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America's Struggle in Context

America's Struggle in Context

by Dr. Wilmer J. Leon III,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

With the election of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States, Americans have taken a giant leap forward. It has taken this country 219 years to elect its first African-American president (George Washington was elected in 1789). It is imperative that this historic moment always be viewed within its proper historic context.

Since the United States of America was established with the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, America has been a country in conflict. Americans have struggled to live up to the fundamental precepts upon which America was founded.

"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."

People of color have struggled for their self-evident equality and unalienable rights since the first "20 & Odd" Blacks arrived on the shores of Jamestown, Virginia, in August of 1619. Those individuals were traded and/or sold into servitude for food and other supplies.

As I think about President-elect Obama and this historic event, my thoughts go to Mt. Vernon, Virginia, the home of the first president of the United States of America, George Washington. I wonder what it must have been like to live at Mt. Vernon in the 18th century. Not in Mt. Vernon as George or Martha, but at Mt. Vernon as one of their slaves. I don't think about the owner of Mt. Vernon; I think about the owned.

While the Washingtons lived there, they extracted from those enslaved people, those human beings, every ounce of effort and energy that they could. This allowed the Washingtons and those who looked like them to eat a little more, stay a little warmer, and enjoy themselves just a little bit more. Can the tortured souls of those slaves now rest a little easier with the success of a President-elect Obama?

As I think about President-elect Obama and this historic event, my thoughts go to the Constitution of this country and three specific provisions. First, Article 1, Section 2, which reads:

"Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons."

This was better known as the Three-Fifths Compromise and was the law of the land until it was removed by the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868.

Second, Article 1, Section 9, which reads:

"The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person."

This provision was included in the Constitution as a compromise to the slave-holding states. The logic being, after 21 years the slave population would be sustainable by natural birth rates and the importation of slaves would no longer be necessary.

Third, Article 4, Section 2, which reads:

"No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, But shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due."

This was better known as the Fugitive Slave Clause and was the law of the land until it was removed by the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865.

These constitutional provisions come to mind since they were the legal and conceptual foundations of the oppression that Africans in America, and later African-Americans, have been subjected to since the founding of this nation.

As I think about President-elect Obama's defeat of Senator John McCain and bask in the comfort of this historic event, I must also fear its backlash. History tells us that white supremacy dies hard in America and its proponents will not take America's victory lying down.

I think back to 1908 and Jack Johnson's defeat of Tommy Burns to become the first African-American boxing heavyweight champion of the world. This led to the search for the "Great White Hope," James Jackson Jefferies. Before Johnson fought Jefferies on July 4, 1910, the crowd chanted, "Kill the nigger." Johnson's defeat of Jefferies ignited numerous incidents of white violence against African-Americans. It set off some of the worst racial violence in American history.

As I think about President-elect Obama's victory in these depressed economic times, I reflect upon the Red Summer of 1919. There were 26 separate riots in communities and cities across the United States where African-Americans were the victims of physical attacks. The riots were sparked by postwar tensions of racism, unemployment, inflation and violence by radical political groups. I think about the Tulsa, Oklahoma, Race Riot of 1921; the burning of the Rosewood, Florida, community in 1923 and so much of the racial violence that was unleashed upon African-Americans from 1917 to 1923. America finds itself today in similar circumstances with wars on two fronts, historic housing foreclosures and record job loss.

As I think about President-elect Obama and this historic event, I remember Dr. King, Medgar Evers, President Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X. I reflect upon Emmett Till, Goodman, Schwerner, Chaney; and Carol Robertson, Cynthia Wesler, Addie Mae Collins and Denise McNair, the four little girls who were killed September 15, 1963, when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. All martyrs, who gave their lives as America struggled to live up to the fundamental precepts upon which America was founded. All martyrs, who gave their lives as America struggled to finally elect its first African-American president.

As America celebrates a crowning achievement, the election of its first African-American president in 219 years, it is important to recognize that this did not take place in a vacuum. History is very important. It is a branch of knowledge that records and explains past events. We can not lose site of the history as we celebrate this historic event.

On August 10, 2008, The New York Times published an article by Matt Bai entitled "Is Obama the End of Black Politics?" What a ridiculous question. The popular vote was almost too close to call. In spite of all of the success that America has made in the context of race, Senator Obama ran a deracialized campaign for a reason. There are still miles to go before we sleep.


Dr. Wilmer Leon is the producer/host of the nationally broadcast call-in talk radio program "On With Leon," a regular guest on CNN's "Lou Dobbs Tonight," and a teaching associate in the Department of Political Science at Howard University in Washington, DC. Go to or email:

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