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A Nation's Gratitude

Many governments have been founded on principles of subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race... [Such] were, and are, in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature's laws. With us, all the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eyes 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.

--Alexander Stephens' "Cornerstone Speech" (1861) (After election, Vice-President, Confederate States)

The history of the United States is one that is rife with Stephens' principles, one that is central to the way the nation is organized, formulated and designed. One may ask, how can you say such a thing, based on an old quote from a Rebel, or a politician who was speaking for the South before the end of the Civil War? When one examines history, for generations after the war, we can see echoes of this same spirit, reflections of the same spirit that animated the warriors of the South.

Were it not for the militant and determined warrior-spirit of Black soldiers, however, there would be no United States of America; for without their martial fervor, their committed enemies who were once their slavemasters would have prevailed in that long and bloody war between the states.

Historian Ronald Takaki explains that over 200,000 African- American soldiers replenished the depleted Union Army, and literally preserved the Union's capability to fight in the Spring of 1862. Lincoln reportedly told his aides, "Without those 200,000 Black troops, the Union could not survive for 3 weeks."

As such, they preserved a state that promptly betrayed them after the war was won. For less than 15 years after the Civil war there was a brief period known as Reconstruction, when political and economic doors were opened to African-Americans. This was seen in the context of a conflict between the Democratic and Republican parties of the period. Democratic politicians ran on the naked platform of white supremacy, seen by French visitor, Georges Clemenceau as based upon the principle that, "Any Democrat who did not manage to hint that the negro is a degenerate gorilla would be considered lacking in enthusiasm" [Clemenceau, American Reconstruction , ed., Fernand Baldensperger, New York (1928)].

General Sherman's Special Field Order #15, which set aside the Sea Islands and a part of the coast south of Charleston, South Carolina, for Black freedmen, was given one year, only to be snatched back the next. From such foul beginnings comes the long memory of Black betrayal that is encapsulated in the phrase, "forty acres and a mule."

Historian Eric Foner, who has written widely on the period:

The events of 1865 and 1866 kindled a deep sense of betrayal among freedmen throughout the South. Land enough existed, wrote former Mississippi slave Merrimon Howard, for every "man and woman to have as much as they could work."

"no land, no house, not so much as place to lay our head.... Despised by the world, hated by the country that gives us birth, denied of all our writs as a people, we were friends on the march....brothers on the battlefield, but in the peaceful pursuits of life it seems that we are strangers."

Long after the end of slavery, the memory of this injustice lingered. "De slaves," a Mississippi black would recall, "spected a heap from freedom dey didn't git.... Dey promised us a mule an' forty acres o' lan'." "Yes sir," agreed a Tennessee freedman, "they should have given us part of Maser's land as us poor old slaves we made what our Masers had." [from Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution: 1863-1877 (New York: Harper, 1988), p. 164]

"Brothers on the battlefield", but in times of peace, "strangers!"

A manifestation of the spirit of betrayal that moved through "race relations" in the century after the War Between the States. The "thank you" that the nation tendered, was a bitter, sharp, slap in the face.

Every time that the nation is endangered, it seeks the support of its least valuable citizen. Isn't that insane?

This history is a lesson for us all. It is a lesson that was not heard during so-called "Black History Month." It is a lesson that should be learned by us all at all times.

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