Since the 1970s, Black History Month has been a time to focus on some of the highlights of the black experience in America. In 2009, Jonathan Bean put together a wonderful book recounting the vital role liberty played in the American black experience. In Race and Liberty In America: The Essential Reader, Bean demonstrates that from the Declaration of Independence to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision banning school assignment by race, classical liberalism differs from progressive liberalism in emphasizing freedom, Christianity, the racial neutrality of the Constitution, racial solidarity, and free enterprise. Bean recalls rich history.
For example, James Forten (1776-1842), a free black who fought in the revolutionary war became a wealth sailmaker in Philadelphia reflecting on the importance of liberty in a 1813 petition to the Pennsylvania state legislature that would have deprived free blacks of basic rights. Forten was deeply concerned about maintaining the rule of law:
We hold this truth to be self-evident, that God created all men equal, and [it] is one of the most prominent features in the Declaration of Independence, and in that glorious fabrick of collected wisdom, our noble Constitution. This idea embraces the Indian and the European, the Savage and the Saint, the Peruvian and the Laplander, the white Man and the African, and whatever measures are adopted subversive of this inestimable privilege, are in direct violation of the letter and spirit of our Constitution. . .
Where shall the poor African look for protection, should the people of Pennsylvania consent to oppress him. Many of our fathers, many of ourselves, have fought and bled for the Independence of our country…Let not the spirit of the father behold the son robbed of that Liberty which he died to establish, but let the motto of our legislators be: “The Law knows no distinction. . .”
Forten’s emphasis on equality under the law has been a key theme in the black struggle for justice since slavery. Black religious, political, and business leaders would do well by our communities if we re-captured an emphasis on making sure the law displayed no distinction between people on the basis of race. The rule of law, as it has been in the past, is one the key components of black Liberty in the American experience. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the rule of law was traded-off for the rule of the surrogate decision-making of the elite. As a result, the black underclasses have been trapped in cycles of dependence ever since and remain trapped in many ways. Throughout the month of February, I’ll be recalling some these principles in the black experience as a reminder of what needs to be re-appropriated as the Obama Administration moves forward in policy making in the years to come.