Archive for the ‘Segregation’ Category

RePrint: Lincoln, Language and Liberty

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

The following is a reprint of a blog by my Harvard friend John Barrell. Visit his Blog at

Go see “Lincoln.”

You will view superb actors bringing to life one of the most monumental struggles in American history–that concerning the abolition of slavery.
Daniel Day-Lewis exemplifies the almost severe gravity of having to lead a country during the worst war in our history–a civil war– all the while showing his humanity in the prosecution thereof.
Sally Field, according to an NPR interview with Bob Edwards, noted that during the filming all major characters stayed within character during the entire shoot.  And she is heart-wrenching at times fighting for the life of her oldest child, Robert.
A real surprise is James Spader, unrecognizable from “Boston Legal,” as the head lobbyist, the one who dashes from the House of Representatives floor to the White House with a most consequential note to the President during the day of the vote.  We surely see how lobbying became the all-entrenched force it is today on K Street with votes back in 1865 being bought, and needed Democratic (!) supporters being bribed for a good cause.
But the character that stands out in my mind is one Thaddeus Stevens, he a congressman and long-time abolitionist, played superbly by Tommy Lee Jones.  Stevens had long advocated full rights for Negroes prior to the vote, but on that date i Lincoln needed him to be full-throated in his advocacy of equal rights under existing law.  Almost to deny that he advocated that ultimately blacks would have the right to vote as citizens.  Remember that privilege was reserved at the time for white men.
In a most dramatic moment you can see Stevens mulling over the conflict in his mind–between full rights as citizens or only those within current law.  His final pronouncement leads to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment by Congress and, subsequently, ratification by three quarters of the states.
Upon reflection I am struck by  the overwhelming power of language in our country to guarantee, or to secure for generations, the liberty so necessary for the welfare of the country, for the preservation of the union.
The Thirteenth Amendment reads, in part, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Here we see the power of language for what did “slavery” and “involuntary servitude” mean in 1865?  Surely they referred to the condition experienced by those brought unwillingly to our shores, many of whom fought during this conflict.
But today do these words have any bearing on us, as citizens, as educators?
You might be as surprised as I was to learn that in 1996 a high school student in Rye Neck School District (NY) filed suit claiming that the school’s requirement to perform 40 hours of community service constituted “involuntary servitude.”  The plaintiff also claimed, using the Fourteenth Amendment, that such service violated his parents’ right to educate him in accordance with their own philosophy and priorities.
How would you have ruled on that decision? (
Notice also how many famous Supreme Court cases come down to interpretations of language:  “separate but equal. . . corporation/person. . . speech. . . regulate interstate commerce. . .the right to bear arms. . .to  peaceably assemble. . .the establishment of religion” and so on.
What Thaddeus Stevens could not articulate in order to get the amendment through the House was his very strong belief in the rights of  all men to vote and to establish relationships of their choosing.
Notice that in our last election how that right to vote was challenged in many states with laws requiring voter identification and other means.  In other words, we cannot take our liberties for granted.
What Lincoln, Stevens and the others portrayed in this film is the sometimes sausage-making process necessary to pursue lofty ideals, the right of all men and women to live lives of self-determination toward the pursuit of happiness.
Tommy Lee Jones said about his role:  “Politics and government was conducted with language through oratory. People had to speak their minds rather than insinuate them.”
Language matters deeply and we see it during election cycles when words are carelessly and mindlessly hurled around and toward various candidates in order to persuade, often words or claims without any basis in fact whatsoever.
Words matter as they affect people’s well-being and, perhaps, their survival.
Go see the movie.


Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

Segregated schools, segregated churches, segregated doctors’ offices–we all knew our place. Mammy Lee never prepared me for the world that I had to enter once I left the placenta-like fairyland she had created for me within my home. Lee never warned me that I would sing, “Jesus loves the little children,” in my fourth-grade Sunday School class. “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. . . ” The words still painfully lurk in my memory. Where was this world of which I so enthusiastically sang?! Lee never told me that I would wipe the steam from my school-bus window and see tattered black children standing with their tattered books — some of which I had discarded only the year before. As I peered into their consuming brown eyes, I felt a part of me die, I felt my innocence departing. I felt myself being drawn into this madness called racial anger . . . And it was clear to this ten year old that all the adults around me were very angry. Poor Mammy Lee could no longer solve all my problems with Vick’s rub and caster oil.

I heard about my first lynching from Lee. An African American had been beaten nearly to death on the old Red Fork Road by the Klan. No one really knew why. It no doubt frightened her. It terrified me because it frightened her.

But she tried. “Hush little Jimbo, don’t yo’ cry,” I can still hear Mammy’s husky voice whisper, “Mammy’s gonna love yo’ ’til I die. All yo’r troubles will soon be over.” But they were not over, they had just begun. Like an unfaithful mistress, the land I loved was betraying me.

Lee’s departure during my eighth year irreparably damaged me. I still feel the pain. It was like losing a parent. My parents told me that they could no longer afford her but that was small compensation to a child whose most frequent semblance of love and order lay in the countenance of an overweight woman of color.