Change in racial attitudes global, local

February 17, 2011 

There's giant poster hanging today in the lobby of the downtown hotel where they are staying that says "Welcome to Anchorage, Duke Ellington Orchestra." What a remarkable shift in American sensibilities such a display represents; what a distance it demonstrates American culture has come. It would have been unthinkable for any business in Anchorage to parade such a sentiment during the World War II years, when Duke Ellington was at his peak of popularity and influence. Back then many establishments along 4th Avenue sported signs that read "No Native Trade Solicited." The U.S armed forces were still segregated, and the Anchorage bars that catered to blacks were clustered along "C" Street between 4th and 5th Avenues. The hotel poster suggests that for Americans born before 1960, the world has changed dramatically.

Another indication the magnitude of that change occurred last Tuesday when, in a gala White House ceremony, President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to John Lewis, Maya Angelou, Sylvia Mendez and Bill Russell, along with President Bush (pere), Angela Merkel, Warren Buffet, Yoyo Ma and seven others. Most Americans now take for granted that race and culture are not and should not be barriers to equal respect, regard and behavior among their fellow citizens, something the citizens who walked Anchorage's streets in the 1940s would find astonishing.

It's appropriate to acknowledge this changed America in the month of the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, for it was Lincoln who set America on the path that we celebrate and take for granted today. The abolition of slavery was not inevitable. The framers of the Constitution compromised on slavery, failing to prohibit it, because they expected it to die out, and fairly quickly. But Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in 1793 soon made cotton a hugely profitable commodity when produced with slave labor, and thus slavery spread rapidly across the new South.

But the Constitution did give Congress jurisdiction over those areas of the U.S. that had not yet been made into states: the territories. And from 1787 Congress had prohibited slavery there, until 1820, when by the Missouri Compromise, Congress allowed slavery in that state and south of it. But in 1854, in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Stephen Douglas, senator from Illinois and presidential aspirant, persuaded Congress potentially to open all the territories to slavery, permitting new states to come into the union with or without it, as their citizens might decide, a process he called "popular sovereignty."

Lincoln would say later that the Kansas-Nebraska Act electrified him and drove him to speak out both regionally and nationally. He was convinced that if allowed to, slavery would ultimately extend throughout the territories, and eventually the whole country, for people would get used to having it around.

But it wasn't just that Lincoln hated slavery; it was also that he loved democracy, and feared deeply for its future. Lincoln believed in the doctrine of the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal in certain fundamental, inalienable rights. Slavery was a stark violation and contradiction of those rights, and a nation that declared its belief in equality but at the same time sanctioned such a violation of it, he knew, must eventually fail. Almost alone among his countrymen, Lincoln embarked on a campaign to end slavery and save democracy. It took the Civil War to achieve that dual end.

How long would slavery have lasted in the United States had secession succeeded? Scholars predictably disagree, but, remembering the Supreme Court's sanction of separate public facilities based on race in 1896, the resegregation of American society at the turn of the 20th century, and the popularity of eugenics before World War II, close to one hundred years is not an unreasonable postulate.

John Lewis, a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960, was beaten horribly during civil rights bus rides and demonstrations. He has represented Atlanta in the U.S. Congress since 1987. When President Obama called him to tell him of his award, Lewis said, he could not resist a tear, of tear of awe and joy. Similarly might the Duke Ellington Orchestra members marvel at the poster in their hotel. How far we have come.


Steve Haycox is a professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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