Katherine Kersten makes some valid points in criticizing the New York Times’ “1619 Project” about the place of slavery in the United States (“1619 revisited, revisited,” Dec. 8). But like the Times’, Kersten’s is also a selective reading of the story of race and democracy in our nation’s history.
Kersten’s account is a conservative mirror image of the Times’ liberal portrait. Both obscure the real heroines and heroes of history, the working class in all skin colors, and the class struggle.
The global and historical dimensions of slavery that Kersten sketches are essentially correct — testimony to the ubiquity of class oppression. Unique to the United States, however, was racial slavery. In English-speaking colonial America, it grew out of another class institution, indentured servitude, whose subjects came in all skin colors.
It wasn’t preordained, as the Times suggests, that the permanent indenture of people of African origin was heralded with the arrival of the African captives to Virginia in 1619. To the contrary, some indentured Africans gained their freedom and became masters with their own servants, some of whom were white.
But the first “civil war” in what would be America changed all of that. A multiracial uprising of servants in 1676 in Virginia, Bacon’s Rebellion, so frightened those in the ruling class that they took steps to ensure it would never happen again. As rulers have often done when faced with rebellion, Virginia’s elite divided the producing classes to secure their rule. Drawing hard, skin-color lines between groups of the indentured increasingly became the norm — the origins of racial slavery.
Kersten rightly applauds the Declaration of Independence and what it represents for the age-old democratic quest. The enslaved black poet Phillis Wheatley certainly recognized its significance. So did the emerging middle classes in Europe.
That the stormers of the Bastille, whose act commenced the French Revolution in 1789, sent the prison’s key to George Washington as a gift, spoke volumes about the global significance of the American Revolution in the minds of the oppressed.
The U.S. Constitution is another matter, and Kersten is at pains to make a convincing case for it. Most telling about the document is that the word “democracy” never appears in it. Not surprising for a document that promised slave owners their runaway property would have to be returned — Article Four — or that their slaves would be counted three-fifths a person to guarantee their rule. All that the framers promised was a republic — that is, representative government. Who gets to be represented has been the essence of politics ever since.
The most progressive features of the document, the Bill of Rights, would only become a living reality in the 20th century owing to the struggles of the working class and its allies.
A “new birth of freedom,” as Lincoln described it at Gettysburg in 1863, was required to realize the promise of 1776. More trenchant than the lines that Kersten quotes from his Second Inaugural Address was his promise to continue the Civil War if necessary “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”
Lincoln reluctantly realized that there was no constitutional solution to the problem of slavery. Only workers and farmers in uniform on the battlefield, especially former slaves, could settle the matter. The slavocracy’s demise reverberated internationally — democracy’s greatest advance in the 19th century.
The bloodletting, unprecedented before or since, made possible a second revolution. African-American men became citizens for the first time. But America’s first experiment in racial democracy was cut short. The most Kersten has to say is, “In the South, ‘Jim Crow’ legal discrimination grew in power.”
No, it wasn’t just “legal discrimination.” Reconstruction came to a bloody end. The most informed report estimates that close to 55,000 African-Americans and their supporters were murdered between the end of the war in 1865 and about 1887.
Just as ruling elites in Virginia had feared a growing class alliance among indentured servants of all colors, their latter-day counterparts 200 years later feared something similar was underway after the end of chattel slavery in 1865. Most alarming was the first general strike in 1877 that brought together black and white workers. Jim Crow laws became the new divide-and-rule strategy.
It was accompanied by terror, not confined to the South. Red Summer, the label for the slaughter of hundreds of blacks a century ago, spread into Minnesota the following year, with the lynching of three men in Duluth in 1920.
Thus the need for a second Reconstruction, what the civil-rights movement achieved. But if Kersten is to be believed, those gains were all engineered at the top, the Supreme Court and the White House.
The first time I tried to vote, in 1964, I was denied the opportunity owing to my skin color. Four years later, I could cast a ballot. Why? Because people who looked like me had been, along with our allies, in the streets, to make real the rights that were guaranteed on paper.
Kersten is right to criticize the Times’ 1619 Project for ignoring the democratic gains that have taken place in the U.S. But she misrepresents how that happened. Ruling elites, including leaders like Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, contrary to Kersten, weren’t motivated to do the right thing because they lived in the enlightened West. They saw the light because they felt the heat of the proletarian masses in the streets.
The democratic quest advances when the working classes begin to sense their self-worth, just as they did on Civil War battlefields.
And when that class takes power for the first time in the U.S., in all its skin colors and other identities, it won’t, unlike the framers of the Constitution, be squeamish about putting “democracy” into a new Constitution for the first time.
August H. Nimtz Jr. is professor of political science and African-American and African studies at the University of Minnesota.