What do you say to one hundred fifth graders who were expecting a hero to walk into their classroom and share a magical history with them?
I couldn’t figure it out—not at first. Sure, it was a fantastic opportunity to reach one or two young students—perhaps more—to plant seeds that might sprout into something I would consider positive. But how could I do that without losing them or boring them or disappointing them?
They wanted to know if I had met Martin Luther King. I hadn’t. They wanted to know if I was on the burning bus. I wasn’t. They wanted to know if I’d ever been beaten up. I haven’t, at least not in the Civil Rights Movement. They wanted to know if I had ever watched someone else get beaten up. There, I had a story.
But that story’s in my novel, Bridge of the Single Hair, so I won’t re-tell it here. I did tell the fifth graders the story and their eyes grew huge. Watching them take in my words and turn them into pictures in their heads, I thought about all the ways in which their imaginations—working at full strength in that moment—were generally stunted by our free market society.
I also thought about the lies they had been told. So I started with Abraham Lincoln. “Who knows who he is?” Several hands shot up. “He was the President.” Good answer. And? “He ended slavery.”
Right answer. But not true.
Their lovely alert eyes widened again. Not true?
The history books tell you President Lincoln was the Great Emancipator. They say he ended slavery with his Emancipation Proclamation, signed at the end of 1862 to take effect in January 1863, early in the Civil War.
Then I asked the students the killer question: How many slaves did Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation free?
Right. The answer is zero. Lincoln wrote it to free zero slaves. I told the fifth graders that he wrote a decree ordering the freeing of slaves only residing in the states in rebellion. That meant slaves under the jurisdiction of Lincoln’s government were excluded. In fact, in 1861 (two years prior to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation) John C. Fremont issued his own Emancipation Proclamation for the slaves of Missouri, a state under federal jurisdiction at the time in the person of Fremont. What happened? The Great Emancipator fired him and revoked the order.
If Lincoln had written a law ordering German citizens to refrain from eating meat on Saturday, it would have had just as much effect. The Confederacy had no respect for the government of the United States. It was not their government. And Lincoln—a pretty sharp guy—knew that. The Emancipation Proclamation was nothing but a PR maneuver, partly to threaten the South and partly to appease those who pushed for some affirmative move by the President.
I told the students that social activists, people who put their bodies on the line for justice, are like drops of water. The more that come together, the greater the force they exert on the status quo. Lincoln was the status quo. He said that his goal was “to preserve the union,” and if he could do that without freeing a single slave, “I would do it.” But from way back in history, abolitionists had pushed and shoved, coming together through time, finally to press on Lincoln until he had to give way and step aside for history.
Had Abraham Lincoln lived, however, slavery might have continued to reign in the Southern states for quite a while longer—at least, if he had controlled and contained the radical Republicans in Congress, then agitating to reconstruct the South and assign full citizenship rights to black Americans. Lincoln and his successor, the weak Andrew Johnson, were far more interested in appeasement of the white South than in black rights.
At the end of the Civil War, the South rose up again, determined to gain full control over the newly freed slaves—of whom an estimated one-half million had already fled (one in every five slaves). The southern states passed the infamous Black Codes, erecting a wall in front of citizenship: African Americans could not vote, own property, hold office, testify in court, sit on juries, or file a claim in court. If stopped by the local constabulary, each black man must produce a signed document, a contract binding him to some white plantation owner for a year. The children of freed slaves could and often were removed from their parents’ custody and given, like chattel, to plantation owners, slaves once more.
Luckily—at least for a while it was lucky—the Radical Republicans moved to enact the Civil Rights bill of 1866, shoving Johnson aside and establishing full citizenship for the freed slaves. They sent federal troops South to become the police force for ten years. After one year in force, the Black Codes were expunged.
For the next ten years, African Americans enjoyed the benefits and even some of the privileges accorded white Americans. They struggled to get an education after years of being denied the right to read. They voted and acquired property and ran for office—winning, in many cases, to become legislators and Congressmen. (Of course, there were no women directly involved in this since they would not acquire the right to vote until 1920, a fact that brought out some racism among white suffragettes, a number of whom argued that “savages” should not be permitted to vote while genteel, educated white ladies could not.)
When Federal troops left the South in 1877, Jim Crow dropped like an iron curtain between citizenship rights and black citizens. In 1883 the US Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act that had prohibited segregation in public facilities and the South began to terrorize and intimidate and prevent citizens of color from exercising any rights.
Thanks to D.W. Griffith and his “Birth of a Nation,” the Ku Klux Klan, which had gone down in its own flames prior to 1880, rose again in 1915. Griffin’s theme of the Klan as noble protectors of refined white womanhood against predatory black men provided the cloak needed for the Klan’s true purpose: To drive black voters from the polls and support a system of segregation that would continue to keep the white man’s foot on the black man’s neck for the foreseeable future.
Instances of rebellion pre-date the Civil War and continue through today’s Occupy movement. Drops of water, accumulating, accumulating. For example, the first recorded Freedom Rider was the valiant Ida B. Wells, in 1884: the first drop of water. It would take another eighty years before the step she took to oppose segregation would inspire Americans across the United States, drawing thousands to the South to join with thousands of committed Southerners, most African American, in risking their lives to end a system that had destroyed so many lives for so many years.
And now we see Radical Republicans rising up again, this time in ignominy, their goal to return the country to pre-Reconstruction days—Newt Gingrich even suggests child slavery might not be a bad idea.
We have not paid the price of liberty. We have not been vigilant. Having watched Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, we have forgotten the first principle of decency: What they can do to one, they can do to all. Check out the Congressional move to declare the “homeland” a “battleground,” in which any American may be incarcerated without benefit of legal counsel or trial.
As the song says, there’s a man going ‘round, taking names.
That’s what I hoped to warn the fifth graders about—that if they weren’t willing to pay for liberty, just as the 1863 Civil Rights Act became meaninglessness under the assaults of reactionaries, the gains subsequently achieved will be ephemeral if not actively defended.
When I had finished speaking and stood, somewhat numb and tired, surrounded by kids calling out more questions, I felt something encircle my waist. When I looked down, I saw the top of a little girl’s head as she burrowed into me. I barely had time to hug her back before she turned and fled. I never saw her face.
But it didn’t matter. I knew I had reached one child.