Abraham Lincoln’s 2nd inaugural address is among the greatest speeches in recorded human history. Please indulge me, and study the following passage from that speech, delivered on March 4, 1865, just weeks before Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.
“Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”
This is Lincoln talking about America’s original sin, the sin of slavery.
Think about it. Black Africans were brought to these shores in 1619, and from that year until 1865 Black Africans were treated as property. They were treated the same as a cotton crop, or an item of furniture, or a tea cup. If the owner of said property saw fit to chop off the toes of one such item of property because he or she tried to escape to freedom, well, them’s your property rights.
The quoted passage from Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural address equated the blood and treasure lost in the Civil War as the price of the sin of slavery. It also proved prophetic for the next 155 years. Yes, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22, 1863, and the Civil War ended for good in June 1865. But in 1877 the federal government gave up on post-war Reconstruction; President Rutherford Hayes took office and all Union troops decamped from the South. Jim Crow and the KKK took their place and stood in power until 1964. Read this again. It took a century for the country to deliver on its promise of the victory in the Civil War. A century. One hundred years! And even then, 56 more years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, George Floyd can still have his life snuffed out in 8 minutes and 46 seconds under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer who did not even care he was being recorded on video by a teenaged bystander.
If I may paraphrase, Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural means that whatever crap we have sown in terms of race relations from 1619 to 1865, from 1865 to 1964, and from 1964 to 2020, the reaping of that crap is the righteous judgment of a higher power. The Declaration of Independence emphatically proclaims that all people are created equal, and by my lights the Declaration of Independence is the bedrock foundational document of the United States of America. The Constitution is a fine document, but a founding document that sanctions the three-fifths clause, that a black person is equal to three-fifths of a white person, is inherently flawed. Good thing that the Founders included in the Constitution a method to amend the damn thing.
Now I am not suggesting that a Constitutional Amendment is called for right now. Less drastic remedies should suffice. Among these remedies is the de-militarization of police agencies across the board; local, state, and federal. In my work as a criminal defense attorney I have reviewed many, many body-cam videos, police reports, and suspect interrogations. It is disconcerting to hear law enforcement officers refer to criminal suspects not by name but as “threats,” or “targets,” or worse. They are not treated as individuals; they are treated as dehumanized abstractions. Criminal suspects are by definition persons suspected of criminal activity, but before that they are American citizens, they are someone’s son or daughter, they are human beings worthy of the basic dignity of the right to life. And sometimes suspects are wrongly suspected, but if they are first seen as threats or targets, this fundamental distinction gets lost in the heat of the militarized moment, and an innocent may be injured or killed as a result of this attitude.
As for local remedies, I strongly support the mandatory use of body-cams for all officers of the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Manny Gonzales opposes body-cams because it would be a distraction, or it would not necessarily increase transparency or improve safety, or some other word salad justification. Hogwash. To be able to see what a BCSO deputy does in the course of his or her job, as opposed to not being able to see what a BCSO deputy does in the course of his or her job, is the textbook definition of increased transparency. Sheriff Gonzales is on the wrong side of this issue, especially in a time when the exercise of police authority is the subject of legitimate debate. He is a Democrat, but in this instance my party loyalty breaks. If the Sheriff’s next opponent is a Republican, a Libertarian, or a member of the Flying Spaghetti Monster Party, I will vote for his opponent if that opponent supports the mandatory use of body-cams. This issue, to me, is that important.
Please indulge me again, and return to Uncle Abe’s 2nd Inaugural:
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
This was in 1865, and now in 2020, a call to live by the better angels of our nature. I cannot describe exactly how I am going to go about doing this, and I cannot promise to get it right all the time, but I will try.
Darrell M. Allen is an employment and criminal defense attorney. He lives with two nice Republican ladies north of I-40, where they run two head each of dog and cat.