I’ve done a great deal of research into my ancestry and it appears that nobody in my family tree ever owned a slave. It might be argued that they were too poor to afford the possession of another human being, but I would like to believe that they somehow understood that owning another person was and has always been wrong. As far back as the times when slavery began in the American colonies there were individuals who spoke out against the practice. In the founding of our country there were signers of the Declaration of Independence who argued for freeing all slaves, but lost that enlightened view to compromise. Perhaps the birth of this country would never have happened without placating the desires of the slave holding colonies, but it certainly would have been a far less hypocritical way of declaring that all men are created equal.
The words of our founding documents are lyrical and give the promise of a society that values all people, but the actual rules in the original Constitution left out considerable portions of the population. Among many of the Founding Fathers there was a silent belief that given time the abomination of slavery would one day be abolished. Sadly they would have been horrified that it took so long to happen and that the process of reaching that moment would lead to a brutal civil war.
We all know that even after the slaves were emancipated by force of law, there were those who were still embittered and filled with racist beliefs. Angered by their defeat in the Civil War, they took out their rage on Black citizens with Jim Crow laws that enshrined segregation and unreasonable voting restrictions, not to mention often unjust treatment in employment and the courts. It was not until the 1960’s almost two hundred years from the signing of the Declaration of Independence that civil right legislation attempted to finally address the issues. While it seemed for a time that our country was finally headed in the right direction there is still much to do. The fight for civil rights should never end until every person in America genuinely feels equal with regard to justice and voting rights and educational opportunities.
Someone asked me recently who I thought was the most important leader of civil rights in our country’s history. I realized that just as the history of moving toward equality is ongoing, so too has the leadership been handed down from one era to another. Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton were officers in anti-slave societies in their respective states. Such leadership and influence lead many of the northern states to abolish slavery early in the history of the nation. Sojourner Truth, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, and David Walker were all devoted to abolition, sometimes risking their own lives to free slaves. Each of their stories is one of astounding courage and dedication to the cause, but it would ultimately come to Abraham Lincoln to herald the final decree to break the chains of slavery. The thousands of Union soldiers fought not only to save our union, but ultimately made it possible to end the despicable practice that had plague the country for far too long.
Everyone has heard of Martin Luther King, Jr. and he is in fact one of my most cherished heroes, but he could not have won the fight for freedom without the efforts of thousands of souls whose work is overlooked or unknown. Rosa Parks refused to lose her seat on a Montgomery bus, but across the south Black citizens boycotted buses in a combined effort to bring attention to their plight. John Lewis rode with the Freedom Riders when he was still a very young man. Ruby Bridges bravely agree to become one of the first to integrate a public school in the south. James Farmer, A. Phillip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young were shapers of the Civil Rights Movement by planning sit-ins, marches and working for legislation. Today there is a new generation of people from many different races fighting to maintain fairness and equality for all.
To simply name the greatest of all time would be to slight the efforts of even nameless individuals who put their safety on the line for the sake of elevating our country to a fairer and more even handed democracy. To claim that we have already reached the plateau of where we need to go would be naive. The struggle continues to eliminate the abominable treatment of anyone anywhere in America. Heroes devoted to the cause are emerging everyday.