Tom West, West Words

Tom West

Last week, the national news media made a big deal about it being the 400th anniversary of the introduction of slavery to North America. The purpose, it seems, was to remind people how the nation that became a beacon of freedom around the globe was actually built by slave labor, one of humankind’s greatest evils.

In short, it was part of the steady drumbeat we hear nowadays which is aimed at demoralizing Americans and delegitimizing the greatest nation the world has ever known. While I recognize that history needs to acknowledge the sins as well as the accomplishments, we’ve reached a point where even small acts of patriotism, such as reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or standing for the Star Spangled Banner, are treated with disdain.

Since history — at least complete history — isn’t much taught in the schools anymore — if these trends continue, people may forget or never learn why this nation is as great as it is.

Commemorating the anniversary of slavery’s introduction to North America is like honoring the date of the attack on Fort Sumter, which started the Civil War. Instead of singling out the start of an evil, we should be celebrating other significant dates that show how this nation fought to end racial injustice. Here are just a few of those dates:

Sept. 22, 1862 — That day, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed those slaves then living in states that were fighting to secede from the United States.

Jan. 1, 1863 — The date the Emancipation Proclamation took effect.

April 9, 1865 — That day, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia, ending the Civil War.

December 18, 1865 — On this day, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, abolishing slavery.

March 30, 1870 — The 15th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, giving the right to vote to all males without regard to “race, color or previous condition of servitude.”

August 18, 1920 — The 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote.

July 26, 1948 — President Harry Truman signed an executive order requiring the racial integration of the U.S. military.

May 17, 1954 — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” thus leading to the integration of all public schools.

Sept. 9, 1957 — The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower. Among its provisions was one giving blacks and women the right to serve on federal juries, regardless of state laws barring them from jury service.

Sept. 25, 1957 — After Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard on Sept. 4 to prevent nine black students from integrating Little Rock Central High School, Eisenhower deployed 1,200 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock, thereby allowing the black students to attend classes.

Oct. 1, 1962 — James Meredith became the first black student at the University of Mississippi, enrolling in the law school under the protection of 30,000 federal troops. The troops had been called up by President John Kennedy after a riot broke out the previous day in which two men were killed.

June 11, 1963 — Vivian Malone and James Hood became the first black students at the University of Alabama after Alabama Gov. George Wallace personally blocked them from entering the door to register. Wallace stepped aside only under orders from Kennedy, who had federalized the Alabama National Guard to maintain order and enforce the law.

Feb. 4, 1964 — The 24th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, prohibiting the practice of requiring any citizen to pay a poll tax before being allowed to vote.

July 2, 1964 — The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. It banned segregation in public places, including restaurants and hotels, on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

Aug. 6, 1965 — The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed by Johnson. Among other provisions, it prohibited the use of literacy tests to prevent people from voting, and outlawed any discrimination in voting for citizens of a racial or language minority. The latter led to the implementation of bilingual ballots.

Those are just 15 dates that should give Americans cause to celebrate. Giving ourselves a pat on the back for those achievements is not out of line. All of them came about through tremendous struggle and even bloodshed. To begin with, one should never forget that almost 600,000 Union soldiers were killed wounded, captured or went missing during the Civil War.

While the Founding Fathers made some trade-offs, including on the question of slavery, in order to form this nation, they also put in place the mechanisms that made it possible to bring about slavery’s demise.

Those who sniff that the Civil War did not end racial discrimination are correct. The battle to judge people on the content of their character and not their skin color continues. But one doesn’t win that struggle by demoralizing the citizenry; one achieves ultimate victory by celebrating the smaller wins so that the public is willing to achieve even nobler deeds.

Tom West, now retired, is the former general manager of this paper. Reach him at westwords.mcr@gmail.com.

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