June 19

“Black lives matter” is a rallying cry now because, for much of our nation’s history, Black lives did not matter at all.

IN 1776, there were 2.5 million people living in the 13 colonies. Of that 2.5 million, half a million were Black—a fifth of the total population. One in five Americans were Black when the slaveholder Thomas Jefferson wrote these famous lines in the Declaration of Independence: “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.” The white man who penned that high-minded sentence, and whose visage adorns our money, personally owned some 600 human beings.

In 1789, there were 3.8 million people living in the 13 United States. Of that 3.8 million, 750,000 were Black—a fifth of the total population. About one in five Americans were Black when the slaveholder James Madison’s “Three-Fifths Compromise,” which counted just three out of every five slaves as people, was enshrined in Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution. The white man who made that proposal, and whom my hometown is named after, personally owned over 100 human beings.

In 1831, there were 13 million people living in the 24 United States. Of that 13 million, 2.4 million were Black—18% of the total population. About one in five Americans were Black when Nat Turner, an enslaved Black man living in the slave state of Virginia, led a rebellion against the white slaveholders and their men. Fifty white people died in the uprising, which took two days to put down. In retaliation, white mobs slaughtered some 170 Black men and women, including Turner, who was hung for pursuing his own liberty.

In 1860, there were 31.4 million people living in the 33 United States. Of that 31.4 million, 4.5 million were Black—14% of the total population. Four million of that number were slaves. About one in six Americans were Black when the Southern states seceded from the Union rather than give up the “right” to own slaves. Some three quarters of a million soldiers died during the Civil War—the equivalent of 7 million people relative to today’s population. The war was started by, and exacerbated by, white slaveholders—although the majority of Southern men did not own slaves.

In 1896, there were 73 million people living in the 45 United States. Of that 73 million, 8 million were Black—11% of the total population. About one in ten Americans were Black when the Supreme Court ruled that Louisiana’s Separate Car Act of 1890 was constitutional, and that Homer Plessy, seven of whose eight great-grandparents were white, was fully Black in the eyes of the nuance-free law, and thus had no legal right to sit in the “whites only” section of the train. Plessy v. Ferguson established the “separate but equal” doctrine, which gave rise to the Jim Crow laws that made racism the law of the land for the next six-plus decades.

In 1921, there were 106 million people living in the 48 United States. Of that 106 million, 11 million were Black—10% of the total population. About one in ten Americans were Black when hateful white racists in Tulsa, Oklahoma perpetrated what historians call “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” laying waste to 35 square blocks of “Black Wall Street,” and slaughtering Black residents.

In 1947, there were 149 million people living in the 48 United States. Of that 149 million, 14 million were Black—10% of the total population. About one in ten Americans were Black when Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers broke the color barrier in major league baseball. A year later, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, abolishing discrimination by race in the U.S. armed forces.

In 1954, there were 160 million people living in the 48 United States. Of that 160 million, 17 million were Black—10% of the total population. About one in ten Americans were Black when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

From 1963-1968, there were 200 million people living in the 50 United States. Of that 200 million, 20 million were Black—10% of the total population. About one in ten Americans were Black when civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated, in 1963; when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, outlawing racial discrimination in the federal government; when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, outlawing racial discrimination in voting; when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, outlawing racial discrimination in the federal government; when Loving v. Virginia was decided in 1967, declaring prohibitions on interracial marriage unlawful; when the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was passed, outlawing racial discrimination in housing and banking; and when the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, in 1968.

In 2008, there were 300 million people living in the 50 United States. Of that 300 million, 36 million were Black—12% of the total population. About one in nine Americans were Black when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States—a historic milestone that, according to Confederacy apologist Mitch McConnell, helped the country “deal” with “the sin of slavery.”


I have presented the information this way to underscore several points.

First, African-Americans have always, since the birth of the nation, comprised a significant percentage of the overall population—far more than the history textbooks of my youth let on. “Black lives matter” is a rallying cry now because, for most of our country’s history, Black lives did not matter at all. Three slaves out of five counted as people when the nation was born; two Black lives out of five literally did not matter in the Constitution!

Second, contrary to what McConnell and his ilk believe, it is not just the “sin of slavery.” That was the original sin, yes. But decades and decades of Jim Crow, of separate but equal, of voter suppression, of Confederate flags and statues and “heritage,” have not eradicated racism, but rather institutionalized it. To wit: earlier this month, voting on an anti-lynching bill was stymied by a single U.S. Senator—a white man from the South who was credibly accused of being the agent of a hostile foreign power on the floor of that same Senate a few years back. That the President of the United States, an inveterate racist who among a lifetime of racist acts repeatedly called for the execution of the Central Park Five, chose, quite deliberately, to hold tomorrow’s day-after-Juneteenth MAGA hate-rally in Tulsa, of all places, shows just how alive and well racism is in this country.

And, finally, look at the dates again. This is all so recent. Shamefully, disgracefully, incomprehensibly, unconscionably recent.


Image: mid-19th century woodcut showing the Nat Turner rebellion, from the book Authentic and Impartial Narrative of the Tragical Scene Which Was Witnessed in Southampton County

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