Judging from polls, America appears ready to elect its first African American president. And should Barak Obama claim the White House, it will be an historic day for a nation that was conceived in liberty–but built on the backs of slaves.
African Americans fought bravely in the American Revolution but their descendants lacked even the right to cast a ballot. Historians say that about 5,000 blacks were in the ranks of the Continental Army, making it the most racially integrated fighting force until Harry Truman officially de-segragated the armed forces in the 1950's. They helped win independence for the United States, but didn’t win freedom for themselves.
Failure to confront the evil of slavery head-on was our Founding Fathers’ original sin. Even slave-holders like Jefferson recognized that the business of buying and selling Africans was a moral corruption that would have to be eradicated. And the author of the Declaration of Independence realized his fine phrase that “all men are created equal” was contradicted daily by the reality that blacks–denied not only life, liberty and happiness but every shred of human dignity--numbered about forty percent of Virginia’s population by the end of the eighteenth century.
Jefferson and other slaveholders like James Madison hoped that future generations would deal with the problem–never suspecting it would take a Civil War, a century of Jim Crow, and the mass mobilization of a Civil Rights generation to begin to remedy their failure.
The election of black president will be a fulfillment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965–legislation that finally enfranchised the ten percent of Americans left out of the Founder’s version of self-government. That legislation was finally passed by Congress only after Dr. King’s march from Selma to Montgomery left peaceful protesters beaten and bloodied–and one Unitarian minister named James Reeb dead–for demanding that people of all races be treated as citizens under the law.
Not much of this is being mentioned in the presidential debates or in the campaign advertising. But it is a deep undercurrent in this election. And a victory for Barak Obama will represent a redeeming moment for a nation still trying to live up to its original promise of equal opportunity for all.
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