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GRAY MATTERS: Celebration of Our Union

Posted Jul 03 2010 5:30am

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman ( bio ) writes the weekly Gray Matters column which appears here each Saturday. Links to past Gray Matters columns can be found here . Saul's Reflections column , in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation, also appears at Time Goes By twice each month.


On the occasion of the holiday we celebrate tomorrow, here is a story I wrote in 2008 for another publication. But because there has been such a resurgence of all the forces that sought to weaken or destroy the American union more than 145 years ago under the phony mantra of “states rights,” I thought it worthwhile to repeat the column, with a few changes.

Despite the naysayers and thinly disguised racists who would divide us today, we have a new reason to celebrate this Independence Day. For if you take the long view of history, as I do, you could say that the events on another Fourth of July, in 1863, saved the America that was envisioned by the founders and made possible in our time the presidency Barack Obama.

When that day arrived, decisive Union victories over the Confederacy at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and Vicksburg, Mississippi effectively ended the threat that the United States would be permanently broken in two. And when he spoke at Gettysburg that November, Abraham Lincoln declared that the nation that had been "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal...shall have a new birth of freedom."

The union had been preserved. But with these words at Gettysburg, scholars say that Lincoln, who had been seen as ambiguous on the issue of slavery, became more fully committed to the abolition of slavery, and the unconditional surrender of the Confederacy.

Thus, in 1865, soon after the end of the Civil War, the nation adopted the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, ending and forbidding slavery through the country and its territories. That was followed by the 14th and 15th amendments guaranteeing equal protection of the laws and the rights of citizens, including former slaves, to vote.

These amendments, resisted then and now by segregationists and states' righters, became the basis for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and the civil rights movement which also were part of the history of my generation and the greatest generation.

We forget these generations' part in this great social movement. For blacks, many of whom moved out of the South along with whites, came through the Great Depression and two world wars to become the leaders of that movement on the streets, in the courts and in Congress.

I covered the civil rights movement as a Southern reporter in Houston and followed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he campaigned through the South from Montgomery and Birmingham to Selma, and in Chicago and Washington. In 1960, when presidential candidate John F. Kennedy offered to intercede for King, who was in jail for participating in a lunch-counter sit-in, many black voters deserted the little that remained of Lincoln's Republican Party.

After Kennedy's election, members of the greatest generation in the Congress, led by Kennedy and later Lyndon Johnson and a fine group of postwar legislators, mostly Democrats and a few Republicans, broke through die-hard Southern filibusters to pass civil rights laws that have enforced the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.

Johnson predicted that supporting King and the passage of the civil rights bills would hasten the defection of many Southern whites to the Republicans and that the once-solid South would be lost to Democrats for years. He was right; racism is still alive like the sections of a snake that won’t die.

In 1968, amid the tumult following the murder of King in April and Robert Kennedy in June, the riotous Democratic convention and the demonstrations against the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon won the presidency with the help of a "Southern strategy" based on states' rights and law and order.

Thus, while the Democrats, under Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson, had evolved into the party of blacks as well as white workers favoring social insurance and civil rights, the Republicans of Lincoln, who had waged a war for a strong federal government, had become, under Nixon and his successors, the party of whites and states' rights.

Ronald Reagan underscored his hostility to Washington and his states' rights sentiment when he began his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town where three civil rights workers had been murdered years before when they sought to register blacks to vote.

Despite the Southern Strategy and Republican dominance in much of the Old Confederacy, the civil rights bills and the legacies of Martin Luther King had their effect. Slowly the black vote has grown and together with newer, more enlightened generations of whites, black men and women have won key congressional, city and state elections in the North and South. King's home, Atlanta, has had black mayors.

But every black member of Congress is a Democrat. So are the vast majority of blacks who hold elective office throughout the country. President George W. Bush's failure to provide timely aid to the mostly black victims of Hurricane Katrina seemed to personify, for many critics, another racist facet of the Southern strategy.

Bush was the first president to refuse to meet with the NAACP. His 2004 campaign manager and then Republican chairman Ken Mehlman told the group in 2005 that the "Southern Strategy" was "wrong," because it "benefited from racial polarization."

While all the Republican presidential candidates this year were white, male, conservative and Christian, the Democrats included a Hispanic as well as a woman, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. The winner, Barack Hussein Obama, is heir to all that has come before and he has acknowledged that heritage.

He made his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, on August 28, 45 years to the day after Martin Luther King told the vast throng at the Lincoln Memorial: "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'"

Despite repeated Republican vows that they would reach out to black voters, the opposite has happened. And their Libertarian and Tea Party followers have outdone their confederate forebears in their efforts to undermine the federal union. Indeed, Republicans have probably ended any hope of getting any black votes for a generation with their shameless opposition to virtually every Obama proposal.

From the beginning, the Republicans have sought to destroy an historic presidency. How else to explain their voting record or their loyalty to vicious, lying radio demagogues? Will no Republican have the courage to disagree with them in public?

Consider the blasphemy of radio racist Glenn Beck who intends to hold a rally for white people at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of King’s historic speech. Beck should be excoriated by all decent people, especially Republicans. Their party’s first president would be ashamed of his heirs.

Write to saulfriedman@comcast.net

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