history.