Our movement toward equality

Published 8:22 pm Monday, December 30, 2013

By Joseph L. Bass

America strives toward concepts defined in the Declaration of Independence and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The Declaration states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Dr. King stated in 1963, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation in which they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Email newsletter signup

But considering that inequality and slavery have existed for thousands of years in all parts of the world, where did these ideas come from? Exploring the history of their development might help improve our efforts to strive toward them.

A review of history indicates that ideas supporting equality started in England. Prior to 1066, the people of England had a society based on inequality, including chattel slavery like that practiced in the American South prior to the Civil War.

But in 1066, the English were conquered by the French-speaking Normans. The Normans imposed a form of slavery known as serfdom but known in England as villeinage. That is to say the previously free English people were enslaved by their Norman conquerors.

The English, like all people, disliked being enslaved, but it took until the 1600s before the last villein was freed by Queen Elizabeth I. Of course slavery, villeinage, and serfdom in Northern Europe involved enslavement of white people by white people.

For several hundred years afterward, it became acceptable for white Northern Europeans to enslave people of other races, assuming them to be intellectually inferior or sub-human.

But eventually ideas developed in Northern Europe, particularly in England, that all humans should be equally free and have equal opportunities. That is to say ideas developed that there should be no slavery and all people should be full citizens of their nation without regard to race.

The 13 original American colonies were divided on the matter of slavery. Some colonies, particularly those in the North, organized behind the principle that all people should be free and equal. But other colonies, particularly those in the South, followed the practice of allowing a few people to control the creation and consumption of wealth based on the enslavement of many others who did all the work.

This division of ideas eventually led to the American Abolition Movement and the ongoing struggle to achieve a reality that reflects the Declaration’s words and Dr. King’s dream.

During our Civil War hundreds of thousands of mostly white people fought against each other over the new and old concepts of society. More than 600,000 died. Following the Civil War, progress was made with the enactment of the 13th (no slavery), 14th (equal rights), and the 15th (all get to vote) constitutional amendments.

But the struggle continued through the Jim Crow era, with real progress coming in the 1950s with the civil rights movement, during which Dr. King spoke his famous words. The struggle continues today into the 21st century.

Exploring the history of the concepts found in the Declaration of Independence and Dr. King’s speech might help improve our efforts to strive toward them. Unfortunately many are not familiar with this history. Hopefully these words will help with understanding and better enable Americans in our efforts to achieve a reality that reflect the words.

Joseph L. Bass is the executive director of ABetterSociety.Info Inc., a nonprofit organization in Hobson. Email him at ABetterSociety1@aol.com.