MICHAEL DOYLE’S MONTHLY LETTER
For years now Michael Doyle has written a letter each month and mailed it to friends from around the world. What follows is a sample letter. If you would like to get on the mailing list just send us you name and address.
“I Am the Dream and the Hope of the Slave”
I looked at a house a few days ago. Nine-forty, Newton Avenue. Boarded, like thousands of others in Camden, New Jersey, it is no longer brightened by morning light or human breath or any sacred moment of life. Once upon a time the air in it eased away to make room for Martin Luther King, Jr., getting a break from Crozier Seminary across the river in Chester, Pennsylvania. And the same air rushed eagerly back with the makings of his words. Sonorous and magnificent as they always were.
Places and times are very important to me because of the human mark that is almost always on them. Someday I will visit Atlanta, Georgia where he rests and Memphis where he was murdered on April 4, 1968.
Last week I made a special trip to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to visit the grave of Thaddeus Stevens who was born on that day April 4, 1792. My visit was the fulfillment of a promise I made to myself many years ago, after reading an article on him. “He had greatly influenced Abraham Lincoln in his emancipation of the slaves,” I learned. “I am,” said Lincoln on April 4 (that date again), 1864, “naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.” Stevens had been pressing the issue long before that. I had never heard of him. Sometimes I am very much aware that I am a foreigner under these “beautiful and spacious skies.”
Anyway, I found the small cemetery at the corner of Mulberry and Chestnut Streets and etched in the biggest stone there, the name Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868). On it too, his epitaph: “I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not having any natural preference for solitude; but finding other cemeteries limited as to races by charter rules, I have chosen this that I might illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life, equality of man before the Creator.” Not a “secluded spot” anymore. Automobiles and pedestrians were moving on three sides of it. The “beautiful noise” of children getting out of school was on the fourth side. On a shortcut graveled path in the cemetery, that runs past his tomb, three children walked happily by. I should have asked them did they ever hear of Thaddeus Stevens as they walked along but I didn’t. I asked all in Sacred Heart School and no one ever heard of him. Sixty-seven percent of them African American. Yet they never heard of one of their greatest advocates in this country. They will hear of him now.
Stevens’ own schooling began in Danville, Vermont where he was born on a small farm to Sarah Morill and Joshua Stevens. They named him after the Polish patriot Thaddeus Koscuiszko who helped this country in the Revolutionary War. There’s a bridge named for him in Bayonne, N.J. don’t know what it crosses but nothing like the chasm between slavery and freedom that Thaddeus Stevens tried to bridge for Black Americans. As a boy he suffered from poverty and from the mean ridicule he got at school because of his clubfoot. Not only that but his alcoholic father abandoned the family when he was twelve. But he was bright and his mother built up his self-esteem and worked tirelessly to provide for his education. (He idolized her all his life.) After graduating from Dartmouth College, he moved to York, Pennsylvania in 1815, where he taught school and then became a lawyer. He established a practice in Gettysburg where runaway slaves had a true friend to defend them. He was a great lawyer, an owner of much land, many forges and iron works. In 1833 he entered the legislature of Pennsylvania and served until 1842. As a state politician, he was known for his defense of free public schools. In that year, he moved to Lancaster where he lived for the rest of his life.
In 1848, he was elected to the Congress where he fought fiercely against any extension of slavery. A member of the Whig Party at first, he became a Radical Republican in 1855 and was one of the first to demand unconditional emancipation and full suffrage for Black Americans. His awesome determination and outspokenness not only pushed Lincoln but leveled hills of opposition and made the “rough way” less rough.
He served in Congress until 1853 and then returned for the tumultuous years 1859 to his death in 1868. He was chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and made sure of large appropriations for the Union forces in the Civil War. Without him the Thirteenth and the Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution (which he helped to write) would not have passed. He guided them and shepherded them and pushed them through. What a marvelous achievement in those days!
The Thirteenth Amendment, section I: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Section II: Congress has the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
The Fourteenth Amendment, section I: All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any persons of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
The Edict of Emancipation would be hollow indeed without the institutional guarantee of these magnificent amendments which are the legacy of Thaddeus Stevens. He was also very aware that without an economic foundation the freed slaves would wait a long time for real freedom beyond the elegant script of these Amendments. In a speech he delivered on December 18, 1865, he had this to say: “We have turned or we are about to turn loose four million slaves without a hut to shelter them or a cent in their pockets. The infernal laws of slavery have prevented them from acquiring an education, understanding the common laws of contract, or of managing the ordinary business of life. This Congress is bound to provide for them until they can take care of themselves. If we do not furnish them with homesteads and hedge them around with protective laws; if we leave them to the legislation of their late masters, we had better have left them in bondage. If we fail in this great duty now, when we have power, we shall deserve and receive the execration of history and of future ages.”
After the Civil War, Thaddeus Stevens wanted the government to take over the plantations built on the lacerated black backs of the poor and divide them up to give the freed slaves a place to stand and a place to start. He didn’t succeed. So in the hundred years from 1868 when Thaddeus Stevens died to 1968 when Martin Luther King was killed, only God can count the killings and the beatings and the acts of brutal injustice that have been done. And in certain ways are still done. I came to Camden in 1968, the year Martin Luther King was killed and know that Camden is still the worst casualty in America of racial and environmental injustice.
The big highway 676 that was rammed through Camden’s neighborhoods to connect the North-South Freeway (42) with the Benjamin Franklin Bridge to Philadelphia was named the Martin Luther King Highway. It does not or could not ever honor him and what he stood for. It was not built for the people of Camden but for those who want to bypass them and keep a distance from them.
“God Bless America” is not a prayer for Camden. Better “God help America” to see this city where children are destroyed. We need more new homes here, not more bombs. In the month of February, I went with my heartache for Camden to the place where Thaddeus Stevens is laid and the boarded house where Martin Luther King stayed. And I prayed.
On April 4, (that day) 1928, Maya Angelou was born. I reached for her words of hope:
|Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
(February is too short)