As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, it is fitting to reflect upon the tortured experience of blacks in this country. Looking back upon four centuries of African-American history two things are undeniably clear: for the greatest part of America’s history, blacks were grossly mistreated and the country has come a long, long way since the first slaves were brought to Jamestown in 1619.
Most astounding, in this latter regard, is the seismic shift in popular attitudes regarding blacks since the Civil Rights movement began. It’s hard to believe that Mad Men depicts a world that is less than fifty years removed from us.
Yet for all the progress the country has made—the abolition of slavery, the end of segregation, and the change in hearts and minds—not everyone draws inspiration from this admirable story of overcoming. The persistence of stark socio-economic disparities between black and white Americans, the extraordinarily high incarceration rates of black men, and the desolation in many inner cities have led many to “wallow in the valley of despair,” to borrow a phrase from Dr. King’s most famous speech.
Such despair in turn has fueled a radical critique of America that is increasingly prevalent among scholars and activists who deal with race relations. America, we are told, is founded on a racial contract that excludes all non-white males. As former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall explained: “the prevailing opinion of the Framers regarding the rights of Negroes in America” was, and here he goes on to cite approvingly the infamous Dred Scott decision “that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” From there, it’s a straight line to the conclusion reached by John Hope Franklin, author of the standard history of African Americans, From Slavery to Freedom: “Racial Segregation, discrimination, and degradation… stem logically from the legacy that the Founding Fathers bestowed upon contemporary America.”
While Dr. King reminded us that the country was built on the “promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” leading voices today instead reject the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as racist documents and turn away from the traditional goal of integration. If America is built on a foundation of racist ideas, then no real change is possible within the existing conditions, and the solution to the African-American predicament must lie beyond the country as we know it. America must be fundamentally transformed if the promise of justice for all is to be realized.
This critique of America, which feeds off the despair among impoverished black Americans, is particularly pernicious for fostering an even deeper alienation among those who most need to believe in the American Dream to improve their lot. Indeed, it is very difficult to see how the upward-looking labor required to lift blacks out of endemic urban poverty is to be sustained if those most in need of help have accepted the idea that America has no place for them. This critique will only worsen the problems it refuses to answer.
Today, as we honor Martin Luther King, we have a moral duty to re-affirm the promise of justice for all at the heart of the American Founding and make the case, as forcefully as we can, for the integrationist faith in America. To do so, we turn to a former slave: the great 19th century abolitionist and indefatigable advocate of civic and political equality, Frederick Douglass.
As Peter Myers explains in a new First Principles essay entitled “Frederick Douglass’s America: Race, Justice, and the Promise of the Founding”:
Douglass endures unequalled as the invincible adversary of racial despair and disaffection—the pre-eminent exemplar and apostle of hopefulness in the American promise of justice for all. At the heart of all that he learned and taught were these simple propositions: that the natural-rights principles epitomized in the Declaration of Independence were universally and permanently true; that the everlasting glory of America’s Founding lay in its dedication to those principles; and that the salvation of the nation lay in its rededication to them.
Myers goes on to recount the story of how Douglass, who as a former slave initially sided with the abolitionists of the day in rejecting America and its Constitution “for supporting and perpetuating this monstrous system of injustice and blood,” eventually developed, through a careful study of the Founding, an “irrepressible faith in America.” In America’s dedication to principles of natural human rights set forth in the Declaration of Independence, Douglass found reason to love and identify with his country, despite the injustices that he and his people had suffered.
Douglass’s uplifting journey from alienation to a “rationally grounded hopefulness” should embolden all those of us who believe in America and her dedication—shaky at times, but always eventually triumphant—to the natural equality of men.