April is both Confederate History Month and the anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. We are still dealing with racial and class inequalities that the legacy of slavery left us with. Since April marks both historic events, let us use this time to discuss that legacy.
When America was colonized, permanently enslaving Africans was not the norm. Instead Africans, just like poor Europeans in the colonies, worked as indentured servants. Indentured servants worked a set number of years and then were freed and given land or some form of payment.
In 1676, freed indentured servants, black and white, found that the ruling class had stripped them of voting rights. Then something amazing happened: Poor black and white frontiersman united against Virginia’s colonial governor, starting Bacon’s Rebellion.
Bacon’s Rebellion taught plantation owners to fear a united poor black and white population. After the rebellion, slave codes and segregation became stricter. Fewer Africans were freed from their indentured servitude; instead, they were considered permanent slaves.
Slavery allowed a small group of plantation owners to reap great wealth off the labor of slaves. Addicted to slave labor, Southerners had to rationalize their addiction to the evil system.
Robert E. Lee’s words sum up the view of the “enlightened” Southerner of the era: “The painful discipline they (the slaves) are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a race. ... We see the course of the final abolition of human slavery is still onward, and give it the aid of our prayers, let us leave the progress as well as the results in the hands of Him who, chooses to work by slow influences. ...”
In other words, he felt slavery was good for the slaves and that God would end slavery in his own time, and that we should just pray about it. I wonder why he didn’t just pray for the Union troops to go home.
When slavery was abolished it was replaced with segregation. It created a system in which poor blacks could be exploited for cheap labor. They did not share equally in the prosperity their labor created.
Public facilities designated as “colored” were second rate at best. Just as people rationalized slavery was acceptable because it was somehow instructing the African race, people justified segregation by convincing themselves that impoverished blacks were deserving of their poverty.
The effect of slavery and segregation linger. Absent slaves or second-class citizens, our companies have outsourced jobs overseas where exploited people have no rights to speak of. There also lingers a tendency to blame the impoverished for their own poverty, despite the fact that 62 percent of bankruptcies are related to medical expenses. Education is the gateway to class mobility, yet homes in districts with higher scoring public schools cost $205,000 more, on average.
King wrote well about how to resist injustice. He received a letter which included, “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.”
MLK answered thus: “Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. ... We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”
Class exploitation will exist as long as a quality education and health care are commodities too expensive for most to obtain. Today, the differences in public school quality remain nearly as stark as during segregation.
MLK was right; it’s time for all races to work together to eliminate oppression and exploitation.
Brandon Givens is a Gainesville resident. His columns appear occasionally and on gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.