“For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labor. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever . . .”– Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII
I am a native South Carolinian. Charleston is my maternal ancestral home. My great grandmother was born during slavery. My great grandfather I have been told was a plantation overseer. Never have I been more proud and more ashamed of my dueling ancestral heritages than in the aftermath of the terroristic murders of nine Black Christians engaged in Bible study at Charleston’s historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by a young White man infected by what Dr. King called, after President Kennedy’s assassination, “a morally inclement climate.”
The young White visitor to the weekly Bible study came with a troubled spirit and racial rage inflamed by a White supremacist website. He was enabled to become a mass killer by readily accessible and largely unregulated guns – more than 310 million in citizens’ hands and only 4 million in America’s law enforcement and military hands. But his dastardly deeds were bathed in an amazing spirit of forgiveness among the victims’ families.
I hope this latest chapter in America’s pervasive history of domestic terrors against millions of Black citizens victimized by slavery and Jim Crow, denied full citizen rights throughout our history, relegated to subhuman three-fifths status in our Constitution and treated similar to beasts of burden to fuel our unjust economic system can be squarely confronted. Until the United States sees and cures its profoundly evil birth defects of slavery, Native American genocide, and the exclusion of all women and non-propertied men of all colors from our electoral process, these birth defects will continue to flare up in multiple guises to threaten our Black community’s and everyone’s safety, our nation’s future, and render hollow our professed but still inadequate commitment to ensuring equality for all.
Slavery was followed by thousands of lynchings and racially instigated terrorism through hate groups like the KKK during the Jim Crow era. And it continues to be reflected in the unjust racial profiling and killings of Black boys and men by law enforcement agents and a mass incarceration system. Millions of Black and Latino children and people of color are trapped in a cradle to prison pipeline lodged at the intersection of race and poverty. That Black children are the poorest, most mis-educated, most incarcerated, most unemployed, and most demonized of any group of children in America is a continuing legacy of slavery and Jim Crow that must end now.
Let’s seize this latest tragic racial terrorist act to confront our history and how we teach our history. And we must all act together to reject our present day racism in all its structural, cultural and hidden manifestations with urgency and persistence. We must pass on to our children and grandchildren a more honest and just nation and a future free of the violence of racism, poverty and guns.
I believe we are called in the aftermath of the Charleston massacre, the latest in a long and egregious history of unjust Black deaths, to confront the realities of our true history so that a new generation of White youths does not carry forth the poison of racial supremacy and White privilege. We also must act so that millions of Black, Native American and Latino children, soon to be the majority of our country’s children in a majority nonwhite world, do not have to continue to struggle against overt and covert culturally ingrained racism.
We must firmly reject all symbols glorifying slavery and hatred that divide us. We must reject all efforts to subvert fair and democratic election processes including the precious right to vote. We must end mass incarceration and ensure equal justice under the law for all. We must confront massive inequality of wealth and income and end poverty, beginning with child poverty now.
It is time to commit America to become America and to close the gap between creed and deed. Let’s send a ray of hope throughout our nation and world that we are committed to honoring our dream of equality for all. What an amazing grace moment we have been given to help our nation move forward together.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org