- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 11, 2001

After returning home in early September from the much publicized anti-racism conference held in Durban, South Africa, the Rev. Jesse Jackson immediately seized the opportunity to announce that achieving reparations for American slavery has become his No. 1 priority. Of course the horrific events of Sept. 11, and their continuing somber aftermath, have made this issue even more marginalized than it was before.
Considering the grave crises that confront the black community such as black-on-black crime (especially murder), teen-age pregnancy, growing school dropout rates, widespread drug abuse, fatherless homes etc., you would think a black leader of Mr. Jackson's stature would see the compelling need to invest his energies into addressing these far more urgent and tragically self-destructive issues rather than feast upon what he obviously knows (the idea that the federal government would award money to living blacks because their ancestors were slaves) is pure fantasy. Consequently, his choice of what constitutes a "No. 1 priority" represents, at least for me, a form of abandonment.
Mr. Jackson, and many other black leaders (and some confused whites as well), see blacks as America's eternal victims and that our society despite all the racial progress that has been made over the past four decades is viewed by such individuals as being hopelessly racist to the core.
Thomas Jefferson, our first secretary of state, was a lifelong slave owner. The fact our present secretary of state is black seemingly means nothing to them. Such an accomplishment by Colin Powell could not have happened had the country not have confronted its inequities and resolved to transform itself from being a racially restrictive society into becoming one that provides equal opportunity for all of those qualified to advance. Frederick Douglass, who passionately believed in the "aristocracy of merit", was fond of saying: "In life there is no such thing as luck. Instead, what we call luck is that moment in life where preparation and opportunity converge."
As properly defined, "trade" involves a transaction between minimum of two people: a buyer and a seller. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the buyers were white Europeans while the sellers were black Africans. I have always been perplexed by the fact that when discussing slavery we vilify the buyer and ignore the seller. How can buying people be so much more morally odious than selling people?
Amazingly, we are expected to believe that a small number of white sailors who journeyed to Africa with no knowledge of the various languages of the indigenous peoples, or any concept of the landscape beyond the shoreline could, for years, miraculously round up millions of blacks, chain them to the bottom of ships and transport them across the Atlantic to be sold in the Americas. Of course, this is absolutely absurd.
Such mythology is in direct contrast to the painful reality that many blacks were willing partners in the slave trade. The people that were sold were usually captured warriors from other tribes, criminals, debtors, and mentally-infirm males who because of their condition were deemed to be "useless". And an abundance of females were brought along for the necessity of breeding more slaves for labor in the New World.
Under the most challenging of conditions, Africans living in America adjusted to their new environment remarkably well and thereby reproduced themselves in a staggering numbers. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793, by a proud New Englander from Yale, Eli Whitney, made slavery more profitable than ever. Suddenly the new technology allowed one black laborer to perform the work of nearly 10, which created a surplus of field workers, many of whom were subsequently trained by their owners to become master craftsmen in various trades. Some of the South's finest carpenters, masons, musicians, tailors, cooks, metal workers, stone carvers and so on were blacks. Thomas Jefferson profusely praised the highly skilled slaves and free men that helped him build his three architectural masterpieces, Monticello, the University of Virginia and the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond.
By the early 19th century, the population of blacks had grown to such a degree that during Jefferson's second term as president, he abolished the international slave trade in 1808. Nine years later, in 1817, the American Colonization Society was established with federal endorsement for the purpose of repatriating those free blacks, who wanted to return, back to Africa. A few years later the American colony of Liberia whose capital to this day is Monrovia, named in honor of president James Monroe was founded on the west coast of Africa where most of the slaves originated.
It surprised many whites just how few blacks opted to return to their ancestral "home". What the vast majority of whites did not understand was that most blacks whether free or slave, living in the North or the South had come to see America as their home.
Because of generations of mistreatment and injustice, the average white American is completely mystified by black people's love and loyalty to "their" country. They proudly and valiantly have fought in every war from the Revolution to Desert Storm. Their persevering and largely unrequited patriotism is truly one of the world's most inspiring stories.
What Jesse Jackson seems not to understand is that, unlike the Indians, who rejected white culture, Africans embraced it and, were determined to become Americans regardless of the inevitable sufferings and sacrifices that would entail. Indeed, it is their undaunted strength of will to attain that goal that has made us the country that we are today.
I think Mr. Jackson, and his supporters, would be greatly enlightened if they all reread Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and his "I Have a Dream" speech. King was the quintessential black patriot, a citizen who loved his country, while fully aware that so many of his fellow countrymen despised him. As far as he was concerned that was their problem, not his.
As a reward for his faith in this nation's capacity to eventually translate Thomas Jefferson's soaring rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence into reality for all, he is the only American awarded a federal holiday in his name. His new memorial in Washington will fittingly be on the Tidal Basin where, someone who never held public office, will be surrounded by memorials to America's four greatest presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Lastly, I think that it is both disgraceful and disrespectful for Mr. Jackson and his followers to make a mockery of black people's achievements by constantly perpetuating us as victims, and not as the victors that we are.

Edward C. Smith is a professor at American University and director of American Studies at AU.

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