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White Supremacy and Racism in the United States: Historical Perspectives
. . . The 2008 United States presidential election was an explosive
benchmark in world history that ripped through old wounds and once
again exposed racism’s ugly underbelly. Its convulsive nature
rippled across the globe, especially during the time when the
presidential campaigns were raging like an inferno. For the most
part, everything seemed fine and civil during the presidential
primaries. But then when an African-American fellow with a strange-
sounding name emerged as the Democratic Party front-runner, a
massive hurricane suddenly descended from out of nowhere and all
racial hell broke loose. It was a contentious but exciting moment in
human history. But it was also a bitter reminder that despite our best efforts to wash away the stains of segregation, its dark shadow
But on that historic November night in Chicago, when President Barack Obama finally addressed the most powerful nation and delivered
his victory speech, suddenly it became clear that “race” is no longer a restrictive demographic description. Instead it has become just a
matter of opinion. Perhaps, after all the turbulence we have thus far endured as we swirl through the storms of evolution, finally, we have
come full circle. And perhaps, even greater things are yet to come.
- White supremacy is the belief that white people are inherently superior to people of other ethnic background.
- Historically, in the United States, the belief in white supremacy had played a major role in the evolution of its social and political landscape. In the years
leading to the American Civil War, this deep-rooted idea emerged as the main rallying point for the defense of slavery and the eventual secession of many
Southern states from the Union.
- Although Abraham Lincoln's ultimate views on race and racism remain debatable, he is regarded as the main catalyst in the eventual end of slavery. During his
political career, he held the conviction that the United States could not survive as a half-slave and half-free states. And although he had no intention of
abolishing slavery in states where it already existed, he was opposed to its expansion. By preventing its expansion into new US territory, Lincoln believed that
slavery would eventually be driven to extinction.
- In his bid for the US Senate seat in 1858 against the incumbent Democratic Senator, Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln publicly expressed his anti-slavery
sentiments in the series of Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858.
Douglas, in one of the debates in August 1858, stated:
"We are told by Lincoln that he is utterly opposed to the Dred Scott decision, and will not submit to it, for the reason that he says it
deprives the Negro of the rights and privileges of citizenship. That is the first and main reason which he assigns for his warfare on the
Supreme Court of the United States and its decision. I ask you, are you in favor of conferring upon the Negro the right and privileges of
citizenship? Do you desire to strike out of our State Constitution that clause which keeps slaves and free Negroes out of the State, and
allow the free Negroes to flow in, and cover your prairies with black settlements? Do you desire to turn this beautiful State into a free
Negro colony, in order that when Missouri abolishes slavery she can send one hundred thousand emancipated slaves into Illinois, to
become citizens and voters, on an equality with yourselves? If you desire Negro citizenship, if you desire to allow them to come into the
State and settle with the white man, if you desire them to vote on an equality with yourselves, and to make them eligible to office, to serve
on juries, and to adjudge your rights, then support Mr. Lincoln and the Black Republican party, who are in favor of the citizenship of the
Negro. For me, I am opposed to Negro citizenship in any and every form. I believe this Government was made on the white basis. I believe
it was made by white men and their posterity forever, and I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, men of European birth and
descent, instead of conferring it upon Negroes Indians and other inferior races . . ."
- Lincoln lost the election for Senator in Illinois. But it certainly was not the end of his political career. Two years later, in November 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln
was elected the 16th President of the United States --- an outcome that very soon set in motion the chain of events that ultimately ignited the American Civil
- In response to Lincoln's victory, several Southern states declared their secession from the United States. The secessionists held that each state had the right
to secede from the Union at any time. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first Southern state to divorce itself from the Union by adopting the
first ordinance of secession. Within six weeks, six other slave states in the Deep South followed suit (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana,Mississippi, Texas).
- By the time Lincoln took office as president of the United States in March 3, 1861, the secessionists had already adopted a new constitution in defiance of the
Union and declared their sovereignty as the Confederate States of America (the Confederacy). The Union, however, rejected the legitimacy of the
Confederacy which continued its existence until its collapse by the end of the Civil War.
- The deep belief in the supremacy of the white man once again became crystal-clear in the Cornerstone Speech delivered by Alexander Stephens, Vice-
President of the Confederacy, in Savannah, Georgia on March 21, 1861, less than three weeks after President Lincoln's inauguration. Stephens declared:
"The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution --- African slavery as it
exists amongst us --- the proper status of the Negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and
present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the 'rock upon which the old Union would split.' He was right. What
was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands,
may be doubted . . ."
"Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error . . ."
"Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth,
that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery --- subordination to the superior race --- is his natural and normal condition. This,
our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth . . ."
"They assume that the Negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man . . . They
were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal . . ."
"Our system commits no such violation of nature's laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal
in the eye of the law. Not so with the Negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that
condition which he occupies in our system . . ."
- On April 12, 1861, forty days into Lincoln's presidency, the American Civil War exploded when Confederate forces fired the first shot at a US military
installation at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Thus started a four-year long bloody war that claimed at least 600,000 lives and left hundreds of thousands
- On January 1, 1863, in the midst of war, Abraham Lincoln issued an executive order under his war powers --- The Emancipation Proclamation --- which
proclaimed the freedom of more than 3 million African slaves. To ensure that the Proclamation would not be regarded as a temporary provision since it was
based on his war powers, Lincoln cemented its permanence by passing the Thirteenth Amendment, which officially abolished and prohibited slavery and
- On April 9, 1865, the Civil War ended with a decisive Union victory when Robert E. Lee, top Confederate general, finally surrendered to General Ulysses S.
Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. The collapse of the Confederacy and the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment became the ultimate game
changer that radically transformed the southern way of life and effectively stripped the slaveholders of their prewar aristocracy. With the southern pride
trampled and the former slave states' most valuable assets forever relieved of their back-breaking plantation duties, the next wave of postwar hostilities was
inevitably set in motion.
- On April 14, 1865, five days after General Lee's surrender, John Wilkes Booth, a staunch Confederate sympathizer, shot President Lincoln in the back of the
head. Abraham Lincoln died the following day at the age of 56. He was the first American president to be assassinated.
- Towards the end of 1865, from out of the ashes of the Confederacy, a new order of clandestine and deadly opposition was born. A handful of Confederate
veterans regrouped in Pulaski, Tennessee, and formed a secret society they called the Ku Klux Klan. Historically, the Klan's immediate objective was clear:
restore and reestablish white supremacy and dominance in the South. But this was accomplished through organized acts of violence against the newly freed
slaves and their white Republican supporters. The Klan burned houses, destroyed properties, conducted nighttime terrorist raids and committed murder to
silence its victims --- the perfect way to influence elections and state legislature by running Republicans out of office and intimidating the newly emancipated
blacks from exercising their right to vote.
- During the period of Reconstruction following the Civil War, former Confederate Democrats therefore regained power over time in the southern states. As a
result, laws were imposed at the local and state levels that, although in complete compliance with the Thirteenth Amendment, effectively and systematically
suppressed the socioeconomic, educational, and political advancement of Black Americans.
- Under the so called "Jim Crow laws," mandatory segregation in all public facilities became the name of the game. The problem was, all public facilities
(schools, transportation, accommodations) and services provided to blacks were overtly inferior to those rendered to whites. Hence, although supposedly
operating under the principle of "separate but equal," it was clear that Black Americans got the rotten end of the deal. Literally, they were free. But legally,
they remained bound by state-sanctioned barriers and invisible chains that severely restricted their growth in a white-dominated society. The laws, in essence,
openly permitted legalized discrimination of African-Americans and other people of color --- an oppressive system that persisted for nearly a hundred years.
- It was not until the 1950's when the African-American Civil Rights Movement began to gain traction did things start to turn around. The century-old chains of
discrimination and social injustice had finally snapped as the patience of Black Americans ultimately reached its breaking point. African-American civil rights
organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) helped paved the way. And thus started the long and perilous
journey towards desegregation and integration in the former Confederate states.
"In the field of public education the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal . . ."
- On December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks, an African-American, refused to give up her seat in a public bus to make room for a white
passenger. She was arrested as a result and convicted for disorderly conduct and violation of a local ordinance. The incident inflamed and mobilized the Black
community to organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott under the leadership of a young Baptist minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. With full support of
most of Montgomery's black population, the nonviolent protest lasted for more than a year, severely crippling the bus company's operations and finances. On
November 1956, the court ordered Montgomery's public buses desegregated.
- The victories accomplished by the Civil Rights Movement through non-violent means, however, were challenged with great ferocity by segregationists. For
Black Americans, even federal mandates to put an end to the Jim Crow system did not guarantee a smooth passage. For instance, the Brown v. Board of
Education decision was one thing. Its implementation, however, was a totally different battle.
- In 1957, the NAACP successfully enrolled a group of nine African-American students to attend a previously whites-only high school in Little Rock, Arkansas.
The big day was carefully coordinated so that all nine students would meet at the right place and at the right time. The meeting place, however, was changed the
night prior. Unfortunately, one of the nine students was not informed in time because her family had no telephone. As a result, on the first day of school, the
unthinkable happened. The fifteen year old girl, alone and vulnerable, was confronted not only by an angry, jeering white mob who threatened and harassed
her but also by armed soldiers of the National Guard who were ordered by the Arkansas Governor himself to block the entry of the black students. One can
only imagine the sheer terror that must have gripped the young girl that terrible day as she made her way through the hostile mob. Overcome by emotion, she
broke down and cried as she reached the bus stop. A white reporter who was covering the event sat down beside her and reportedly said, "Don't let them see
you cry." Later, she was helped by another white person board a bus to get away. The Little Rock Nine, as they were called, eventually were able to attend
the high school. But they had to endure physical and emotional abuse from fellow white students on a daily basis. The violence had, in fact, escalated to a point
that then President Dwight D. Eisenhower had to deploy US Army troops to escort the nine black students to school for protection.
- Similar rabid resistance and mob violence erupted during the Freedom Rides of the 1960s, when Civil Rights activists, both blacks and whites, together rode
various forms of transportation in the Deep South to test the Supreme Court ruling that outlawed segregation in public transportation, particularly for
passengers engaged in interstate travel. In one incident that occurred in Birmingham, Alabama in May 1961, a large mob of Ku Klux Klan members surrounded
a bus full of freedom riders as they reached the terminal. Then all hell broke loose. For fifteen minutes, the city's appointed Public Safety Commissioner
purposely allowed the Klansmen to beat the riders black and blue with metal pipes, bars, and bats before the police finally arrived and "intervened." Several
other acts of violence, bombings, and killings had plagued the Civil Rights Movement as it squeezed through the narrow and dangerous path to equal rights and
integration. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself once landed in prison in Birmingham as he continued to push the envelope. But the march continued.
- On August 28, 1963, a hundred years after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, the grueling march for racial equality led the leaders and advocates of the
Civil Rights Movement to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., where King eloquently delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech in
front of more than 200,000 participants. Although not all of the leading black figures at the time agreed with the underlying principle of the rally, the march
had probably facilitated the passage of two historic pieces of legislation.
- On June 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that banned discrimination at the workplace, in schools and in public
accommodations. The following year, he also passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which significantly bolstered the voting power of Black Americans.
- Thus the century-old battle for fundamental rights had finally been won in the chief battlefronts. But the road to the Promised Land was still far ahead. King
pressed on. But his onward march came to an abrupt end when he was gunned down on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 39 years old. Racially
motivated or not, another great leader was felled while in pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.