Healing America’s Narratives: Slavery, Civil Rights, and Whose Lives Matter

[Part of a series, this essay is adapted from Chapter Five of Healing America’s Narratives: the Feminine, the Masculine, & Our Collective National Shadow (October 2022)]

In the conventional history of the United States, we tend not to hear or read too much about the actual moments of invasion of African communities, the violent kidnappings, the wretched conditions for those who made it onto the ships, the watery graves of those who died in transport, the felt experience of any one of these human beings amid those unimaginable episodes, and the many subsequent episodes of being bought and sold and charged with forced, unpaid, backbreaking daily labor. That sentence itself does a feeble job of capturing the enormity of the horror inherent in these acts.

Amid our current cacophony of divisive voices screaming at each other through often narrow, partial views regarding race, racism, antiracism, critical race theory, and whose lives matter, it’s essential to remember how we got where we seem to be and to consider where we may be going from here.

Remember that, in order to convince slave state planter-politicians to sign what would become the U.S. Constitution — providing them with additional seats in the House of Representatives and additional electoral votes in presidential elections based on the number of enslaved humans they owned — the “three-fifths compromise” effectively valued each enslaved person as three-fifths of a human being. These individuals, who had been torn from their homes and their families, were deemed to be worth 60% of a full human being for tax and representation (of their owners) purposes. Without slave labor, wealthy plantation owners and politicians would not have fared as well as they did — if fare well they would have at all.

Remember that the Emancipation Proclamations in 1862 and 1863 announced but could not enforce the freedom of formerly enslaved people.

Remember that the 13th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, which made slavery unlawful in 1865, was followed almost immediately by the formation of the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski, Tennessee, and remember that the U. S. was among the last of the slave-trading and slave-owning countries to ban both trading and owning enslaved human beings.¹

Remember that the 14th Amendment in 1868 guaranteed citizenship to any person born or naturalized in the United States, prevented any state from depriving citizens of life, liberty, or property without due process and from denying any citizen equal protection of the laws. Notice and remember that 150-plus years later, our nation still struggles to manifest this particular destiny of equality.

Remember that the 15th Amendment in 1870, which granted formerly enslaved males the right to vote, was followed by decades of lynchings, beatings, local Jim Crow policies, and Black Code laws, especially in the South. Remember that such abominations prevented U.S. citizens from exercising their right to vote (and other rights) — through threats and violence, convict leasing, and low level bureaucracy that included “testing” that no white man, including the testers themselves, had to endure or could have passed as a prerequisite to voting.²

Consider that, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, between 1877 and 1950 some 4,425 lynchings of blacks by whites occurred in the United States.³ In the previous twelve years — euphemistically referred to as Reconstruction, an additional 2,000 lynchings took place, including thirty-four mass lynchings.⁴ Historically, lynchings have included beatings, burnings, shootings, stabbings, hangings, and other torture, sometimes in combination, and were often announced in advance in local newspapers and on posters, and attended by hundreds and sometimes thousands of white spectators, including children.

Fast forward to the third decade of the twenty-first century and one disturbing observation (among many): it’s a step in the right direction that a white police officer, Derrick Chauvin, was found guilty of murdering George Floyd, who was black, and that Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, and William Bryan, all of whom are white, were found guilty of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a black man. Had these two murders been the first of their kind — outside any historical context — they would warrant our outrage and grief. That they occurred in the historical context of two-hundred-plus years of American proclamation, declaration, legislation, and opinion regarding discrimination is the catalyst for tens of thousands of individuals gathering and grieving in public, and not just in the United States, in the name of equal protection and justice.

Yes, we have made progress as a nation, and we still have much work to do. Both are true. For an expansion of this essay that includes a more detailed look at race in the U.S. military, critical race theory, and antiracism in the context of collective Shadow, see Chapter Five in Healing America’s Narratives.


  1. For a list of countries and the dates they ended slave-trading and (usually subsequently) slave-owning, see: https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-slavery/chronology-who-banned-slavery-when-idUSL1561464920070322
    For an overview/timeline of slavery and civil rights in the U.S.
    see https://www.ushistory.org/more/timeline.htm
  2. Ferris State University provides examples of literacy tests from Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. See if you can pass:
    Alabama: https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/pdfs-docs/origins/al_literacy.pdf
    Louisiana: https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/question/2012/pdfs-docs/literacytest.pdf
    Mississippi: https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/pdfs-docs/origins/ms-littest55.pdf
  3. Equal Justice Initiative, Lynching in America, 39–47. These pages provide statistics along with some narrative. The volume’s 90 pages provide a searing look into its title and is also available online: https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report/
  4. Equal Justice Initiative, Reconstruction in America, 6–7, 40–55. As with all of EJI’s publications, these pages are representative; the volume warrants a full reading. Also online: https://eji.org/report/reconstruction-in-america/https://eji.org/report/reconstruction-in-america/

Published by Reggie Marra


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