Recently, I attended the AFL/CIO celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Day in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, many think this is just a day off; sadly even people of color have forgotten the significance of the achievements of Dr King. Yet, so powerful is the impact of Dr. King and the civil rights movement that every group that feels their rights are being discriminated against have framed their struggle as being similar to the struggle for civil rights of African-Americans.
Maybe in my last life I was a history teacher, so I feel compelled to give a brief account of the history of slavery and the conditions experienced by slaves. The invention of the cotton gin in 1794 made cotton the dominant cash crop in the south. Congress passed a law that no slaves could be imported after 1808. The War of 1812 would clear the land of Indians, enabling cotton plantations to expand into the Western United States.
As slavery was ending throughout the West Indies, cotton production in the South made it necessary for its revival. While it is true that not all southerners had plantations or slaves, the South was dominated by a capitalist economic system dependent upon slave labor, which was different and distinct from the industrial capitalism of paid labor in the North. The slave economy in the South fostered certain social, cultural, and ideological norms.
It would take a mere 250 years to change a noble race of Africans into a subculture class of laboring chattel. From the first time slaves stepped off the ship at Jamestown in 1619 as indentured servants, Blacks would endure a hard life in the New World based on the color of their skin. Laws were established in Virginia, recognizing slavery and declaring status (race) of the mother the determining factor for freedom for her infant in 1660. There was also the dehumanization tactics of absolute power given to whites over Negros in the Constitutions of Carolina in 1669. These negative and demeaning views of African-Americans even found expression in the writings of Thomas Jefferson, who concluded in 1781 that beauty and intelligence are based on skin color. In so many ways, African-Americans were made to feel inferior. It would be up to the bondswomen to help her child survive the abusive attacks on their self-esteem, the truest form of slavery, and the destruction of the family. Slave women would help ignite the industrial revolution as “cotton cultivators.” Not only did planters see slave labor as profit; slave women were viewed as a mechanism to reproduce a fresh supply of laborers. The seeds of racism were planted, and for the next two hundred years this opinion would hold true.
The AFL/CIO observance celebrated Dr. King’s birthday Honor with the theme “Workers Rights are Civil Rights”. We remembered and celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington that rallied hundreds of thousands of people to call for jobs and freedom. Dr King died fighting for workers rights and civil rights. At the observance in Philadelphia were four women who were involved in the early days of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a group that fought for civil rights in the South in the early 1960s. They each told their story of horror while attempting to register blacks to vote and integrate public facilities. A diverse population came together to fight for fairness. As we reflect on Dr King and all the Black pioneers of the past, let us instruct our children and grandchildren on the significance of Dr King’s achievements for racial equality and fairness. It’s great we have a Black President giving hope that dreams do come true as we strive for fairness in this diverse population.
Joy Anderson RN