Friday, July 14, 2017

Hank Sanders: Senate Sketches #1570: The power of July 2nd and the power of the human spirit

  Some dates reflect power. It seems that powerful things happen on the same date over and over down through generations. These happenings sometimes change countries, sometimes change a people, and sometimes change the world. July 2nd is one such date.

  I want to share just three critical events that happened on July 2nd that changed the world. The spirit of each is connected to the spirit of the other. One happened in 1776. Another happened in 1839. The third happened in 1964. The connecting circumstances involved human oppression. The connecting spirit was a will to liberty.

  The first happening was the Declaration of Independence. The first Declaration of Independence Resolution was adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 2, 1776. The 13 American Colonies declared their independence of Great Britain. They were sick and tired of the oppression wreaked upon them by the King and his minions. They declared No more! No more! No more! Some even declared, “Give me liberty or give me death!”

  John Adams, who subsequently became president of this country, declared that July 2nd would be celebrated as, “The most memorable epoch in American history.” However, Thomas Jefferson edited the Declaration of Independence Resolution, and the Second Continental Congress readopted it on July 4, 1776. July 4th went down in history while July 2nd was virtually forgotten.

  The Declaration of Independence unleashed a spirit that swept across the world. It inspired others to fight against powerful oppression in their own ways, in their own time, and in their own space. It did not matter that those who spoke these powerful words did not practice what they preached. They maintained a system of slavery even as they fervently declared: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We are still on the journey to fully secure these unalienable rights.

  The second happening was in the Caribbean. The slave ship Amistad was on its way from Havana, Cuba to Puerto Principe, Cuba. On July 2, 1839, 53 enslaved persons recently captured in Africa were determined to seize their freedom. Led by Sengbe Pieh, known as Cinque, they rose up early on this stormy morning and seized the slave ship. They tried to sail back to Africa but ended up off the coast of Connecticut. They were captured and imprisoned. But the story did not end there.

  With the help of Northern abolitionists, they fought for their freedom in the United States District Court. The United States Constitution had ended the Atlantic Slave Trade in 1808. While they waited for trial, Cinque learned to speak English. At the trial of the Amistad warriors, Cinque testified that they were recently brought from Africa. They won a great court victory. The case was appealed to a higher district court. They won again. Then President Martin Van Buren and others appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court. Representative John Quincy Adams, who had served as president from 1825 to 1829, argued the case before the Supreme Court. The Amistad warriors won again.

  Some Amistad warriors had died on the sea voyage after they seized the ship. Others died as the case wound its way through the courts. Those who survived returned to West Africa. One of them returned to the United States to attend Oberlin College in Ohio. She then returned to West Africa to serve as a missionary, still fighting oppression, still seeking liberty for all.

  The third happening occurred on July 2, 1964. That’s when President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It ended nearly a century of official segregation that was extremely oppressive. This segregation prohibited Black people from looking white people in the eye, talking back to them, using the same restrooms, drinking from the same public water fountains, eating in the same restaurants, sleeping in the same hotels/motels, attending the same schools, interacting on any social level and so much more. It was enforced by a myriad of laws, pervasive violence, and state-sanctioned terrorism in the form of public lynching.

  Black people were sick and tired of the oppression. They fought in the courts, winning the Brown v. Board of Education case that outlawed separate schools. They fought with their pocketbooks, boycotting segregated buses in Montgomery. They fought with their bodies, sitting in at lunch counters in the face of brazen violence. They fought with their lives as they traveled on freedom rides. They fought with their feet, songs and prayers as they marched all over the South. Some sacrificed their lives in the fight, saying, “Give me liberty or give me death!”

  Black people and others standing with them were seized with the liberty spirit. President Lyndon Johnson reacted to the spirit manifested through powerful protests. He had grown up in Texas where he observed the oppression first hand. In response to the waves of protests by Black people and others, and in response to the horrific violence, he pushed the 1964 Civil Rights Act through Congress. He signed it on July 2nd, the same date that the Declaration of Independence was first declared to the world.

  I knew firsthand the oppression of segregation. I knew firsthand the struggles to lift that oppression. I knew firsthand the hope and joy engendered by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination in education, employment and public accommodations. The spirit of July 2nd manifested itself in the Declaration of Independence, the Amistad uprising, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That spirit of liberty lives on.

EPILOGUE: Certain spirits are so powerful. They affect everything they touch. The spirit of liberty, once unleashed, can move mountains, big and small. May the spirit of liberty burn forever. May each of us reveal the burning spirit of liberty within ourselves.

  About the author: Hank Sanders represents Senate District 23 in the Alabama Legislature.

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