By William “Duke” Smither
“Because power corrupts, society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.” (John Adams, 2nd President of the United States)
National Moral Character?
Lordy, Lordy! One would have had to have been born “Rip Van Winkle II,” the fictional dude who fell asleep and missed the American Revolution, if they’d just wakened up to the recent news headlines claiming ‘white Democrats will be lynching black folk again’ (Eli Rosenberg: The Washington Post, “Pro-Trump group tells black voters to support Republicans because ‘white Democrats will be lynching black folk again’, Oct. 19, 2018).
It referred to a recent race-baiting radio advertisement, though promptly and properly condemned, supporting the re-election campaign of Arkansas Republican French Hill (R-Ark.). Allegedly, the ad was the trumped-up conversation between two black women discussing the recent confirmation of Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. It also addressed the rumored sexual misconduct allegations levied against him, and associated change dynamics it may portend for the presumption of innocence principle, requiring the government to prove the guilt of criminal defendants.
Of course, “Rip Van Winkle II” was referring to the fictionalized Washington Irving short story, set in New York’s Catskill Mountains, first published in 1819, long before America’s heyday of racialized lynching terror, between 1877 and 1950, as the recently revealed Montgomery, Ala. memorial (National Memorial for Peace and Justice, April 26, 2018) painfully reminds us.
But, the current news headlines also tells us that, even within an already politically, socially and culturally divided America, there’s even discord and disunion within the division and subdivisions, as well. Seemingly, rather than being the once laudable strength of our national fabric, the ideological themes, and slogans of our mixed bag distinctions now seem to have been willfully weaponized against prudence and common sense.
What is our national moral character? Where does it come from? What does it mean? Is it now dependant on which political party one belongs to? Race? Or, religion? Who sets the standards?
In the age of so-called Trumpism (politics and philosophy embraced by the 45th and current president of the United States), with its certain elements of racism, bigotry, misogyny, sexism, and all things seemingly opposed to freedom and change, you would think that plain old common sense would prevail within all the ballyhoo and silliness ushering in the 2018 Mid-Term elections.
But, It’s Halloween!
Oh…! I forgot, it is the Halloween season! It’s that time of year for witches, goblins, leprechauns, and things of that ilk! It’s also remindful of the prose and poetry we used to teach our children, in the precious, formative years of their lives, like:
Oh, what funny things are seen!
Witches’ hats, coal-black cats,
Broomstick riders, mice and rats!
Pumpkin’ Lanterns light the scene.
Witches’ sneer, stoking fear,
Strangest night in all the year!
Yet, stoking fear, anger and other funny stuff around election time is nothing new. We’ve been here before.
Especially the ginning up of racism, “Negro-phobia” (fear of black people), racial hatred and other passionate expressions of outrage and horror, akin to an apparent “fear of brown-skin folk” which seems to have crept up on American soil within the current immigration crisis from Central America, as well as migrants from Africa, Haiti and South America, in the past.
And, today, the incidences of fear, folly and funny stuff are too numerous to list. Instead, perhaps it’s more worthy to think a little about the missing pages of the roots of our collective moral character, from the ranks of the poor, disenfranchised and once enslaved, right here in the United States. It might help in putting the right to vote in a different frame of reference since we now seem to be losing perspective in this arena.
But, to do so, we’d have to go all the way back to 1870 and the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when the right to vote was finally extended to citizens, no matter the “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Before then, only white male adults were allowed to vote. But, it wasn’t until 1920 and the 19th Amendment, before women were granted the right to vote. And, some 45 years later, the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed racial discrimination in voting, finally putting some teeth in the 15th Amendment.
Before the American Civil War (1861-1865)- this nation’s fight over legalized human slavery, those intellectualized considerations and applications of property laws to black people, including the issues of certain “states’ rights” versus “federal rights”- much of the fervor surrounding the run-up to the bombardment of Fort Sumpter, South Carolina, which kicked off the “War Between the States,” stemmed from the widespread fear of a “Second Revolution.” But, it was more about the spiraling jitters from the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), and the so-called “Horrors of Santo Domingo” (a.k.a., Saint-Domingue), the French colony on the western fringe of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, now famously known as Haiti.
Of course, in 1776, when Congress approved the Declaration of Independence and declared that “all men are created equal,” the wealthy elite or persons of means didn’t exactly have black people and brown people, nor Indians, in mind. It was mostly white and black abolitionists, men and women, and other social reformers, who were the guiding light for moral and ethical issues, holding the nation’s feet to the fire on slavery and oppression as it related to the nation’s new creed and professed morality, while certain plutocrats among the status quo were still stoking political fear and corruption.
In 1790, the United States Naturalization Law (of March 26, 1790, 1 Stat. 103) established a rule of law to be followed in the granting of national citizenship. But, it limited naturalization to immigrants who were ‘free white persons of good character’, excluding American Indians, indentured servants, slaves, free blacks and later Asians.
Yep! That far back! Even then, stoking terror and racial tensions was part and parcel of some rather devious and dangerous political stratagems.
In the Shadows of “Hayti”
But, it sprouted from this place the Taino Indians, the original Arawak-speaking people of the island of Hispaniola, called “Hayti,” meaning “land of high mountains.” The place the world now calls Haiti.
This creeping fear of death and impending doom surfaced long before America’s ‘Big War’, from this island’s fledgling “Black Republic”– born in bloody revolution. And, the shadows of the Haitian Revolution, “the successful anti-slavery and anti-colonial insurrection by self-liberated slaves,” lingered long and spread far and wide for many years.
In its aftermath, back in the United States, white politicians (Northerners and Southerners) played political hardball and calculated every move on the chessboard of racial and political economics. Slave owners feared losing their lives, wives and property to what they felt was the inevitable spreading of black violence. It was a time of white racial solidarity and the emergence of southern and/or white nationalism (not patriotism) sparked by fears of what horrors might be in store for white women if slavery was to end with an “Africanized” South.
From Gabriel Prosser, in 1800, and Denmark Vessey, in 1822, to Nat Turner, in 1831, and the Black Seminole Slave Rebellions, between 1835 and 1838, the name of François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, the impassioned former slave and military leader of the Haitian Rebellion, inspired violent uprisings across the south. And, secessionists further milked the threatening atmosphere and swelling panic, in the wake of abolitionist John Brown’s famous raid on Harper’s Ferry, in 1859.
Ironically, the name of Haiti’s General Toussaint Louverture sparked many heated debates around arming black soldiers in the American Civil War. But, it ultimately led to swelling the ranks of the Union Army, including the 54th Massachusetts, the African-American infantry regiment which led the Union attack on “Battery Wagner,” the Confederate stronghold at Fort Wagner, SC on July 18, 1863, further notching the idea of a multi-racial republic and 1776 assertion that “all men are created equal.” And, America’s moral character has benefited from men and women of color serving in the military ever since.
Still, Time to Show Up
Yet, once again, in 2018, as American citizens prepare to march to the election polls to vote, the racialized and politicized fear-mongering, “brown-skin” phobia and fizzling moral authority remain in the crosshairs of those among us, civilians and military veterans alike, still concerned for equal voting rights. Frankly, our moral character and what we are ultimately teaching our children is again in question- among ourselves, as well as around the globe.
But, only one thing is for certain. And, in my opinion, it is uniquely embodied within the insightful, 10-word take of Mr. Larry J. Sabato, Political Analyst and Director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Simply put:
“Every election is determined by the people who show up.”
So, please remember to show up, vote your heart and vote your conscience on Tuesday, November 6, 2018.
Our nation’s damaged moral compass is sadly in need of repair. It’s a heavy lift. But, we all can help: Just vote like the right to vote depends on it. In fact, within the ongoing, convoluted struggle for justice and equality, it probably will!