Tonight, Barack Obama accepts the Democratic Party's nomination for President. His is a singular achievement for which he deserves much personal credit. He earned it.
I'd like to pay tribute to some of the African Americans who struggled and sacrificed in the attempts for freedom and equality in the history leading to this day.
The first enslaved Africans arrived in Colonial Jamestown, Virginia in 1619:
In August 1619, 20 black men were purchased from a passing [Dutch] slave ship bound from Luanda, Angola, to Vera Cruz, Mexico. However, these may not have been the first; 32 Africans were noted five months earlier in a Virginia census of 1619.
Come around after the fold for a little history of how we got to this day and the many who struggled for freedom and equality in the almost 400 years since the first enslaved Africans set foot in what later became the United States.
As Barack Obama recognizes, America was stained with the original sin of slavery:
Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America's improbable experiment in democracy.
The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation's original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.
No diary can include all those who fought for freedom. Furthermore, millions fought quietly in their daily lives. There are many forms of resistance to enslavement and to segregation and discrimination. Indeed, making a life for themselves, a community, and a culture not of the "masters," was fighting back.
The slave labored from sunup to sundown and sometimes beyond. This labor, which dominated part of the slave’s existence, has often been described but never in terms of its relationship to the slave community nor to what the slave did from sundown to sunup. Under slavery, as under any other social system, the lowest of the low were not totally dominated by the system and the master class. They found ways of alleviating the worst of the system and at times of dominating the masters. What slaves accomplished was the creation of a unified Negro community in which class differences within the community, while not totally eradicated, were much less significant than the ties of blackness in a white man’s world.
You can read more about the struggles on a daily basis and how enslaved Americans made their own community in opposition to that of the White Culture in From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community (From Sundown to Sunup)
But I want to highlight just of few leaders who struggled mightly for freedom and equality. Some may disagree with those whom I choose, and others may have better or different people who belong. No list could be complete, and all should be recognized and remembered.
These are just a few folks who I believe deserve recognition and rememberance today. You can learn more about them at the links or by independent research.
Denmark Vesey (originally Telemaque,1767? – July 2, 1822) was a West Indian slave brought to the United States. After purchasing his freedom, he planned what would have been one of the largest slave rebellions in the United States. Word of the plans was leaked, and Charleston, South Carolina authorities arrested the plot's leaders before the uprising could begin. Vesey and others were tried, convicted and executed.
Inspired by the revolutionary spirit and actions of slaves during the 1791 Haitian Revolution, and furious at the closing of the African Church, Vesey began to plan a slave rebellion. His insurrection, which was to take place on Bastille Day, July 14, 1822, became known to thousands of blacks throughout Charleston and along the Carolina coast. The plot called for Vesey and his group of slaves and free blacks to slay their owners and temporarily seize the city of Charleston. Vesey and his followers planned to sail to Haiti to escape retaliation. Two slaves opposed to Vesey's scheme leaked the plot. Charleston authorities charged 131 men with conspiracy. In total, 67 men were convicted and 35 hanged, including Denmark Vesey.
Fighting back was a key to retaining their own humanity in a inhumane world.
Nat Turner (Nathaniel Turner, October 2, 1800 – November 11, 1831) was an American slave who started the largest slave rebellion in the antebellum southern United States, in Southampton County, Virginia. His methodical slaughter of white civilians during the uprising makes his legacy controversial, but he is still considered to be a heroic figure of black resistance to oppression.
Some people are uncomfortable with Nat Turner, but he struggled for freedom. Slavery was quite uncomfortable also. He belongs, although many modern folks will ignore him.
Sojourner Truth (1797–November 26, 1883) was the self-given name, from 1843, of Isabella Baumfree, an American abolitionist and women's rights activist. Truth was born into slavery in Swartekill, New York. Her best-known speech, Ain't I a Woman?, was delivered in 1851 at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio.
Harriet Tubman is perhaps the most well-known of all the Underground Railroad's "conductors." During a ten-year span she made 19 trips into the South and escorted over 300 slaves to freedom. And, as she once proudly pointed out to Frederick Douglass, in all of her journeys she "never lost a single passenger."
Tubman had made the perilous trip to slave country 19 times by 1860, including one especially challenging journey in which she rescued her 70-year-old parents. Of the famed heroine, who became known as "Moses," Frederick Douglass said, "Excepting John Brown -- of sacred memory -- I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than [Harriet Tubman]."
And John Brown, who conferred with "General Tubman" about his plans to raid Harpers Ferry, once said that she was "one of the bravest persons on this continent."
Frederick Douglass (born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, February 14, 1818 – February 20, 1895) was an American abolitionist, editor, orator, author, statesman and reformer.
He was a firm believer in the equality of all people, whether black, woman, Native American, or recent immigrant. He was fond of saying, "I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong."
Douglass' best-known work is his first autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, published in 1845. At the time, some skeptics attacked the book and questioned whether a black man could have produced such an eloquent piece of literature. Nevertheless, the book received generally positive reviews and it became an immediate bestseller. Within three years of its publication, the autobiography had been reprinted nine times with 11,000 copies circulating in the United States; it was also translated into French and Dutch and published in Europe.
On the night of December 31, 1862, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves of the Confederacy while continuing slavery in Union-held areas. Douglass described the spirit of those awaiting the announcement: "We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky...we were watching...by the dim light of the stars for the dawn of a new day...we were longing for the answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries."
John Brown is the Only European American in my list, but I believe he belongs. Rare among abolitionists of his day, he was not racist. And he gave his life trying to strike a blow for freedom. Frederick Douglas and WEB Dubois likely would think he belonged.
John Brown was a man of action -- a man who would not be deterred from his mission of abolishing slavery. On October 16, 1859, he led 21 men on a raid of the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. His plan to arm slaves with the weapons he and his men seized from the arsenal was thwarted, however, by local farmers, militiamen, and Marines led by Robert E. Lee. Within 36 hours of the attack, most of Brown's men had been killed or captured.
So many. I'll skip ahead a bit.
William Edward Burghardt DuBois, to his admirers, was by spirited devotion and scholarly dedication, an attacker of injustice and a defender of freedom.
A harbinger of Black nationalism and Pan-Africanism, he died in self-imposed exile in his home away from home with his ancestors of a glorious past—Africa.
Labeled as a "radical," he was ignored by those who hoped that his massive contributions would be buried along side of him. But, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, "history cannot ignore W.E.B. DuBois because history has to reflect truth and Dr. DuBois was a tireless explorer and a gifted discoverer of social truths. His singular greatness lay in his quest for truth about his own people. There were very few scholars who concerned themselves with honest study of the black man and he sought to fill this immense void. The degree to which he succeeded disclosed the great dimensions of the man."
[Marcus] Garvey was unique in advancing a Pan-African philosophy to inspire a global mass movement focusing on Africa known as Garveyism. Promoted by the UNIA as a movement of African Redemption, Garveyism would eventually inspire others, ranging from the Nation of Islam, to the Rastafari movement (which proclaims Garvey to be a prophet). The intention of the movement was for those of African ancestry to "redeem" Africa and for the European colonial powers to leave it. The idea that African Americans should return to Africa was known as the Colonist Movement. His essential ideas about Africa were stated in an editorial in the Negro World entitled "African Fundamentalism" where he wrote:
Our union must know no clime, boundary, or nationality... let us hold together under all climes and in every country
MALCOLM X: Malcolm X Explains Black Nationalism
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s last speech
A man who helped pave the way by running for President in 1984 and 1988, and who build a rainbow coalition:
News footage from ~1988 when Jesse Jackson spoke at Naperville North High School, in Naperville, IL.
And from the 1988 DNC:
Wherever you are tonight, you can make it. Hold your head high; stick your chest out. You can make it. It gets dark sometimes, but the morning comes. Don't you surrender!
Suffering breeds character, character breeds faith. In the end faith will not disappoint.
You must not surrender! You may or may not get there but just know that you're qualified! And you hold on, and hold out! We must never surrender!! America will get better and better.
Keep hope alive. Keep hope alive! Keep hope alive! On tomorrow night and beyond, keep hope alive!
There are so many more who's struggles helped make this day possible:
DENVER -- Barack Obama, riding a message of change, swept aside a Democratic dynasty and two centuries of history Wednesday to become the first African American to lead a major political party into the fall campaign for the White House.
The vote was by acclamation after Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York waded onto the convention floor amid a standing ovation and stopped a roll call of delegations. She urged Obama's unanimous selection as the party's presidential nominee "in the spirit of unity, with the goal of victory." Delegates shouted their affirmation, and the longest, most contentious Democratic primary fight in more than a generation came to a congenial halt.
As an American, I thank all those who struggled for freedom and equality. Their story is the story of America's redemption. There are so many ordinary people who fought and struggled for this day.
Barack Obama will be President of all Americans, white and black, Hispanic, and Asian, men and women, but this day hold sa special place in the history of America's struggle to overcome and redeem itself from that original sin of enslavement of Africans.
I hope you enjoy the brief history. Feel free to add other names in the comments. So many I skipped, like Carter Woodson, Booker Washington, Shirley Chisholm, Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, A. Phillip Randolph, Barbara Jordon (from a comment below (I had to add her at least to this list)), there are just so many more.
Update: From discocarp in the comments. Hillary Clinton spoke of Harriet Tubman earlier this week in her speech:
And on that path to freedom, Harriett Tubman had one piece of advice.
If you hear the dogs, keep going.
If you see the torches in the woods, keep going.
If they're shouting after you, keep going.
Don't ever stop. Keep going.
If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.