One hundred fifty one years ago, the pivotal battle of the Civil War was fought, as Union soldiers succeeded in holding off Confederate charges on Little Round Top at Gettysburg. If the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment had been overrun by southern troops, the Confederacy may very likely have prevailed in the Civil War, embedding slavery even deeper into the fabric of our country.
I have been thinking about Gettysburg a lot over the past week. Just over a week ago, my 95-year-old father died, after a great and productive life. His great grandfather, Ira Meserve, was a union soldier wounded at Gettysburg, shot through both knees and not discovered until a couple of days later when the dead were being picked up off the field of battle. Ira survived, and our family still has the bullet that brought him down. Ira was one of 46,000 casualties of Gettysburg, including almost 8,000 dead.
President Abraham Lincoln declared, “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”
And yet, when my father was born, the new birth of freedom for black Americans had been turned back by Jim Crow laws, lynchings, withholding of the franchise, and just plain mean discrimination, fear-mongering, and white-on-black violence.
Fast forward to 1964. Fifty years ago Freedom Summer was launched in Mississippi to attempt to register black citizens to vote. This threat of equality was met by terrorism from the white power elite. Four civil rights workers and three Mississippi blacks were killed, 80 Freedom Summer workers were beaten, 1,062 people were arrested, and 67 churches, homes and businesses were bombed or burned.
Freedom Summer was part of the civil rights movement that led us to a new nation, in which racial equality was possible, indeed, the law. But underneath the cover of equality and the seemingly racial blindness of the law, a different reality has emerged. Another layer of disenfranchisement, discrimination and outright kidnapping of democracy has taken place.
Ronald Reagan signaled the start of this new reality when he launched his campaign for the presidency at a county fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, near where civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. Reagan promised to “restore to states and local governments the power that properly belongs to them.” Welcome back, Jim Crow.
But Reagan was more sophisticated than this. He launched the War on Drugs in 1982, when the country was suffering through a recession and needed a scapegoat. Reagan targeted urban areas with large black populations. He increased the budgets of federal law enforcement by over tenfold, while slashing the budgets of agencies focused on drug treatment and prevention by 80 percent.
With a series of Supreme Court decisions, we all lost significant constitutional rights regarding search and seizure, witness coercion and legal representation. With a focus on drugs, but not drugs more habitually used by whites, the United States ramped up its policing. State and federal prisons now hold over 2.2 million people. Another 4 million are on probation. Almost another million are on parole. Altogether, more than 2.5 percent of our country’s total population is ostracized into a second-class caste, stripped of rights and responsibilities, and unable to vote. That includes nearly one out of every 12 blacks.
The Civil War was a battle cry for freedom, not incarceration. And yet, we live in a country in which we deny 6 million Americans the right to vote. In Washington state, 30,000 people are incarcerated, 90,000 are on probation, and 8,000 are on parole. Of these, 53,000 are denied the right to vote.
We like to think that we rehabilitate criminals, but we don’t. We punish them: We force them into a lower caste and deny them the right to vote. As we celebrate our independence, we can draw a line from the Civil War and Gettysburg, to the Civil Rights Movement and on into our own future.
We can create a nation that indeed shall have a new birth of freedom, so we can realize a government of the people, by the people, for the people— including all of the people of our great country. It is our arc of history to make.