Knowing history is important for progression

Published 8:35 pm Tuesday, January 6, 2015

When we know our history — this thought exploded over and over in my mind, impacting my emotions and spirits as I participated in the 152nd annual Emancipation Proclamation Program in Selma on New Year’s Day.

I thought about my personal history; how mean I was as a child; how in my meanness I had placed an axe in my mother’s hand, placed my neck on the chopping block and goaded my mother to chop my head off. I thought about how that made me realize that I was “too mean to live,” as my mother had so often said to me.

I thought about how Aunt Catherine then made certain that I knew that my mother was the meanest child that anyone of her generation had ever seen, but she grew out of it; that my grandmother was the meanest child that anyone of her generation had ever seen, but she grew out of it.

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She told me I could also grow out of my meanness. This personal history was so powerful that it started me on a long journey of growing beyond my meanness.

I thought about how I had been taught over and over again that President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves through the Emancipation Proclamation. When I finally read the document in full, I learned that the Emancipation Proclamation did not really free any enslaved people.

It declared enslaved people free only in rebelling Southern States, where the Union had no authority to enforce the Proclamation. It left people enslaved in non-rebelling slave states where the union had the authority to end slavery.

I thought about how enslaved people freed themselves by running away from plantations by the hundreds of thousands. This was so empowering, for it helped me to understand that I and others can free ourselves from whatever enslaves us today.

I thought about how 200,000 black men served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and 40,000 died fighting for freedom. I thought about how Lincoln said the Union could not have won the Civil War without the heroic black soldiers.

Our history books intentionally leave out these facts. It was so empowering to know that hundreds of thousands of black soldiers fought in the Civil War and were central to victory.

I thought about how it took an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the 13th amendment, to officially end slavery. This amendment was not ratified until December of 1865, eight months after Lincoln’s assassination.

It was empowering to know that so many were involved in ending slavery.

I thought about how it took two more constitutional amendments, the 14th amendment and 15th amendment, to give real life to the 13th amendment, which declared an end to slavery. That’s how powerful are the long arms of slavery.

I thought about how the U.S. Supreme Court issued decisions in the late 1800s that helped dismantle the right to vote provided by the 15th amendment. It was done through schemes such as poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, etc. The long powerful arms of slavery reached way beyond the official end of slavery. When we know our history.

I thought about how the U.S. Supreme Court nullified the full effects of the 13th and 14th amendments in Plessy v. Ferguson, allowing the long powerful reach of slavery to choke the life out of hard-won freedoms for another hundred years.

I thought about how in spite of three amendments to the U.S. Constitution – the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments – the spirit of slavery continued through Jim Crow laws and customs for another 100 years. It took the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation for African-Americans to freely enter into public places such as restaurants, hotels, etc. and to legally use public facilities such as restrooms and water fountains. This is strong evidence of the long powerful reach of slavery.

I thought about how in spite of the 15th amendment, which provided a constitutional right to vote, it still took the 1965 Voting Rights Act 100 years after the end of the Civil War, to ensure the right to vote for millions of African-Americans. Without the right to vote, we cannot be full citizens. The long powerful arms of slavery reached deep into the 20th century.

I thought about how the current U.S. Supreme Court has endorsed the use of voter photo ID, which are modern day versions of literacy tests and poll taxes. It has also gutted Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, even though the U.S. Congress extended the provision by a nearly unanimous vote just a few years earlier.

I thought about how hard-won rights are taken away again and again, even when enshrined in the United States Constitution, the highest form of human law. The long powerful arms of slavery have reached across centuries into the 21st century.

I also thought that when we really know our history, we can see it repeating itself. When we really know and understand our history, we can fight for our freedom and prevail.

Our histories are the living roots to the present. Roots convey nourishment for maintenance and growth. When we cut off our history, we cut off our roots and our growth. Even when we cut off our history, it is still active. If we utilize history, we are able to stand on it, reaching higher and seeing farther.

If we fail to utilize history, it stands on us, weighing down our present and our future. We must always stand on our history, no matter how bad we think it is.