America's 'democratic experiment' is inextricably tied to the history of slaveryRoundup
tags: slavery, democracy, 1619
Peniel E Joseph is the Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.
This year marks 400 years since enslaved Africans from Angola were forcibly brought to Jamestown, Virginia. This forced migration of black bodies on to what would become the United States of America represents the intertwined origin story of racial slavery and democracy. This year also marks what would have been the 90th birthday of Martin Luther King, the most well-known mobilizer of the civil rights movement’s heroic period between 1954 and 1965.
While Americans are quick to recognize Jamestown as the first episode of a continuing democratic experiment, the nation remains less willing to confront the way in which racial slavery proved crucial to the flourishing of American capitalism, democratic freedoms, and racial identity. The year 1619 laid out rough boundaries of citizenship, freedom, and democracy that are still being policed in our own time.
Although we hardly remember this today, King often discussed how the imposing shadow of slavery impacted the civil rights struggle, perhaps most notably on 28 August 1963, during the March on Washington.
Addressing a quarter of a million people in front of the Lincoln Memorial, King acknowledged racial slavery’s uncanny hold on the American imagination. A century earlier, Abraham Lincoln, whom King called “a great American”, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet 100 years later, black people remained marginalized from the American dream. “Instead of honoring this sacred obligation,” King said, African Americans had received a “bad check” – one that the nation would have to pay in full to overcome the tragic dimensions of a racial past that continued to constrain its future.
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