The Abolition Movement and African American Empowerment as Reflected in the 2008 Election
The nineteenth century was fraught with tensions, culminating in the Civil War of 1860 to 1864. Part of those tensions was the abolition movement of the 1830’s. While there were some prominent white abolitionists, there were just as many prominent African-American abolitionists. Frederick Douglass used his oratorical skills to convince others to join his cause, and also empower other African-Americans to move beyond their positions as slaves to become politically active in the society into which they were thrust. Sojourner Truth also was a great orator, and went across the country giving speeches that espoused women’s rights and the truth about slavery. Harriet Jacobs wrote one of the first narratives from a slave’s point of view. Finally, Harriet Tubman ran the Underground Railroad, helping countless slaves to freedom in the north.
Douglass, Truth, Jacobs, and Tubman were all educated, some illicitly, others out in the open. This education was used against the slave owners eventually when each began to speak out against the institution in their own way. Douglass was a powerful speaker who gave many speeches to anti-slavery movements. In one speech, he stated that the Fourth of July was not enjoyed by everyone and that while whites treated it as their holiday, it was not his due to his people being enslaved. His activism helped spark others to move towards ending slavery, and while he was opposed, many others saw his position. Sojourner Truth was a quick-witted woman who was also a darling of the abolitionist movement. She also spoke extensively at anti-slavery meetings, empowering people to petition against slavery as an institution. She also carried the sword of women’s rights. Hers was a double-edged fight, but both had a common end—equality. Harriet Jacobs wrote her narrative to show that not all slaves were ignorant of the world in which they lived. Finally, Harriet Tubman empowered African Americans to leave their lives behind for the north and freedom.
One can draw many parallels between the abolitionist movement of the nineteenth century and the political empowerment of African-Americans today. One of the most obvious ways we see this is through the presidency of Barack Obama. His rise from obscurity to the most powerful office in the land is a case study in political empowerment. While there have been other African-American candidates that have run campaigns, Obama’s is truly amazing, showing that ideas and thoughts matter more than color, and that his character is more important than his ethnicity. Obama got his start working as a community organizer, his first experience with capital hill being a rally to oppose cuts in student aid. He remembered walking along the Mall to Pennsylvania Avenue, and to the White House, showing coolness on the outside, but a restless, undisciplined spirit on the inside (Maraniss A04).
The Washington Post describes his live as a “triptych of the unlikely (Maraniss A04).” “The biography of his family, the sociology of his skin color and the geography of his political rise—these three panels of this story combined to make the end result all the more vivid, if implausible (Maraniss A04).” He presents a dichotomy; that is, 150 or even 50 years ago, he would have been disenfranchised within the very country that now embraces him as a leader. While many saw him with the potential to rise to the top and become president, he could have very easily been an average citizen, law professor, and citizen-activist. It would have been an easier path, a path that would have allowed him to lead a regular life, and one that had no political ramifications. There was no risk to staying the course, but he chose a different path, taking a chance to make a difference. This makes the connections between himself and people such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth not as invisible as it might seem.
Without the activism and political risk that they took, there would have been no Barack Obama, President. There would have been no feeling of empowerment among the voters who came out in record numbers to vote for him and his vision of America. There has been no doubt there has been a long-standing feeling of disenfranchisement among African Americans when it has come to the ballot box. From the post Civil-War era up until the Voting Rights Act, there has been a constant struggle with making sure that all Americans have their right to vote protected. With the rise of the viable candidacy of Barack Obama, the feelings of disenfranchisement have lessened, and there is a more secure feeling that all the votes are being counted. While there are still remaining problems, the new era that has dawned brings with it a new hope for a new political beginning, a “Great Political Awakening” among African-Americans, akin to what the abolitionist movement did in the 1830’s.
We as historians and citizens must remember that we must continue to look backwards in order to forage ahead. We must continue to learn from people like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Tubman, and others in order to see our future. Barack Obama is but one part of our new American future, just as these abolitionists were part of their new American future. The social and political consequences of what they have done will resonate throughout time and history, just as the speeches of Douglass and Truth, and the Underground Railroad of Tubman. The literary achievements of Jacobs must not be discounted as well. These individuals took enormous risks to achieve a greatness that was beyond them, and with it, improved the society in which they lived. Barack Obama is doing the same with his vision of America. He has taken enormous political risks in order to achieve a dream that some thought would never come to fruition. We as Americans must continue to stay our course in our new American journey, for it is one with new choices and a new era of political enfranchisement.
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