With great thanks to Ruth and Alfred Blumrosen (the authors of Slave Nation, Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2005) for this juxtaposition of quotes 176 years apart, from the unlikely sources of Franklin and Johnson, pursuing the same dream for America, that of colorblind freedom and equality for every American under the rule of law. We recall that Franklin during his long life ran the gamut from slave owner and occasional slave trader (through his printshop in Philadelphia) to ardent abolitionist (fulfilling the promise he made before the Revolution to John Fothergill, his personal physician, and David Barclay, one of the most heavily invested private sources for funding the Revolution) in the five final years of his life.
In 1789, after the ratification of the Constitution, Franklin wrote:
“Slavery is such an atrocious debasement of human nature that its very extirpation, if not performed with solicitous care, may sometimes open a source of serious evils…. To instruct, to advise, to qualify those who have been restored to freedom, for the exercise and enjoyment of civil liberty, to promote in them habits of industry, to furnish them with employment suited to their age, sex, talents, and other circumstances, and to procure their children an education calculated for their future situation in life, these are the great outlines of the annexed plan.”
Franklin’s “plan” arose from the Philadelphia Abolitionist Society, of which he was president at that time, and called for 1) a committee to assist with advice, instruction, and protection from wrongs to all former slaves, concern for their morals, and other “friendly services,” 2) a committee of guardians to facilitate education and vocational training for children and young adults, 3) a committee on education to encourage the children to attend “the schools already established in [Philadelphia], or form others with this view,” and 4) a committee of employment who “shall endeavour to procure constant employment” for laborers and to help them become apprentices in the skilled trades and also “assist in [establishing] businesses, [for those who] appear to be qualified for it.” This plan would be another 175 years in the making, and it would not be until the root basis of the plan, at the federal level, would finally become law in the Civil Right Act of 1964. That comprehensive law would be pushed through Congress by President Lyndon Baines Johnson of Texas as part of the most extensive positive effort to achieve rights for all Americans in the second half of the 20th century.
The following year, Johnson would address the students of Howard University in Washington, D.C.:
“Freedom is the right to share, share fully and equally, in American society—to vote, to hold a job, to enter a public place, to go to school…. But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: now you are fee to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please. You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring up to the starting line of a race, and then say, “You are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.
“Thus, it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates…. We seek not freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”
And even then, 176 years later, the challenge was only just begun, and fully 14 years later, the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court of the United States would write:
“As a nation we aspire to ensure that equality defines all citizens’ daily experience and opportunities as well as the protection afforded to them under the law.” [emphasis added]
Now 230 years after Franklin’s challenge to a nation we continue to reflect and to realize how far we have, as a nation, still to go to achieve the 1789 vision of the American abolitionists, and how much damage has been done to the moral fabric of a nation by 400 years of institutionalized hatred of a people for no other crime than the pigmentation of their skin. And so now we as a nation are called to do nothing further for the moment than to stop, sit down, and listen, truly listen, for the first time in 400 years. Listen to the grievances of a people oppressed, listen to their educated and informed ideas on resolution, and act accordingly. Stop talking, White people, please stop talking, and just listen.