‘Black freedom, the struggle for American democracy’

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

dr. chris magoc(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an editorial written by Mercyhurst History Professor Dr. Chris Magoc in observance of Black History Month. It was featured in the Erie Times-News on Sunday, Feb. 26.)

In June 1863, amid debate in Harrisburg on a bill to prohibit racial segregation on public streetcars in Pennsylvania, Erie businessman and abolitionist state senator Morrow Barr Lowry declared that "the government or the corporation that defies [racial equality] does so at its peril, for it defies God! Every man is born with inherent rights, they are not contingent on race, color or condition." One of Erie's notable but largely forgotten figures, Senator Lowry had contributed $2,000 toward the Pennsylvania 83rd Regiment. Days after his address, that unit would earn glorious victory at Gettysburg's Little Round Top—a vanquishing of slavery-defending invaders of Pennsylvania soil its brigade commander Colonel Strong Vincent told his wife would be "the most righteous cause that ever widowed a woman" should he perish. A few months later, Republican President Abraham Lincoln enshrined Vincent and all defenders of that blood-soaked ground for having given Americans a "new birth of freedom." 

In our own time, we have relearned the hard way that the words of white politicians regarding race matter. Although it shocked the conscience of many Americans, the lie that there were "very fine people on both sides" of the racist, anti-Semitic "Unite the Right" demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 has by now sunk beneath oceans of disinformation on the extremist right. The words appalled because they came from our president, a jarring departure from a tradition of unequivocal denunciations of fascism and racism from every president since Franklin Roosevelt. Indeed, public servants worth remembering and honoring have long summoned us to, as Lincoln put it, the "better angels of our nature."

They have done so often speaking hard truths. Senator Lowry—known in Harrisburg as "the moral conscience" of the Pennsylvania Senate—wrote in 1863 that since the day the United States enshrined slavery in its constitution, Americans had been a "nation of hypocrites." Although citizens of the young republic, Lowry wrote, "told the oppressed of every land that America was a refuge for all the oppressed and down-trodden," it had been lying to itself and the world.  "The sooner we declare to the world that this [Civil] war is for freedom, the sooner will we reach the hearts of the people everywhere."

The 'American Dilemma'

As Senator Lowry made clear, the Civil War is essential to any understanding of our national character in no small part because fundamentally it concerns America's struggle to come to terms with race, which was then and remains today imperative to our global leadership on human rights. In that sense, the Civil War was not exceptional. From the American Revolution forward, war has insistently demanded an interrogation of what Swedish Nobel laureate Gunnar Myrdal amid World War II artfully termed "An American Dilemma." A thickly documented study of discrimination against African Americans, Myrdal's book provoked sobering debate among Washington officials about America's image around the world.

Black patriots did not need to read the book. Jim Crow and Klan terror still ruled the South. De facto segregation was a fact of life across much of the rest of the nation, including Erie. The sharp contradiction of fighting a war against a Nazi enemy fueled by the ideology of white Aryan supremacy laid bare more starkly than ever the contradictions of American ideals and the realities Black Americans faced daily. As a soldier, Erie's Fred Rush Sr. was moved to a shabby "colored only" rail car, while Nazi POWs rode ahead of him and other Black soldiers in greater comfort.  When he and other African American veterans returned home, they were compelled to establish the Perry Memorial Post #700 because the American Legion would not welcome them. In Erie and around the nation, African Americans and white civil rights supporters galvanized around what the Pittsburgh Courier called the "Double V": victory over fascism abroad and American racism at home.

Then came the epic ideological struggle of the Cold War in which America's failure to make real the promise of human rights for all its citizens continually undermined America's image around the world—most notably in newly liberated African nations. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. bluntly stated in "Letter From Birmingham Jail" in April 1963, "the nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter." Photographs of white mobs in Alabama setting ablaze the buses of Freedom Riders in 1961—or during that fateful spring of 1963, Birmingham sheriff Bull Connor's police dogs and fire hoses assaulting peaceful Black protesters—gave lie to America's rhetoric about the global spread of democracy and fueled the propaganda machine of the communists in Moscow.

The images pouring out of the South in those years and reproduced across the globe propelled the civil rights struggle forward. Spurred by the sickening scenes from Birmingham on June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy declared the struggle for civil rights one that could not be solved by legal or legislative remedies alone. It was, he said, "a moral issue…as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution." Acutely aware that ghastly depictions of American racism were sabotaging his Cold War diplomatic efforts, the president challenged the nation and his own administration to confront its hypocrisy, invoking the potent language of the victory over Nazism: "We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is a land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes? Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise."

It was well past time. Soon after the speech, President Kennedy sent to Capitol Hill proposed legislation that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In Erie that spring, Rev. Jesse McFarland, local NAACP president, declared at a rally that "the noise you hear these days [of resistance to civil rights] is the death-rattle of a dying man: a new man is being born." Indeed, that moment just 60 years ago was an era of renewed purpose, of limitless possibilities in America, when forging a national bipartisan consensus for such bold declarations as landing a man on the moon, waging "unconditional war on poverty," and fulfilling the promise of racial equality in America was possible. Although virulent, often violent resistance remained in the South, some 80% of congressional Republicans voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act. Similarly decisive numbers brought us the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which gave Americans for the first time a true multiracial democracy.

The last best hope

That was a very different America. Yet one thing has not changed: the moral urgency of defending democracy at home and abroad. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Vladimir Putin's social media disinformation machine successfully targeted Black Americans, exploiting their righteous anger over structural racism, dissuading many from voting. The cynical work of Russian operatives added another layer to ongoing voter suppression efforts directed at voters of color by a Republican Party that Morrow Barr Lowry and Abraham Lincoln would not even recognize.

It is deeply distressing to acknowledge that significant percentages of Republicans are no longer committed to democracy—distrustful of elections and believing that violence may be necessary to preserve what they perceive to be a receding white male-dominant America. The white supremacist extremism that fueled January 6, 2021, assault on the citadel of American democracy—featuring Confederate battle flags and "Camp Auschwitz" sweatshirts—reminds us that President Lincoln's challenge to "nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth" depends ultimately on our willingness to confront the structural evil of racism.

Echoing through our own history and now demonstrated on the battlefields of Ukraine is the stark lesson that democracy's defense requires not only courage and moral leadership from those on the front lines, but vigilant support and civic engagement from all of us.