This past Saturday, June 19, was Juneteenth, an important day for Black Americans and one that all Americans should be excited about. It was on June 19, 1865, following the end of the Civil War, that Union troops reached Galveston, Texas, and informed enslaved Black Americans that they were free.
These were the last people held in slavery in the former Confederate States of America. President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, but it took more than two-and-a-half years for all enslaved Americans to become free.
On Dec. 6, 1865, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, outlawing slavery forever in the United States. It looked like the nation was ready to try to live up to the words of 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.”
Of course, it didn’t work out that way. White Southerners used a variety of means, legal and illegal, to reassert their authority. They used terrorism and murder to silence the Black population. If a Black person or family had something they wanted, they just took it. They kept Black Americans from voting through restrictive laws. Many Blacks were denied the right to own property, and sharecropping was almost like slavery. They even brought back a form of slavery through “Black Laws.” These laws set impossibly high bails for minor infractions, keeping Black men in county jails. Their labor was sold to the highest bidder. “Policing for profit” is nothing new.
Have you ever wondered what the real reason was for slavery and white supremacy in this country? I know long academic papers have been written on the subject, but I will summarize it for you in just one simple word: greed.
That’s right. Greed. G-R-E-E-D. Greed.
Despite what Michael Douglas’s character said in “Wall Street,” greed is not good. Greed exploits. Greed destroys for the many to benefit the few. Greed even kills.
Greed is what motivated slavery in the first place. They wanted a cheap labor force. The cheapest laborer is one you can claim is your property. Americans didn’t invent slavery. It’s been around almost since the world began. It has been and always will be driven by greed.
White supremacy grew out of the need to justify greed. It’s far easier to exploit and harm others if you think they’re inferior to you. Why, those people are only good for manual labor. They’re like animals. We can use that land and resources better than those natives can, so we’ll just take it.
I recall a quote from Will Rogers, who was of Cherokee descent. He noted how Oklahoma Territory was supposed to be set aside for Native Americans “as long as the corn growed and the water flowed.”
Then, oil was discovered in Oklahoma.
“It was supposed to be for as long as the corn growed and the water flowed, but nobody said anything about oil,” Rogers said.
White supremacy took on a life of its own. In one memorable incident in 1943, white women who worked at the Packard plant in Detroit objected to Black women using the same restrooms. They claimed the Black women thought they were as good as they were.
In so many racial disturbances of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, greed and the white supremacy that grew from it were coupled with the evil twin of greed: envy. It angered many whites to see these people they considered inferior doing so well. That was the motivation of the Wilmington, N.C. coup of 1898 and the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. If those people were doing so well, why, they’d teach them a lesson and go in and take what they had. What they couldn’t take, they’d destroy.
This attitude carried on into more recent times. “Urban Renewal” projects and freeways in the 1950s and ‘60s nearly always destroyed Black neighborhoods. Black residents lost their homes, and Black-owned businesses were forced to close. These projects nearly always put money in the pockets of big business at the expense of Black Americans.
It wasn’t really until the 1950s and ‘60s that these attitudes towards Black Americans began to change. There was a growing awareness among whites that Black Americans were every bit as human as they were, and they had been wronged.
So, where do we go from here? Obviously, we need to recognize the damage white greed has done. We can’t change the past, but perhaps the effects can be mitigated to some extent. It’s certainly worth the effort.
Moving forward, we need to always bear in mind that all people matter. The reason we see Black Lives Matter now is because it seemed like, for the longest time in America, black lives didn’t matter. As we’ve seen, this can be traced back to greed.
We need to look at everything to make sure little or no harm is done. All voices need to be considered. People have the right to make money, for sure. But it shouldn’t come by causing pain for others. We must lift everyone up. We can do this only if we respect and care for each other.
Moving forward, maybe we can do some things we’ve done wrong right for a change.