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"I Have a Dream": A 50th Year Testament to the March that Changed America

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This excerpt recounts the earliest days of American history that eventually led to the civil rights movement.
This chapter is from the book

The road to a cause or purpose begins with a need to fix an injustice. In a country with freedom and equality among its bywords, inequality and injustice existed nevertheless, and these wrongs would take a long time to right. For African Americans, it was a journey that had to be made—one that no one could make for them, and one that would be made against opposition, and because of opposition. It is a story in which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) played a vital part. This is the story of that long path through destiny, through adversity, and to victory.

Somber Days for Humanity

The starkest form of injustice is the entrapment and slavery of a people. From the earliest times in America, slavery was an accepted practice, one employed and endorsed by some of the country’s founding fathers. A quarter of a century before American independence, slavery was legal in all 13 colonies, and as many as 12 million slaves were brought to the Americas from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, with nearly 700,000 coming to what is now the United States.1 Spain and England were major participants in the African slave trade. Sir Francis Drake and associates helped establish the “slave triangle,” a circuit from West Africa through the Caribbean to Europe where slaves were exchanged for cash crops and manufactured goods. The growth continued until the profits of the slave trade and West Indian plantations represented 5% of the British economy by the time of the Industrial Revolution.2

The slave era was a low ebb in humanity, with couples and families divided and sold in public squares to live far apart, never to see each other again. This was as far from freedom and equality as life can get, and it was going to be a long time before things changed.

There are almost no positive moments among a practice where the shipping to the Americas alone had a mortality rate of around 15%.3 The slave mutiny on the schooner La Amistad in 1839 that led to a Supreme Court case in 1841, where John Quincy Adams argued on behalf of the Africans and won, was one of the few bright moments in a somber period for America.

Adams was not the only American to begin to have doubts about the morality and rightness of slavery. Those opposed to slavery began to be known as “abolitionists.” These people existed mainly in the northern states, because following Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin, cotton became the chief crop of the South, amounting to the bulk of all its exports. The cheap labor of owning slaves was the most cost-effective way of producing cotton. Although the owners of huge plantations did not represent a majority in the South, they were the political leaders and knew what drove their economy. For their economic and political success, plantation owners of the South felt the institution of slavery had to continue, whereas many in the North would come to have an opposing view. A rift between the thinking of the northern and southern states continued to be an ominous factor, one with all the power and ferocity of a ticking bomb.

As of 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which required individuals to return runaway slaves to their owners. In direct opposition, the Underground Railroad would operate at its peak from 1850 to 1860. Founded by ex-slave Harriet Tubman and supported in part by the Quakers and abolitionists, including John Brown, the Underground Railroad was composed of a network of secretive routes and safe houses where a growing number of abolitionists and other sympathizers helped slaves escape to the free states, Mexico, or Canada, where slavery was prohibited.

The Dred Scott Decision of 1857 only deepened the rift between the free states of the North and the slave states of the South. He sued for his freedom on the basis that he and his wife Harriet and two daughters had lived with his master Dr. Emerson in a free state. Scott’s temporary residence outside Missouri did not bring about his emancipation under the Missouri Compromise, which the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional because it would improperly deprive Scott’s owner of his legal property. The Court also found that neither he nor any other person of African ancestry could claim citizenship in the United States; therefore, Scott could not bring suit in federal court. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney had hoped to settle the issues related to slavery and Congressional authority by this decision, yet it only aroused greater public outrage and deepened sectional tensions between the northern and southern U.S. states until the decision was later overturned by the Emancipation Proclamation.

One indication of how deep and fanatical the rift had grown came in 1859 when John Brown and his group of radical abolitionists raided the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in an attempt to start an armed slave revolt. He had invited Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglass to join him. Tubman was ill, and Douglass did not believe the raid would succeed. He was right. Brown was later hung after his unsuccessful efforts.

The issue of slavery and rights of blacks in America became the driving reason for the Civil War. Those in the South were angered at the attempts by Northern antislavery political forces to block the expansion of slavery into the western territories, feeling that a restriction on slavery would violate the principle of states’ rights. When Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election, in spite of not being on the ballot in ten Southern states, his victory triggered declarations of secession by seven slave states in the South. They formed the Confederate States of America before Lincoln even took office. Nationalists (in the North and elsewhere), in addition to foreign governments, refused to recognize the secessions, and the U.S. government in Washington refused to abandon its forts that were in territory claimed by the Confederacy. War began in April 1861 when Confederates attacked Fort Sumter, a U.S. fortress in South Carolina, the state that had been the first to declare its independence. The Civil War began in earnest.

Although they waged one of the bloodiest wars in history—one that split families and states as well as the North and South—steps began to be taken to deal with the issue of slavery itself. In January 1862, Thaddeus Stevens, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, called for the total war against the rebellion to include the emancipation of slaves. He argued that emancipation, by forcing the loss of enslaved labor, would ruin the rebel economy.

In July 1862, Lincoln first discussed the proclamation with his Cabinet. He believed he needed a Union victory on the battlefield so that his decision would appear positive and strong. That came on September 22, 1862, with the Battle of Antietam, in which Union troops turned back a Confederate invasion of Maryland. This gave Lincoln his opportunity. Lincoln told Cabinet members that he had made a covenant with God, that if the Union drove the Confederacy out of Maryland, he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Five days after Antietam, Lincoln called his Cabinet into session and issued the Preliminary Proclamation. Congress followed that announcement by passing in July 1862 the Second Confiscation Act, containing provisions intended to liberate slaves held by “rebels.” Lincoln then signed it into law.

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