Thursday, February 5, 2009



4th February, 2009

By Peter Mulira

THE jubilant scenes of people of all races seenon January 20 at the inauguration of President Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States climaxed the long struggle by Black people in that country to gain equality with other races.

Black people were taken to America as slaves in the 15th and 16th centuries. Although slavery had existed since the Greek and Roman times, the new slavery which developed with Europe’s expansion led to the encounter of Europeans with men and women so different in appearance and culture which ruled out the possibility of the new arrivals being accepted as equals.

At that time, civilisation was regarded as the preserve of Christians and since the African slaves were not Christians, they were regarded as ‘heathens’. Racial distinctiveness became the principle characteristic of slavery at its onset in the new world.

The new slave trade was led by British mercantile traders who first supplied their captives to Barbados in the West Indies to work as gang labourers in sugar plantations before they turned to Virginia on mainland America.

Hitherto, Virginia had been employing indentured Europeans on its plantations with terms and conditions set out in contracts. Such workers were entitled to appeal to courts if they considered their rights abused.

African slaves on the other hand had no contracts and and their descendants were obliged to work for life and could be sold, punished or used as collateral.
Things started to change in the age of enlightment that brought with it new thinking about slavery.

Paintings and poems about the suffering slaves stirred many peoples’ consciences. At the same time in America many people started to see the practice as being at odds with democracy and the new political order which claimed its legitimacy from freedom and equality.

Americans who fought to free themselves of the chains of tyranny of the English king could not afford to be seen to keep Africans in the chains of slavery but the Southerners naturally resisted any change in the slaves’ status as they saw its economic survival in slavery.

At the Continental Congress which drew up the declaration of independence in 1787 a compromise was reached to let each state decide whether to allow slavery.

Even before the declaration, opposition to slavery was building up but the real anti-slavery movement started in earnest in the north in 1815 by men and women of the Quaker faith.

Later the American Colonisation Society was formed by a group of White Virginians with the aim of resettling slaves back in Africa and 150,000 of them were resettled in what is now Liberia.

This was followed by various other anti-slavery societies which organised the escape of slaves from the south to the north through what came to be known as the Underground Railroad and by the 1880 slavery had ended in the north.

But in between, the issue found its way to the Supreme Court in the case of Dred Scott in which the court decided that Scott, a Black slave who had for a time lived in a free state was not a citizen and as such was not entitled to file a suit in court.

Further, the court held that a slave was property and that the constitution prohibited taking away property from the owner without due process of the law.

From the courts the struggle now turned to the political arena in the election of 1860 in which an anti-slavery candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected President.

The election of Lincoln effectively resulted in the secession of seven southern states from the union.

Determined to go it alone, the south turned to arms and on April 12, 1861 the American civil war started between states which wanted to maintain slavery and those who opposed it.

The war ended four years later on April 12, 1865 in victory for the anti-slavery states.

This was followed by the period of reconstruction during which Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, 1875, which provided equal public accommodations for Blacks.

Unfortunately this Act was struck out by the Supreme Court in the first of its pro-segregation decisions when it decreed that the constitution protected only citizens which excluded slaves.

In line with its philosophy in the earlier case, the Supreme Court put its seal of approval on racial segregation when it decided that the law of the state of Louisiana which provided for separate but equal facilities for Blacks and Whites was constitutional.

This position continued for 58 years until 1954 when the Supreme Court this time decided in the case of Bown v The Board of Education that the doctrine of separate but equal was unconstitutional.

Brown’s case helped to turn the struggle for equality away from courts of law which had been preferred by the National Organisation for the Advancement of Coloured People, the premier organisation for the fight for black equality to positive action.

Non-violent positive action which had been influenced by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi started with four black students who demanded to be served in a restaurant in Greensboro, North Carolina.

When they were refused service they staged sit-in demonstrations which were joined by other students both black and white. These sit-ins proved successful and ended in hundreds of restaurants in seven states opening service to blacks.

Greensboro was followed by the famous case of Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white in Montegomery, Alabama.

She was arrested and fined $10. Her case led to a bus boycott organised by 27-year-old Martin Luther King which was so successful that it catapulted King into a national icon.

In 1963, King organised demonstrations against segregation in industrial Birmingham, Alabama.

The scenes of police brutality against the demonstrators shocked the nation and the world. Later that year King led a freedom march on Washington where he delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech.

This led to the Civil Rights Act, 1965, which enabled registration of black voters to increase. After King’s assassination, the civil rights movement veered towards leftists like Stokely Carmichael and Malcom “X” before it returned to leaders who wanted changes through the system and not outside it but not before ugly scenes of riotings in cities.

By 1988, the tide had turned somewhat. The Rev. Jesse Jackson emerged as a serious contender for the Democratic Party nomination as its presidential candidate.

In 1995 Colin Powell became the favourite choice for President by both whites and blacks and although he declined the honour, he brought the struggle for equality close to an end which the election of President Obama has completed, at least as far as the highest office in the land is concerned.