One of the most common refrains when a democracy collapses into an autocracy is that no one could have seen it coming.
The motivation behind this myth is the absolution of the powerful. After all, what cannot be predicted cannot be prevented, and therefore the failure of officials to safeguard our freedoms should be forgiven. This is the story we hear as Donald Trump approaches a possible second term and the U.S. plunges into unprecedented turmoil.
The premise, of course, is a lie.
Freedom is about what it means to be human, and to be recognized and treated by others as such.
What “No one saw it coming” tells you is who the powerful consider to be “no one.” “No one” are the multitude of marginalized Americans who warned in 2016 that their rights had always been on the line and would be even more so now. “No one” are the people who knew that a future American autocracy was possible because their ancestors had been subject to past ones: slavery, Jim Crow, internment camps, and other forms of legal subjugation that were destroyed only through decades of defiant demands for their eradication.
Freedom was always a moving target. So are Americans under Donald Trump.
Trump is not the cause of the American crisis, but its culmination. The fragility of rights that members of marginalized groups have always experienced has been widened to encompass the country as a whole. In the 21st century, political, economic and technological freedom were all radically curtailed. Americans signed away their rights unwittingly and unwillingly – through the Patriot Act, which expanded government surveillance in the wake of 9/11, through social media companies turned surveillance monopolies, through the deference to corporations that is a survival mechanism in an economy structured on precarity.
The loss of legal rights over the past 20 years – voting rights chief among them – has been accompanied by a culture of fear that is as effective in derailing democracy as any decree. What does it mean to have freedom of speech when your words are data-mined and shot back at you as targeted propaganda? What is freedom of assembly when your every movement is recorded and reproduced online, when human lives are reduced to hashtags?
There are few worse feelings than being watched but never seen.
Trump exemplifies this era of exploitation. The reality TV president sees citizens not as human beings, but as disposable background players in a show starring himself. The U.S. media — an industry both exclusionary and desperate after decades of financial turmoil — has long proven an easy mark for the Trump team. Complex catastrophes are no match for the easy media lure of personality politics. The framework of spectacle to which Americans have always been drawn — soap operas and pro wrestling, talk shows and tabloids – is Trump’s native vernacular. To some degree, this was always our national political language, but there is a soullessness today that feels new. Whatever entertaining quality politics once possessed is gone, replaced by a culture of profound dehumanization that endangers the American experiment.
Protesters demonstrate in Freedom Plaza against family detentions and to demand the end of criminalizing efforts of asylum seekers on June 28, 2018.
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Freedom is never just about rights or laws. Freedom is about what it means to be human, and to be recognized and treated by others as such.
That yearning — to simply be and have that be enough, to not have to prove your innate worth time and time again to a dubious arbiter — is at the heart of every struggle for human rights.
At a time when the world seems to be closing in on us, whether through apocalyptic change disasters, like the wildfires in Australia, or surveillance apps that monitor our every move, the dehumanizing quality of the Trump era — like separating migrant families and housing them in unsanitary border camps — is particularly gutting. With dehumanization comes disposability — a cheapening of the cherished, a commodification of every casualty.
There is a litany of horrifying images from the Trump era, but the worst may be a grinning Donald and Melania Trump holding a baby orphaned in the El Paso mass shooting like it was a trophy, giving the world a thumbs up after the baby’s parents were gunned down. What future does that child face? What present, so devoid of empathy and teeming with violence, made that moment possible?
Along with “No one could have seen it coming” lies also the idea that “The Founders never predicted this” in the archive of excuses for democracy’s demise. But the Founders absolutely predicted this — if not the legal architecture, then the moral forfeiture, which they often framed in terms of suicide.
“Remember, democracy never lasts long,” John Adams wrote in 1814. “It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
In 1838, Abraham Lincoln expressed similar thoughts on what would ultimately destroy America: “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher.”
Each warned that America was its own worst enemy. Many also believe we are our own best hope.
We are the wild cards we are waiting for.
The problems Americans face are so innumerable that they overwhelm. As a nation, we are indeed weary. Still, there are concrete actions people can take to slow the entrenchment of autocracy: voting, protesting, and creating or supporting independent organizations that combat corporate or state control are a few suggestions. But all of this requires maintaining presence of mind in a political environment designed to annihilate it. The greatest threat of the Trump era is the loss of what makes us human – our empathy, our individuality, our imagination.
The antithesis to freedom isn’t subjugation but surrender.
Oppressive governments can control what they take from you, but not your willingness to fight for it. They can never fully know you, and the unpredictability of human nature means no outcome is an inevitability, even in an aspiring autocracy. We are the wild cards we are waiting for.
Freedom of thought is a freedom that can never truly be taken, but you must guard it nonetheless. In an era of rampant dehumanization, it is more important than ever not to surrender in advance.
Praise came fast, and then the backlash, especially against the claim that the nation’s true founding should be dated not to the 1776 American Revolution but to 1619, when the first group of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans arrived in North America and were sold to Jamestown settlers. The editors and authors of 1619 are working in the cockpit of Trumpism, with racism and inequality renascent, so their dark take on US history is understandable. But here’s Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 writing near the top of the mountain. Liberalism was seemingly triumphant, on the cusp of passing historic civil rights legislation. If ever there was a moment to put forward an optimistic view of US history—of a country about to fulfill its “promissory note” of equality—this was it. Still, King feels compelled to point out the “broader dimensions of the evil” of US history, of its “myth” of equality:
Our nation was born in genocide, when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shore, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles over racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population.
Expectedly, much of the criticism of The 1619 Project comes from political conservatives. But a group of liberal historians reacted harshly as well, among them Princeton’s Sean Wilentz, who, along with four other esteemed scholars—James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes—sent a letter to the Times demanding a retraction of the claim, made by Hannah-Jones, that “one of the primary” causes of the American Revolution was that colonists “wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” Wood, Oakes, McPherson, and Bynum also gave extended, critical interviews about the project covering a wide range of topics: colonial history, the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s views on race, Thomas Jefferson’s late-in-life turn toward pro-Southern extremism, the relationship of ideas to politics and economics, and the links between capitalism and slavery. Wood and Oakes, especially, objected to Hannah-Jones’s argument that the American Revolution was fought to defend slavery, and Wilentz, in a comment to The Atlantic, took exception to her remark that African Americans fought for their rights “largely alone.”
Striking is what was not discussed, and that’s what King noted in 1963: indigenous subjugation. The historians mentioned above said not a word, either in their collective letter or in their extensive interviews, about the dispossession of native peoples, the destruction of their societies, and their deportation west.
The omission is odd. For whether their criticism was motivated by a desire to defend a Whiggish narrative of liberal progress (Wilentz’s position) or insist on a stronger focus on political economy (Oakes’s concern), indigenous subjugation is key to understanding the history here being debated. Imperial expansion west over stolen Indian land shaped the American Revolution’s relationship to slavery. Expansion west drove the dynamism of the United States economy. And expansion west ignited slavery’s vast and rapid postrevolutionary growth, and allowed for its endurance, long past its abolition in every other country in the Americas (save for Brazil and Cuba), accounting for its deep and lasting imprint on US political culture, economics, and institutions.
American revolutionaries might have argued over slavery, and what place unfree labor would have in a republic founded on the ideal of liberty. But there was one thing that nearly all agreed on: the right to move west. British Americans, before their break with London, chafed at what was called the “Proclamation Line.” Running along the crest of the Alleghenies, the demarcation was made by the British Crown after its 1763 victory in the Seven Years’ War against France, as an effort to sequester white settlers on the Atlantic Coast. With British subjects already moving through the mountain passes, the policy became a major source of resentment against colonial rule. Settlers—the “overflowing Scum of the Empire,” as a British governor described the drifters and squatters who rushed down the Mississippi Valley—wanted land, which brought them into deadly conflict with Native Americans. In 1763, for instance, the Scotch-Irish Paxton Boys rampaged through Pennsylvania, murdering over a dozen Conestoga, scalping their victims, mutilating their corpses, and breaking up their communities (Dwight D. Eisenhower’s great-great-great grandfather, Hans Eisenhauer, was a Pennsylvania Indian killer during this time).
Not just material interests drove settlers west. The United States was founded on the idea that the ability to move wasn’t just a natural right but a condition of all other natural rights, a guarantor of many different kinds of virtue. Franklin provided an early political economy: Unlike in Europe, “labour will never be cheap” as long as farmers can continue moving west. James Madison offered a political theory: “Extend the sphere,” he said, and you’ll dilute factionalism and mitigate economic conflict. And Jefferson, two years before his draft of the Declaration of Indepedence, presented a moral history: Our “Saxon ancestors,” Jefferson wrote, “left their native wilds and woods in the North of Europe” and “possessed themselves of the Island of Britain.” As they did so, no German prince presumed to claim “superiority” over them. By what law, then, did the Crown presume to stop colonists from settling “the wilds of America”?
The American Revolution answered: none at all. The new nation came into the world doubling its size. The treaty recognizing the independence of the original 13 colonies ceded to them the territory between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi. The United States then proceeded to move swiftly—as if weightless, as the Mexican diplomat and writer Octavio Paz put it—across the West.
What would have happened if the United States had stayed confined, either east of the Alleghenies or of the Mississippi? What if the new nation hadn’t used its full federal apparatus to cleanse its eastern lands of Native Americans? Counterfactuals are a mug’s game, which historians anyway like to play (even if many consider them an invalid form of historical reasoning). Economists, though, have no problem with asking “What if?” The Berkeley economist Bradford DeLong isolated some variables and built a model that suggested that a “little America…penned behind the Appalachians would probably have seen its living standards and productivity levels not growing at 1% per year from 1760 to 1860 but shrinking.” Wages, as a result, would have been lower than they actually were, which would have decreased European migration somewhat but not much, considering the direness of rural life in Europe.
The history of chattel slavery would have been different in “little America.” With large numbers of immigrants working for lower wages, in a more constricted economy, fights over the moral meaning of labor, free and slave, which the historians who criticize The 1619 Project make much of, might have come to a head earlier. Or maybe not. For without taken indigenous land to expand into (land that was used as collateral for loans to finance buying more slaves and building more plantation, which in turn contributed to the growth of the cotton, real estate, finance, and insurance industries), slavery probably wouldn’t have transformed into the even larger monstrosity that it did become. Many Northerners and Southerners, Gordon Wood says, sounding wistful, as if he wishes he were living in little America, “thought slavery was on its last legs and that it would naturally die away.” And maybe the racism forged in a rump slavery would itself be a rump, and wouldn’t have had the lasting impact that it did.
But “big America” is what we got, thanks to a “national policy to wipe out its indigenous population,” as King noted in 1963. The United States flew over the continent like a whirligig, with not one “removal” but hundreds of removals, not one Trail of Tears, but many, with massacre after massacre, until Native Americans were reduced. This expansion—the acquisition of Florida, the Louisiana Purchase, Jackson’s Indian removal, the incorporation into the union of Texas, founded as a slaver’s utopia, and Oregon, founded as a white supremacist arcadia, and the taking of a third of Mexico—delayed a political reckoning with slavery, even as it provided the conditions for the robust progression of slavery. By the 1850s, chattel slavery had, in big America, insinuated itself into national life, into politics, law, philosophy, medicine, the new science of mental health, culture, city planning, and of course economics, in ways that, as The 1619 Project argues, last till today. It was during the Jacksonian period of imperial expansion, Indian removal, and the fast growth of slavery that a minimalist interpretation of the Constitution’s regulatory and fiscal power, and a maximalist interpretation of its war power, took shape—an interpretation that to a large degree remains regnant.
Indian removal opened the floodgates, allowing, as one legal theorist would describe the Age of Jackson, “an irresistible tide of Caucasian democracy” to wash over the land. King Cotton extended its dominion through the South, creating great wealth, along with greater forms of racial domination over both enslaved and free blacks. At the same time, Native Americans were driven west, and the white settlers and planters who got their land experienced something equally unprecedented: an extraordinary degree of power and popular sovereignty. Never before in history could so many white men consider themselves so free. Jacksonian settlers moved across the frontier, continuing to win a greater liberty by putting down people of color, and then continuing to define their liberty in opposition to the people of color they put down.
The 1846 war on Mexico deepened the associations of white skin with supremacy, dark skin with subjugation, and expansion with freedom. The nation’s elites “placed their most restless and desperate citizens upon the throat of Mexico,” as the historian Paul Foos described the looting, civilian murder, and terror that US troops—comprised of state militia volunteers and Army regulars—inflicted on Mexicans. Mexico put up more of a fight than the US politicians who plumped for the war said it would. As fighting dragged on for nearly two years, US soldiers committed crimes on Mexicans so terrible that, as General Winfield Scott, commander of US forces, said, they made “heaven weep.” The war was fought in an extremely decentralized manner, with officers’ barely exercising control over their troops, who experienced the violence they committed on Mexicans and Native Americans—“the repetition of the most heinous offenses, murder, rapine, robbery, and rape,” as one US newspaper described them—as a form of liberty.
The United States won the war, and many veterans returned east, to New England’s manufacturing towns or to New York’s Bowery, their battle-hardened racism working its way into local politics and into organizations that were potentially egalitarian, such as labor associations, and the Free Soil movement. Others went west, into California and up into Oregon. Armed with federally supplied rifles, an ample stock of bullets, and the promise of bounty land, they understood Western settlement to be a sequel to the war they had just won, and the genocide that took place on the Pacific Coast its last, long battle. “A war of extermination,” the first US Anglo governor of California predicted in 1851, “will continue to be waged between the races, until the Indian race becomes extinguished.”
Others spread out into the Midwest, into Kansas and Missouri, carrying their blood-soaked entitlement with them. War with Mexico simultaneously delayed and worsened the sectional crisis. In this sense, then, imperial expansionism served as both valve and throttle, with each conflict simultaneously venting the hatreds produced by the last while creating the conditions for the next.
The scholars who criticized The 1619 Project rightly argue that the moral debates, economic conflicts, and complicated politics of the Civil War shouldn’t be easily dismissed. There’s heroism, exercised by people of all colors, to be appreciated, which today might help us climb out of our current abyss. But it’s also important to recognize the way in which imperial expansion, including the ongoing dispossession of Native Americans, allowed the United States to continue its great evasion, its ability to take social conflicts that seemed irresolvable in the here and now and imagine their resolution in the there and then: there beyond the line of settlement, and then when the United States wins the West or opens the China market.
It wasn’t just the localized power of Southern elites that ended radical Reconstruction, the closest this nation came to having an honest reckoning with the consequences of slavery. In the struggle between North and South over the direction of a postbellum nation, access to Western lands played a decisive part. As the historians Boyd Cothran and Ari Kelman write, Northerners and Southerners in the years after the Civil War found “rare common ground” on the need to acquire more ground. They agreed on nearly nothing, only that the “Army should pacify Western tribes.” White Southerners bitterly opposed Reconstruction, and especially the hated Freedmen’s Bureau, but they came together with Northerners “on the subject of Manifest Destiny.”
The overseas frontier—wars and military occupations in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Nicaragua, and Haiti—acted as a prism, blurring together the color line that existed at home and abroad. Southerners, in each military occupation and prolonged counterinsurgency they fought, could replay the dissonance of the Confederacy again and again. They could fight in the name of the loftiest ideals—liberty, valor, self-sacrifice, camaraderie—while putting down people of color. The body count in the Caribbean and Pacific was high. Hundreds of thousands died through the 1930s, either directly at the hands of US soldiers or from disease, famine, and exposure. Letters from soldiers, first in the 1898 campaign and then later in Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, are notably similar, lightheartedly narrating to family and friends how they would shoot “niggers,” take “nigger scalps,” lynch “niggers,” release “niggers” into the swamp to die, water-torture “niggers,” and use “niggers for target practice.”
As Southerners steadily took the lead in the US military campaigns outward, all the dread, resentment, and hate generated by that campaign “poured back within the frame of the South itself,” as the Southern writer W. J. Cash wrote in his 1941 classic, The Mind of the South, and blended together. Over there, foreign enemies could be called niggers, and over here, domestic enemies—labor, farmer, and civil rights organizers, both people of color and their white allies—could be called subversives and anti-American: Many of the white vigilantes who led the terror campaign against black communities, in places like Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898; Elaine, Arkansas, in 1919 (where veterans, with help from the US Army, slaughtered 237 sharecroppers for trying to organize a union); or the 1921 Tulsa massacre, were veterans.
Rather than atonement and reckoning, the United States offered war and conquest as a way to forge national unity. In fact, war became America’s ideal form of atonement, a way to deal with the past by fleeing forward into the future, by recycling the traumas caused by the last war into new wars.
We are going to need a bigger project, of the kind that Martin Luther King Jr. laid out in 1963. By focusing on the horrors inflicted on Native Americans, by arguing for the unprecedented nature of removal, King was doing more than adding yet another oppressed group to history’s pantheon of victims. Rather, he was reaching for a holistic understanding of how racism is historically reproduced down the generations.
“We elevated” the war against Native Americans “into a noble crusade,” King said, founding our national identity on Indian killing. Imperial expansion became a way of life, one that reinforced deep-seated pathologies and provided mythic justification for a volatile, racialized individualism. Imperial expansion led to alienation, social isolation, free-floating aggression, and fantasies that life was an endless game of cowboys and Indians, played out in all the nation’s endless wars. King, who by this time considered himself a socialist, hoped to build a movement that would achieve the “mass application of equality to jobs, housing, education, and social mobility.” He was acutely aware of the structural barriers to that goal. But he was also attuned to the psychic barriers that blocked full social equality.
Hannah-Jones writes that African Americans mostly “fought back alone.” King said much the same thing when he described nonviolent civil rights activists who faced jeering mobs with an “agonizing loneliness.” King here wasn’t talking about a lack of white allies, or individual isolation. He was talking about the loneliness that comes from fighting for social justice in a nation that is deeply, militantly, antisocial. “There is,” he said, “an individualism that destroys the individual,” that denies the interdependency of existence.
Starting around the early 1960s, King began to use the idea of the social frontier to put forward a counter value structure, an alternative to an ideal of freedom forged in centuries of subjugating people of color. African Americans, he said, confronted a reality “as harsh and demanding as that of the pioneer on the untamed frontier.” That harshness forged character and weeded out frivolity; it sharpened “knowledge and discipline…courage and self- sacrifice.” For King, then, nonviolent resistance was more than a tactic. The ability to fight on the “social frontier,” to forge a path through the “wilderness of segregation” without losing oneself to justifiable anger, without giving in to rage or the despair of loneliness, he said, contained the embryo of an alternative society, a way to free the nation from its past, to overcome its cultish adherence to frontier violence and create a beloved, social community.
Then came Vietnam, and King confronted his own agonizing loneliness. First for staying guiltily silent, not wanting to break his productive, for a time, alliance with the Democratic Party. And then, after he spoke out, when he was abandoned by people he thought were his allies and friends.
King started to publicly criticize the war in 1966. His cri de coeur came on April 4, 1967, when he gave his “Beyond Vietnam” speech in Riverside Church in Manhattan, to an overflow crowd of thousands. There, King didn’t just condemn the US war in Southeast Asia. He condemned all of it: the country’s long history of expansion, its “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism,” and a political culture where “profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people.”
King wasn’t just breaking with the Cold War liberal consensus, which conditioned support for civil rights at home on backing anti-communism abroad. Rather, his protest entailed the refutation of an older, more primal premise. The nation was founded on the idea that expansion was necessary to achieve and protect social progress. Over the centuries, that idea was realized, again and again, through war. Extending the vote to the white working class went in hand with Indian removal; the military defeat of the Confederacy by the Union Army didn’t just end slavery but also marked the beginning of the final pacification of the West, with the conquered frontier continuing as an important basis of Caucasian democracy. Millions of acres were distributed to veterans. By the time African Americans started entering the armed forces in significant numbers, with the war of 1898, there was no more frontier land to hand out. But military service remained one of the country’s most effective mechanisms of social mobility, for African Americans as well as for working-class people in general, with the G.I. Bill of Rights providing education, medical care, and homeownership to veterans. King’s dissent, therefore, signaled a schism in US politics worthy of his namesake.
To “go beyond Vietnam” didn’t just mean splitting from the New Deal coalition by demanding an exit from Southeast Asia. It meant breaking with the devil’s bargain that social progress could be achieved in exchange for support for imperial expansion. King well understood that while war made some progress possible, it also threatened progress, activating the backlashers, revanchists, and racists who run through US history. For all that war turns reform into a transactional arrangement (some suffragists, for instance, traded their support for Woodrow Wilson’s war in exchange for his support for their right to vote, as did some trade unionists for his support for labor rights), and for all that imperial expansion worked as a safety valve (helping to vent extremism outward), it also created the aggressive, security- and order-obsessed political culture that King gave his life fighting against.
King was punished for his dissent. Many of his allies, black and white, abandoned him. Others attacked him. The Washington Post essentially gave King notice that his services would no longer be needed. “He has diminished his usefulness,” its editors said. Meanwhile, the FBI stepped up its campaign of surveillance and harassment against King and his family. This campaign had been running since at least 1962, and not one of King’s white allies of considerable influence—not John Kennedy, not Robert Kennedy, not Lyndon Johnson—ever ordered the bureau to stand down. That’s what it means to “fight alone.”
A prophet outcast, King continued, during the last year of his life, to speak out against the war. He put forth, in a series of sermons and press conferences, a damning analysis. Imperial expansion abroad, he argued, quickened domestic polarization. The “flame throwers in Vietnam fan the flames in our cities,” he said; “the bombs in Vietnam explode at home.” Racists killing brown people abroad became more racist. Opponents of war at home became more militant. Imperial expansion had long served to vent domestic extremism outward. But at some point, the vent would stop working. “There is such a thing as being too late,” King said in his Riverside Church speech, warning that the United States, even if it did try to reverse course, might not be able to steer away from self-destruction. “Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, ‘Too late.’” King was executed a year to the day after that speech.
Civil rights legend Ruby Sales (OUR COMMON GROUND Voice) learned to ask “Where does it hurt?” because it’s a question that drives to the heart of the matter — and a question we scarcely know how to ask in public life now. Sales says we must be as clear about what we love as about what we hate if we want to make change. And even as she unsettles some of what we think we know about the force of religion in civil rights history, she names a “spiritual crisis of white America” as a calling of today.
Ruby Nell Sales is a highly-trained, experienced, and deeply-committed social activist, scholar, administrator, manager, public theologian, and educator in the areas of Civil, Gender, and other Human Rights. She is an excellent public speaker, with a proven track record in conflict resolution and consensus building. Ms. Sales has preached around the country on race, class, gender, and reconciliation, and she has done ground-breaking work on community and nonviolence formation. Ms. Sales also serves as a national convener of the Every Church A Peace Church Movement.
Along with other SNCC workers, Sales joined young people from Fort Deposit, Alabama who organized a demonstration to protest the actions of the local White grocery-store owners who cheated their parents. The group was arrested and held in jail and then suddenly released. Jonathan Daniels, a White seminarian and freedom worker from Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts was assassinated as he pulled Sales out of the line of fire when they attempted to enter Cash Grocery Store to buy sodas for other freedom workers who were released from jail. Tom Coleman also shot and deeply wounded Father Richard Morrisroe, a priest from Chicago. Despite threats of violence, Sales was determined to attend the trial of Daniels’ murderer, Tom Coleman, and to testify on behalf of her slain colleague.
As a social activist, Sales has served on many committees to further the work of reconciliation, education, and awareness. She has served on the Steering Committee for International Women’s Day, Washington, D.C.; the James Porter Colloquium Committee, Howard University, Washington, D.C.; the Coordinating Committee, People’s Coalition, Washington, D.C.; the President’s Committee On Race, University of Maryland; and the Coalition on Violence Against Women, Amnesty International, Washington, D.C. She was a founding member of Sage Magazine: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women. Sales received a Certificate of Gratitude for her work on Eyes on the Prize. Additionally, she was featured in Broken Ground: A Film on Race Relations in the South, by Broken Ground Productions. From 1991-1994, Sales founded and directed the national nonprofit organization Women of All Colors, dedicated to improving the overall quality of life for women, their families, and the communities in which they live. Women of All Colors organized a week-long SisterSpeak that brought more than 80 Black women together to set a national agenda.
In 2000, Dan Rather spotlighted Sales on his “American Dream” Segment. In 1999, Selma, Alabama gave Sales the key to the city to honor her contributions there. In 2007, Sales moved to Columbus, Georgia, where she organized: a southern summit on racism; a national write-in campaign to save Albany State from being merged into a White college; a grassroots and media campaign to shed light on the death of seventeen year old, Billye Jo Johnson, who allegedly killed himself on a dark road in Lucedale, Mississippi when a deputy stopped him for speeding; Long Train Running Towards Justice, which celebrated the work of Black teachers during segregation and explored the ways that the Black school culture has been destroyed by White officials under the guise of desegregation; and a meeting with students at Savannah State to assist them in organizing and mobilizing a move by officials to merge Savannah State with a White college.
“Ruby Nell Sales is an African-American social justice activist. She attended local segregated schools and was also educated in the community during the 1960s era of the Civil Rights Movement. She has been described as a “legendary civil rights activist” by the PBS program “Religion and Ethics Weekly” Wikipedia
“Of the many myths told about American slavery, one of the biggest is that it was an archaic practice that only enriched a small number of men.
The argument has often been used to diminish the scale of slavery, reducing it to a crime committed by a few Southern planters, one that did not touch the rest of the United States. Slavery, the argument goes, was an inefficient system, and the labor of the enslaved was considered less productive than that of a free worker being paid a wage. The use of enslaved labor has been presented as premodern, a practice that had no ties to the capitalism that allowed America to become — and remain — a leading global economy.
But as with so many stories about slavery, this is untrue. Slavery, particularly the cotton slavery that existed from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the Civil War, was a thoroughly modern business, one that was continuously changing to maximize profits.
To grow the cotton that would clothe the world and fuel global industrialization, thousands of young enslaved men and women — the children of stolen ancestors legally treated as property — were transported from Maryland and Virginia hundreds of miles south, and forcibly retrained to become America’s most efficient laborers. As they were pushed into the expanding territories of Mississippi and Louisiana, sold and bid on at auctions, and resettled onto forced labor camps, they were given a task: to plant and pick thousands of pounds of cotton.
The bodies of the enslaved served as America’s largest financial asset, and they were forced to maintain America’s most exported commodity. In 60 years, from 1801 to 1862, the amount of cotton picked daily by an enslaved person increased 400 percent. The profits from cotton propelled the US into a position as one of the leading economies in the world, and made the South its most prosperous region. The ownership of enslaved people increased wealth for Southern planters so much that by the dawn of the Civil War, the Mississippi River Valley had more millionaires per capita than any other region.
In recent years, a growing field of scholarship has outlined how America — through the country’s geographic growth after the American Revolution and enslavers’ desire for increased cotton production — created a complex system aimed at monetizing and maximizing the labor of the enslaved. In the cotton fields of the Deep South, this system rested on the continuous threat of violence and a meticulous use of record-keeping. The labor of each person was tracked daily, and those who did not meet their assigned picking goals were beaten. The best workers were beaten as well, the whip and other assaults coercing them into doing even more work in even less time.
As overseers and plantation owners managed a forced-labor system aimed at maximizing efficiency, they interacted with a network of bankers and accountants, and took out lines of credit and mortgages, all to manage America’s empire of cotton. An entire industry, America’s first big business, revolved around slavery.
“The slavery economy of the US South is deeply tied financially to the North, to Britain, to the point that we can say that people who were buying financial products in these other places were in effect owning slaves, and were extracting money from the labor of enslaved people,” says Edward E. Baptist, a historian at Cornell University and the author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.
Baptist’s book came out in 2014, the same year that essays like the Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” and protests like the Ferguson Uprising would call attention to injustices in wealth and policing that continue to affect black communities — injustices that Baptist and other academics see as being closely connected to the deprivations of slavery. As America observes 400 years since the 1619 arrival of enslaved Africans to the colony of Virginia, these deprivations are seeing increased attention — and so are the ways America’s economic empire, built on the backs of the enslaved, connects to the present.
I recently spoke with Baptist about how cotton slavery transformed the American economy, how torture, violence, and family separations were used to maximize profits, and how understanding the economic power of slavery impacts current discussions of reparations. A transcript of our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When you talk about the sort of myth-making that has been used to create specific narratives about slavery, one of the things you focus on most is the relationship between slavery and the American economy. What are some of the myths that get told when it comes to understanding how slavery is tied to American capitalism?
Edward E. Baptist
One of the myths is that slavery was not fuel for the growth of the American economy, that it actually the brakes put on US growth. There’s a story that claims slavery was less efficient, that wage labor and industrial production wasn’t significant for the massive transformation of the US economy that you see between the time of Independence and the time of the Civil War.
And yet that period is when you see the US go from being a colonial, primarily agricultural economy to being the second biggest industrial power in the world — and well on its way to becoming the largest industrial power in the world.
Another myth is that slavery, in and of itself as an economic system, was unchanging. We fetishize machine and machine production and see it as quintessentially modern — the kinds of improvements in production and efficiency that you see from hooking up a cotton spindle to a set of pulleys, which are in turn pulled by a water wheel or steam engine. That’s seen as more efficient than the old way of someone sitting there and doing it by hand.
But you can also get changes in efficiency if you change the pattern of production and you change the incentives of the labor and the labor process itself. And we still make these sorts of changes today in businesses — the kind of transformations that speed up work to a point where we say that it is modern and dynamic. And we see these types of changes in slavery as well, particularly during cotton slavery in the 19th-century US.
The difference, of course, is that this is not the work of wage workers or professional workers. It is the work of enslaved people. And the incentive is not “do this or you’ll get fired” or “you won’t get a raise.” The incentive is that if you don’t do this you’ll get whipped — or worse.
The third myth about this is that there was not a tight relationship between slavery in the South and what was happening in the North and other parts of the modern Western world in the 19th century. It was a very close relationship: Cotton was the No. 1 export from the US, which was largely an export-driven economy as it was modernizing and shifting into industrialization. And the slavery economy of the US South was deeply tied financially to the North, to Britain, to the point that we can say that people who were buying financial products in these other places were in effect owning slaves and were certainly extracting money from the labor of enslaved people.
So those are the three myths: that slavery did not cause in any significant way the development and transformation of the US economy, that slavery was not a modern or dynamic labor system, and that what was happening in the South was a separate thing from the rest of the US. . . .”
When the new york times magazinepublished its 1619 Project in August, people lined up on the street in New York City to get copies. Since then, the project—a historical analysis of how slavery shaped American political, social, and economic institutions—has spawned a podcast, a high-school curriculum, and an upcoming book. For Nikole Hannah-Jones, the reporter who conceived of the project, the response has been deeply gratifying.
“They had not seen this type of demand for a print product of TheNew York Times, they said, since 2008, when people wanted copies of Obama’s historic presidency edition,” Hannah-Jones told me. “I know when I talk to people, they have said that they feel like they are understanding the architecture of their country in a way that they had not.”
U.S. history is often taught and popularly understood through the eyes of its great men, who are seen as either heroic or tragic figures in a global struggle for human freedom. The 1619 Project, named for the date of the first arrival of Africans on American soil, sought to place “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Viewed from the perspective of those historically denied the rights enumerated in America’s founding documents, the story of the country’s great men necessarily looks very different.
The letter sent to the Times says, “We applaud all efforts to address the foundational centrality of slavery and racism to our history,” but then veers into harsh criticism of the 1619 Project. The letter refers to “matters of verifiable fact” that “cannot be described as interpretation or ‘framing’” and says the project reflected “a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.” Wilentz and his fellow signatories didn’t just dispute the Times Magazine’s interpretation of past events, but demanded corrections.
In the age of social-media invective, a strongly worded letter might not seem particularly significant. But given the stature of the historians involved, the letter is a serious challenge to the credibility of the 1619 Project, which has drawn its share not just of admirers but also critics.
Nevertheless, some historians who declined to sign the letter wondered whether the letter was intended less to resolve factual disputes than to discredit laymen who had challenged an interpretation of American national identity that is cherished by liberals and conservatives alike.
“I think had any of the scholars who signed the letter contacted me or contacted the Times with concerns [before sending the letter], we would’ve taken those concerns very seriously,” Hannah-Jones said. “And instead there was kind of a campaign to kind of get people to sign on to a letter that was attempting really to discredit the entire project without having had a conversation.”
The United States contains less than five percent of the world’s population but incarcerates one-quarter of all prisoners across the globe. Statistics have long shown that persons of color make up a disproportionate share of the U.S. inmate population. African Americans are five times more likely than whites to serve time in prison. For drug offenses alone, they are imprisoned at rates ten times higher.
Recent scholarship has explored the roots of modern mass incarceration. Launched in the 1980s, the war on drugs and the emergence of private, for-profit prison systems led to the imprisonment of many minorities. Other scholarship has shown that the modern mass incarceration of black Americans was preceded by a 19th century surge in black imprisonment during the Reconstruction era. With the abolition of slavery in 1865, southern whites used the legal system and the carceral state to impose racial, social and economic control over the newly liberated black population. The consequences were stark. In Louisiana, for example, two-thirds of the inmates in the state penitentiary in 1860 were white; just eight years later, two-thirds were black.
The incarceration of African Americans did not begin suddenly with the end of the Civil War, however. Confinement functioned as a punishment during bondage as well. Masters were the law on their own plantations and routinely administered their own brand of justice. Although they usually relied on the whip, countless enslavers also chained their human property in plantation dungeons below the main dwelling house or in a barn. Some locked enslaved persons in a hot box under the scorching southern sun. The more formal legal system, too, sometimes deposited enslaved individuals in state or local incarceration facilities.
Charlotte, an enslaved woman from northern Virginia, experienced several of these institutions firsthand over a 17-year period. Using court records to trace her life illustrates the many official, lawful forms of imprisonment that the enslaved might encounter in the antebellum era.
In 1840, Charlotte was held in bondage in Clarke County, Virginia, west of Washington, D.C. She was only 16 or 18 years old, a dark-skinned, diminutive young woman, standing just four feet 11 inches tall. Legally, she was the property of Eliza Pine, a white woman whom Charlotte despised. Reportedly thinking that committing a crime would prompt Pine to sell her, on March 10, Charlotte set fire to a house in the town of Berryville. She was arrested for starting the blaze and placed in the local jail as she awaited trial.
Enslaved people were imprisoned briefly in local public jails or workhouses under a variety of circumstances. Masters sometimes made use of such facilities to punish bond people deemed troublesome or, if needed, to store them securely. Enslaved individuals apprehended as runaways or awaiting trial or sale at auction also saw the inside of city or county jail cells. In all of these instances, the enslaved usually measured their terms of incarceration in just days or weeks.
Overdue reparations is the key to closing the racial wealth gap
Dr. William Darity‘s congressional testimony lays a path to fix historic inequity that produces unequal outcomes for blacks
(The following is testimony by William Darity Jr., on the proposed Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African-Americans Act before the 116th Congress 2019–2020 on June 19, 2019)
By William Darity Jr.
The time has come for the United States, finally, to lay to rest the issue of what has been called, variously, the Slave Problem, the Colored Problem, the Negro Problem, the Black Problem, and the African-American Problem. The country can ill afford to remain stranded in the mire of injustice, perpetually refusing to resolve the fundamental, historic national dilemma facing all Americans. For too long, the nation has refused to take steps to solve an unethical predicament of its own making — the problem of the unequal status of black and white Americans.
A policy of reparations is a set of compensatory policies for grievous injustice. The three goals of a reparations plan should be 1. acknowledgement 2. redress and 3. closure.
1.Acknowledgement is the admission of responsibility for the atrocity (or atrocities) by the culpable party, incorporating an apology. The admission must also be accompanied by a guarantee to make restitution in as rapid a fashion as possible.
2.Redress is the provision of restitution, typically in the form of monetary compensation — as it has been in the cases of Germany’s reparations program on behalf of victims of the Holocaust and the United States’ reparations program on behalf of Japanese Americans unjustly incarcerated during World War II.
3.Closure means the agreement by the victimized community and the culpable party that the debt has been paid. The victims would make no further group-specific claims on the culpable party, unless new atrocities took place.
A plan for black reparations in the U.S. must fulfill specific principles, and those principles must inform, organically, the deliberations of the Commission to Study and Develop Reparations for African-Americans. In addition to the three central aims of a reparations program described above — acknowledgement, redress and closure — there are six principles that must be met: 1. With respect to black reparations, the U.S. government is the culpable party that must meet the obligation of awarding restitution to those eligible for reparations. 2. The government is culpable for not providing compensation over the course of 150 years since the end of the Civil War for enslaved blacks, their heirs and their descendants. 3. The government also is culpable for maintaining the legal and authority framework that sanctioned slavery, legal segregation and continues to permit ongoing racist practices. 4. Eligibility for reparations for African-Americans must apply specifically to those black Americans who are descendants of persons enslaved in the U.S. 5. Black reparations must be designed, at minimum, to eliminate the racial wealth gap. 6. Black reparations also must include a systematic plan to maintain historical memory of the conditions that motivated the inauguration of the program of restitution.
With respect to the claim for black reparations, the U.S. stands as the culpable party. The current text of HR40 makes note of “[t]he role which the federal and state governments of the U.S. supported the institution of slavery in constitutional and statutory provisions,” “the federal and state laws that discriminated against formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants who were deemed U.S. citizens from 1868 to the present,” and “other forms of discrimination in the public and private sectors against freed African slaves and their descendants who were deemed U.S. citizens from 1868 to the present, including redlining, educational funding discrepancies, and predatory financial practices.” Indeed, to the extent that federal laws and their enforcement take precedence over both state government and private- sector actions, the failure of the federal government to prohibit discriminatory actions by non-federal entities reinforces the national responsibility for making restitution.
Moreover, the federal government abandoned the opportunity to provide immediate compensation to those persons formerly enslaved upon emancipation. The freedmen had been promised allotments of at least 40 acres of land. There is some ambiguity whether this was intended to be 40 acres per family of four or per individual, but even if we take the more conservative condition — 40 acres per family — the allocation would have amounted to 40 million acres for the four million persons who were newly emancipated. This allocation never took place, and in the subsequent 150 years there has been no act of restitution for the formerly enslaved or their descendants. This is not because the descendants of slavery have been silent on this score. It is because their efforts to this point, actively, have been opposed and blocked. The commission to be established under HR40 represents an opportunity, finally, to develop a reparations program that will address the nation’s unmet obligations.
The case for black reparations must be anchored on three phases of grievous injustice inflicted upon enslaved blacks and their descendants. First is the atrocity of slavery itself.
The case for black reparations must be anchored on three phases of grievous injustice inflicted upon enslaved blacks and their descendants. First is the atrocity of slavery itself. Second are the atrocities exercised during the nearly century-long period of legal segregation in the U.S. (the “Jim Crow” era). Third are the legacy effects of slavery and Jim Crow, compounded by ongoing racism manifest in persistent health disparities, labor market discrimination, mass incarceration, police executions of unarmed blacks (de facto lynchings), black voter suppression, and the general deprivation of equal well-being with all Americans. Therefore, it is a misnomer to refer to “slavery reparations,” since black reparations must encompass the harms imposed throughout American history to the present moment — both slavery and post-slavery, both Jim Crow and post-Jim Crow — on black descendants of American slavery. It is precisely that unique community that should be the recipients of reparations: black American descendants of persons enslaved in the U.S.
Second are the atrocities exercised during the nearly century-long period of legal segregation in the U.S. (the “Jim Crow” era).
In a 2003 article written with Dania Frank Francis, and, more recently, in work written with Kirsten Mullen, we have proposed two criteria for eligibility for black reparations. First, an individual must demonstrate that they have at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the U.S. Second, an individual must demonstrate that for at least 10 years prior to the onset of the reparations program or the formation of the study commission, whichever comes first, they self-identified as black, Negro or African-American. The first criterion will require genealogical documentation — but absolutely no phenotype, ideology or DNA tests. The second criterion will require presentation of a suitable state or federal legal document that the person declared themselves to be black.
These criteria rule out blacks who are post-slavery immigrants to the U.S., whose own ancestors are likely to have been subjected to enslavement and colonialism elsewhere. Indeed, they may have substantial claims for reparations themselves, but not from the U.S. government. For example, Nigerians (and Nigerian-Americans) have, in my estimation, a claim for reparations against the United Kingdom; similarly, Haitians (and Haitian-Americans) have a comparable claim for reparations against France. However, legitimate claimants for black reparations from the U.S. government must be those Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved here after having been forced immigrants, rather than voluntary immigrants. This is a unique segment of the nation’s black population; it is the segment that will be eligible for black reparations in America.
In our forthcoming book, From Here to Equality: Reparations for black Americans in the 20th Century, Kirsten Mullen and I have identified the immense racial wealth gap as the prime indicator of the cumulative effects of the full trajectory of harms thrust upon black Americans. Wealth, the difference between the value of what one owns and what one owes, must not be confused with income. Wealth is more important than income, at least, insofar as higher levels of wealth are protective against unanticipated losses in income due to unemployment or financial emergencies. Wealth is insurance against economic anxiety and economic disruption for individuals and families. Wealth expands opportunity and possibility for those with larger amounts.
Today, black Americans constitute approximately 13 to 14 percent of the nation’s population, yet possess less than 3 percent of the nation’s wealth. A core objective of the reparations program must be to move the black American share to at least 13 to 14 percent. Reparations designated specifically for black American descendants of slavery must be enacted and implemented to achieve that aim, moving black wealth, roughly, from less than $3 trillion to $13 to $14 trillion.
While closure is one of the imperatives of any reparations program, arriving at closure does not mean forgetting the record of atrocities. Thus, a key dimension of a black reparations program must be the development and application of a rigorous curriculum, fully integrated into public school instruction at all grade levels, telling the story of America’s racial history, in all of its complexity, accurately.
The foregoing six principles should be guidelines that structure the charge of the Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African-Americans. In addition, there are several revisions to HR40 that I view as essential to yield the strongest legislation to launch the commission. The window that is relevant to the American black claim for reparations is 1776 to the present, not 1619 to the present, as the bill currently reads. Since the eventual claim for legislative redress must be made on the U.S. government, the beginning date must be associated with the founding of the republic, not the landing of enslaved persons at Jamestown. Furthermore, the array of atrocities that occurred between 1776 and the present are of sufficient magnitude that the case is not weakened by discounting the colonial period.
In its current form, the longevity of the commission is not specified in HR40. I recommend the commission completes its report, inclusive of a detailed prescription for legislation to enact a reparations program for black Americans, within 18 months of its impaneling. … President Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (known colloquially as the Kerner Commission) issued its report with recommendations a mere seven months after impaneling.
… it is a misnomer to refer to “slavery reparations,” since black reparations must encompass the harms imposed throughout American history to the present moment
I also recommend, like the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, the commission on reparations proposals commission should be appointed exclusively by the Congress. The commission appointees should be experts in American history, Constitutional law, economics (including stratification economics), political science and sociology. These appointees must have expert knowledge on the history of slavery and Jim Crow, employment discrimination, wealth inequality, health disparities, unequal educational opportunities, criminal justice and mass incarceration, media, political participation and exclusion, and housing inequities. The commission also should include appointees with detailed knowledge about the design and administration of prior reparations programs as guidelines for structuring a comprehensive reparations program for native black Americans.
In addition, the commissioners should not receive payment to minimize the prospect that personal aggrandizement will influence the proceedings. However, there should be a paid professional staff, and the commissioner appointees’ reasonable expenses should be met. In essence, they (nor any organization to which they belong) should not receive a salary, honorarium, or the equivalent for performing this critical national service.
There are also some sections of HR40 that merit revision for accuracy. For example, Section 2 (a) of the legislation notes that many more than four million persons were enslaved in the U.S. between 1619 and 1865, since not all persons enslaved over that interval still were living at the end of the Civil War. It is valid to say there were about four million persons emancipated when the Civil War ended, but they were not the total number of persons subjected to American slavery.
And Section 3.b. (2) indicts the U.S. government for blocking repatriation of formerly enslaved blacks to the African continent. Arguably, the exact opposite is true, particularly given the United States’ role in the creation of Liberia. Even Abraham Lincoln advocated black repatriation until the later years of the Civil War. Alleged obstacles to repatriation are not a justification for black reparations. The core of the claim for reparations is a declaration for the establishment of full citizenship rights and compensation for the sustained denial of liberty for black descendants of American slavery. Of course, it will be their prerogative if some black recipients of reparations choose to use their funds to migrate to their preferred country in Africa, or elsewhere.
Finally, in addition, the commission’s report must detail the long and cumulative trajectory of atrocities visited upon black American descendants of persons enslaved in the U.S. and their ancestors, and it must provide a well-designed comprehensive program for reparations that will address the following specifics: criteria for eligibility for reparations and assistance for potential claimants to establish their eligibility, criteria for establishing the size of the reparations fund, details on how the reparations fund will be disbursed (and toward what ends), details on how the reparations program will be administered and monitored, and benchmarks for gauging the long-term success of the program and administrative modification, if needed.
William Darity Jr. is the Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African and African American Studies, and Economics and director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University.
Where do we go from here?
What would it take to bridge the black-white wealth gap?
A Q & A with Duke University economist William ‘Sandy’ Darity, who has some radical—yet doable—ideas
Reparations well-intentioned, but insufficient for the debt owed
City of Memphis gives $50,000 each to the 14 living black sanitation workers from the 1968 strike
The Loebs : Exploited black labor and inherited white wealth
Penny-pinching Loeb ancestors kept wages flat for 25 years as black laundresses did “miserable” work