Black Struggle Series #1

The Struggle of Black Americans in the U.S.A.
– part 1

by Rev. Warner Traynham

Holy Faith, Inglewood, CA • Pentecost 15 • July 11, 2021

Good Morning. If you have been paying attention to state and national politics recently, you will recognize some of these words: Juneteenth, Voter suppression, Affirmative Action, DC Statehood, reparations, slavery, white privilege, discrimination, the race card, white supremacy, black lives matter, critical race theory, institutional racism, etc. In one way or another these words relate to the struggle of black people in this country, and that is what I want to talk about this morning and for the other two times I am scheduled to speak during our priests vacation.

Let me begin with Juneteenth and go on from there. Most of you are aware that Pres. Biden recently signed a bill making the 19th of June a national holiday. On that date, in 1865 a union General arrived in Galveston, Texas and informed the slaves there that they were free, presumably this was one of the last groups of slaves to be so notified.

On Jan 1, two years before, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order, declaring that all slaves in states in rebellion against the Union, which included Texas, were free. This proclamation was an act of war, intended to deprive the Confederacy of the support of the slaves, which undergirded their war effort and the economy. It claimed to free the slaves in those states that had seceded from the Union and therefore did not recognize the authority of the Union or of Lincoln. The fact is that while the proclamation did not really free any slaves, it did undermine the Confederacy because many slaves, when they learned of it, abandoned their masters and attached themselves to the Union troops in their area for protection.

The Order did not even claim to free the slaves in the border states of Delaware, Maryland, West VIrginia, Kentucky and Missouri which had remained loyal to the Union. Actually, no slaves were freed until the thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, was ratified by the states on Dec.6th of 1865. The amendment had been previously passed in the Senate on April 8 of 1864 and in the house on January 31, 1865. Some of you may have seen a dramatization of the House debate in the movie “Lincoln”.

The text of the 13th amendment is as follows; “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation”. In my next sermon you will learn why I want you to hear the text of this amendment.  Slavery has been called the Original Sin of the United States of America, because like the Christian doctrine from which the term derives, it marked the entrance of an evil into the life of the republic which is still with us, as St Paul believed, through the disobedience of Adam, sin itself entered the human community and is still with us as well.

In 1619 the first Africans arrived in Virginia, one of the thirteen British colonies which would ultimately become the United States of America. Historians are unclear whether these people were sold as slaves or as indentured servants with a contract for service to some person for a limited period of time. Most indentured servants were Europeans who worked in this manner to pay for their trip to the new world. Indentured servants could however be sold or inherited during the term of their contract and these contracts could be extended for bad behavior. Those who completed their contract not only earned their freedom, they earned what was called “Freedom Dues” which meant they commonly received a piece of land and enough supplies to enable them to begin their new lives.

Apparently, only gradually was chattel slavery introduced and of course limited to black Africans, whose color marked them out for bondage. One of the reasons for the change was the fact that upon completing their contract, indentured servants moved on, requiring a costly replacement. Slaves moved on only at death or sale, and otherwise were owned by their masters for life.

Slaves might also produce children further increasing their value and their master’s wealth. 

For 246 years, from 1619, until the passage of the thirteenth amendment, racial slavery was the context in which the great majority of black people in America lived. The few who were not slaves were for the most part not citizens either. They became second-class people often disbarred from the vote, from education, and from social, political and economic equality by law or custom. One historian has observed that slaves took the place of machines prior to the industrial revolution. You must maintain slaves as you maintain machines, but you do not pay either and neither enjoy rights in any sense of the word. 

Prior to the American Revolution, slavery spread throughout the colonies north and south. As the north maintained small farms and commercial enterprises, wage labor proved more practical and slavery slowly died out.

In the south which remained agrarian and where large land holdings predominated, gangs of slaves worked the land and the institution ultimately flourished and formed the basis of the southern economy. The southern master class came to exercise absolute control over the slaves. As an example, the Virginia General Assembly passed the following declaration as early as 1705. in their native country…shall be accounted and be slaves. All Negro, mulatto and indian slaves within this dominion…shall be held to be real estate. If any slave resists his master…correcting such slave and shall happen to kill in such correction…the master shall be free of all punishment…as if such accident never happened.”

Slavery was not only a means of economic exploitation, it was also a means of control. Because in some parts of the south, slaves vastly outnumbered whites, slave holders tried to keep slaves ignorant, and quiescent for fear of rebellions and uprisings of which there were a few. The rebellion in what is now Haiti, in which the slaves wiped out the white population of the colony and established the first Black nation in the world, terrified the American south and encouraged more laws and regulations for their slaves.

While slavery spread across the nation and then retreated in the north as it increased in the south, people north and south, began to take issue with the buying and selling of human beings. While slave holders declared that blacks were less than human or an inferior race for whom slavery was a good, the morality of the institution was called into question. Abolitionist called for the elimination or the phasing out of the institution.

Thomas Jefferson represents the quandary the country faced at the time of the revolution. In the declaration of independence he famously declared that all men were created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights among which were life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Jefferson also held several hundred slaves throughout his life. He described himself at one time as an abolitionist, but he also believed in the inferiority of the negro. He believed the institution brutalized the slave holder as much as the slave, but he did not believe the country could ever become an interracial society. He was a supporter of the American Colonization society which advocated for the abolition of slavery and the transportation of freed slaves from the US to Africa. Liberia was founded to receive the former slave population of the US.

Many of the founders of the nation held slaves or had done so previously. Nevertheless, they were aware of the contradiction in the fact that they were engaged in a war to gain their freedom from Great Britain, while holding slaves whose freedom they were denying. The Constitution assumes the institution and its continuance. Asked why the founders did not make more of an effort to rid the new nation of this institution of which most of them claimed to disapprove, historians tell us, first that if they had banned the institution there would have been no United States. The southern states would have left the Constitution and the country and no slave would have been freed because most of the slaves were in the south. Secondly, the founders believed the institution was likely to die out in the south as it had largely done in the north . They left it for subsequent generations to resolve what they could not. Unfortunately, the institution did not die out. Rather, it became expansionist. So for the next 74 years the nation struggled with the institution that some wished to abolish and others wished to expand. The struggle led ultimately to th e Civil War.

In 1850 Congress also, passed a new fugitive slave law that put the power of the national government behind the requirement that states where slavery was illegal, were obliged to return runaway slaves to their masters.

I graduated from high school one year before the Supreme Court in Brown vs The Board of Education struck down the doctrine of separate but equal which permitted racial segregation which had shaped my life up to that time. I and my generation saw the High Court as the defender of my rights as a black american. But as I proceed, I think you will discover, as I did, that while the Warren Court befriended the rights of blacks, it was an exception rather than the rule.

Another precipitator of the Civil War occurred in 1857 when Chief Justice Rodger B. Taney delivered his opinion in the case of Dred Scott vs. Sandford. Briefly, Scott, a slave, had been taken by his master into free territory where they had lived for a while. Upon returning to slave territory, Scott managed to sue in federal court alleging that because he had lived in a free state, he was therefore free. Mr. Justice Taney, writing for the Court, denied that Scott had any standing to sue in Federal court at all because, he, being black, whether free or slave, was not a citizen of the United States in the eyes of the Constitution. According to Taney, the authors of the Constitution had viewed all blacks as “beings of an inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect.”

The decision spurred vehement dissent in the anti slavery forces in the north and is regarded as an indirect cause for the Civil War. This decision was the lowest point of black rights in the US.

The Civil War began in 1861 with the secession of those states that subsequently formed the Confederacy. They seceded they said, because they feared that Lincoln and the republicans who had won the federal election, would abolish slavery despite the fact that Lincoln said his primary goal was to preserve the Union. The Civil War lasted for four years. It began as a fight to preserve the Union, but with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it became, as the Confederates feared, a war to end slavery. 180,000 black men served as soldiers in that war to gain their freedom, although they were never paid for their service the same as the whites. So furious were the rebels at the arming of blacks, many of whom were their former slaves, that they refused to take black prisoners, either shooting them when they tried to surrender or enslaving or re-enslaving them.

Further the Confederates refused to exchange them for white soldiers, which brought the prisoner exchanges to an end until the war’s end.

Once, I was asked what I found most frustrating about racism in this country. My answer was the racial two step, the racial dance, in which the nation took two steps forward and one step back or the reverse, so that one never got all that one initially expected or was promised.

This process might be said to have begun with General Wm. Tecumseh Sherman’s field order no. 15. Apparently some union spokesman promised 40 acres and a mule to till them with, to some of the blacks who fought in the war and to some of the 200,000 ex slaves who deserted their owners and were put to work by the army as it moved through the south.

At the conclusion of Sherman’s march from Atlanta to the sea, this field order, invited blacks to take possession of a 30 mile wide stretch of land along the Atlantic coast from Charleston South Carolina to Jacksonville Florida, which had been confiscated from its Confederate owners. Such skills as blacks in the south possessed were generally confined to agriculture and stock raising, so if freedom was to be maintained, they would need to possess arable land. Sherman’s order was for freedmen to build houses, establish farms and to govern themselves. Whites were ordered to stay away. Some 40, 000 blacks proceeded to occupy 485,000 acres along this coast. There is some question as to whether this settlement was to be permanent as the slaves believed, or simply a method to provide temporarily for the vast number of ex slaves that had attached themselves to the Union army as it liberated the south. Unsurprisingly, it proved to be temporary since, Lincoln had been assassinated by this time and President Andrew Johnson cancelled the order.

A couple of weeks ago I read this comment from Henry Louis Gates Jr. about this promise which was the first systemic attempt to mitigate American racism and to provide freed blacks with an economic basis for their freedom: “Try to imagine how profoundly different the history of race relations in the US would have been had this policy been implemented and enforced; had the former slaves actually had access to the ownership of land, of property , if they had had a chance to be self sufficient economically, to build, accrue and pass on wealth.”

And now we come to Reconstruction. In the Gettysburg address Lincoln at one point spoke of ”a new birth of freedom”. Presumably the reference is to the freedom of the slaves, but what that freedom was to look like he does not say. We are aware that originally Lincoln shared the view of the founders that racism was so widespread, in both north and south, that a multiracial society in the US was impossible. He advocated the exportation of the freed slaves to Africa. When he discovered, in conversations with Fredrick Douglas, and other Black leaders that the slaves themselves rejected this option, he did not know what kind of society the freedom of the slaves would usher in. Something else pointed out in the movie “Lincoln”. His assassination relieved him of the problem, but it did not relieve the nation.

After Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and the end of the Civil War, the Union army began an occupation of the rebel states where it used its legal powers over civil governments to try to set the terms for the end of slavery and the meaning of the slaves newly won freedom.

Andrew Johnson, now the President, wanted to reintegrate the rebels into the union as quickly as possible. He therefore issued a general amnesty offering political rights and immunity from confiscation for former Confederates who would pledge support to the US in future, and abide by any federal laws against slavery. Under Johnson’s reconstruction plan, the south would be readmitted to the union on the same basis, with the exception of slavery, as had prevailed before the Civil War.

Under his plan the south sent an all white contingent of former confederates, to congress, including the Vice President of the Confederacy, all of whom, of course had fought against the Union.

Congress, led by the radical republicans, refused to seat these men and by rejecting them, indicated that it would undertake the reconstruction of the south instead of the President, which would sweep away slavery, give blacks the vote and create biracial democratic institutions in the south. The struggle between the President and the Congress to reintegrate the south into the Union, had begun, and would continue throughout Johnson’s term in office.

Because the economy of the south was in ruins, one of Congress’ first acts was to create the Freedman’s Bureau, to provide food, clothing, fuel, education and medical assistance for southern blacks and whites in distress. The Bureau also had a program for distributing to the freedman land the Federal government had confiscated, a program Johnson also rescinded.

Meanwhile, the white south, having lost slavery, was determined to keep blacks in their former place as much as possible, and to keep the black codes which had governed the conduct of slaves and free blacks. They also passed new laws to constrain the freedman. They prohibited blacks from buying or leasing land. Blacks were forbidden to bear arms, to attend schools with whites, to sit on juries and to testify in courts against whites. Whites legalized segregation in housing, transportation, education and public accommodations.

When Congress considered extending the Freedman’s Bureau’s life, in support, Thaddeus Stevens, one of the radical republicans, said “We have turned lose four million slaves without a hut to shelter them or a cent in their pockets. The infernal laws of slavery have prevented them from acquiring an education, understanding the commonest laws of contract, or of managing the ordinary affairs of business life. This Congress is bound to provide for them until they can take care of themselves. If we do not furnish them with homesteads and hedge them about with protective laws; if we leave them to the legislation of their late masters, we had better have left them in bondage.”

Subsequently, Congress passed the first Civil Right’s Act. It conferred citizenship upon all persons born in the U.S. with full and equal rights under the law without regard to race or color; made it a federal offense for anyone to deprive a citizen of these rights; specifically gave freedmen the right to vote and sit on juries and ruled out compulsory racial segregation in public accommodations.

President Johnson vetoed the act as racially discriminatory “in favor of the colored and against the white race,” possibly the first claim of reverse discrimination. Congress overrode Johnson’s veto, the first instance of that, in the history of the country. The Supreme Court up held the constitutionality of the Act.

In order to silence the states rights claim that American citizenship and the rights of those citizens were up to each state to decide, Congress passed the 14th Amendment making all persons born in the US, citizens of the US and of the state in which they were born. States are forbidden to abridge the rights or privileges of citizens or to deprive any citizen of life, liberty or property without due process of law or deny any person the equal protection of the law.

All the southern states, except Tennessee voted not to ratify the 14th amendment. The struggle between Congress and the South became violent as white police and civilian led mobs went on rampages killing blacks across the region. In Memphis 46 blacks were killed and 80 more were wounded. In New Orleans 50 blacks were killed and 170 wounded. The u Klux Klan and other organizations came into being in the south to maintain the white supremacy that had ruled before the war.

Republicans swept the election of 1866 and Congress made the existing state governments provisional, required the ratification of the 14th amendment to reenter the Union and required the states to hold new constitutional Conventions with black participation as voters and upholding universal male suffrage. Union forces were sent to reoccupy the south and to divide it into 5 military districts each under the command of a US army general.

Johnson again vetoed the bill and Congress again over rode the veto. The Second Reconstruction Act required the army to register blacks to vote since the white regimes in the south were not doing it. It also barred Confederates from participating in state or local government. 

The back and forth between the President and Congress came to a head when the House impeached the President and the senate failed to convict him by 1 vote. 

Sunday after next. I will continue this story of the struggle of black americans to become equal citizens of this nation.

  • NOTES ON THE STATE OF VIRGINIA, by Thomas Jefferson
  • YOUTUBE: Jefferson, Slavery, Reconstruction.
  • YOUTUBE: “The Revolutionary Origins of the Civil War, by Gordon Wood
  • THE  ATLANTIC MONTHLY  of June, 2014, “The Case for Reparations, by Ta-Nehisi  Coates
  • AFTER  APPOMATTOX: Military  Occupation and the Ends of War,  by Gregory P. Downs
  • AFTER APPOMATTOX: How the South Won  the War, by Stetson Kennedy
  • SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME: The Reenslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to WW II, by  Douglass A. Blackmon
  • UNTIL JUSTICE BE DONE, by Kate Masur
  • THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS, by Isabel Wilkerson.
  • THE NEW JIM CROW:  Mass Incarceration in the  Age of Color Blindness, by Michelle Alexander.