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Old Injustices Endure

Dozens of African-Americans gathered in Philadelphia on January 1, 1808not for festivities celebrating the New Year but to commemorate a new freedom for members of their race.

A federal law prohibiting the importation of new slaves into the United States took effect on Friday 1/1/1808 and this law provided the basis for that commemoration.

Another legal event enlivened those blacks gathering at the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church ­ then located not far from the building where America’s Founding Fathers issued their Declaration of Independence and approved the nation’s Constitution.

The year 1808 marked freedom for scores of slaves in Pennsylvania under terms of the Gradual Abolition of Slavery enacted by that state’s legislature in 1780.

Persons attending that commemoration at St. Thomas listened to the Rector of that church, Absalom Jones, deliver what is now his historically famous “Thanksgiving Sermon” praising the abolition of the African slave trade.

During that sermon, Jones expressed hope that January 1st would become a day of public “thanksgiving” recognizing the “abolition of the slave trade in our country.”

Rev. Jones desired this annual “thanksgiving” recognition to ensure that “our children in the remotest generations [knew the]history of the suffering of our brethren, and of their deliverance”

While that national day of observance Jones desired never materialized, Jones would be pleased that nearly 200-years after his Sermon, black Philadelphians successfully pushed the federal government to approve erection of a memorial to slaves.

This first-ever federally sanctioned memorial for slaves is slated for construction outside the Liberty Bell Pavilion in Center City Philadelphiathe famed facility now located not far from where Jones delivered that January 1, 1808 address.

And given Jones’ concern that blacks in the distant future understand the importance of that January 1808 abolition on importing slaves, it’s ironic that the Philadelphia group that took a lead role in pushing for the memorial is named the: Avenging the Ancestors Coalition.

This memorial particularly recognizes the nine slaves that President George Washington kept inside the then Philadelphia based White House.

The stable area where Washington’s slave slept was located a few feet from the front door of the Liberty Bell Pavilion.

Much to the disappointment of those attending that 1808 “Thanksgiving Sermon” the importation of slaves did not end, largely due to lax enforcement by the federal government.

That dynamic of the federal government’s lax and/or discriminatory enforcement of laws continues to operate today to the detriment of African-Americans in Philadelphia and across the nation.

Rev. Jones spearheaded historically significant struggles against abuses of the Fugitive Slave Law where free blacks (emancipated slaves and free born) were illegally sold into slavery.

Jones authored the first two petitions (1797 and 1799) sent to Congress by blacks asking for relief from Fugitive Law abuses, with the 1799 petition being the first formal request from blacks for an end of domestic slavery.

Both petitions sought congressional action against illegal Fugitive Law abuses.

“Is not some remedy for an evil of such magnitude highly worthy of the deep inquiry of the supreme Legislative body of a free and enlightened people?” the 1797 petition asked, stating freedmen were being “hunted day and night, like beasts of the forest by armed me with dogs.”

Congress rejected both petitions ­ refusing to enforce the law fairly for free blacks.

Those abusing the Fugitive Slave Law to kidnap free blacks often asserted that black skin created the assumption that the person was probably a slave.

This skin-color based assertion is hauntingly similar to an assumption driving contemporary racial profiling: being black creates the presumption of possible criminal behavior.
For over a decade, charges of racial profiling rocked the New Jersey State Police, arising from the presumption that blacks are more prone to criminal conduct than whites…similar to the assumption that all blacks are slaves.

In 1826 a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling declared “It is a settled rulethat the black color is proof of slavery” A decade later a NJ high court ruling noted “It was once the doctrine of this court that every colored person was presumed a slave till the contrary was shown”

In November 2007, Chicago black Congressman Danny Davis (D-7th Dist) accused police of profiling him leading to a traffic ticket.

While Chicago police officials rejected Davis’ profiling charge months earlier Illinois state officials released a study showing police across that state disproportionately stopped and searched minorities.

Rep. Davis, weeks after that profiling incident, joined a bi-partisan congressional group in co-sponsoring legislation to enact federal prohibitions against racial profiling.

President Bush opposed racial profiling while campaigning in 2000 and condemned the practice in his first State of the Union speech but failed to follow-up following 9/11 when be backed profiling of Muslims.

President Clinton refused to take strong action against profiling during his two terms despite the issue flaring nationwide repeatedly during the 90s including in Maryland not far from the White House.

Clinton was well aware of the issue of racial profiling since a federal judge cited the Arkansas State Police for violating an anti-profiling settlement when Clinton served as Arkansas’ Governor.

President Clinton also refused to end what many condemn as a modern slavery-like matter ­ injustices arising from federal crack cocaine laws.

Days after delivering an October 1995 speech declaring that blacks “indeed have lived too long with” an unjust justice system, President Clinton approved a congressional rejection of a US Sentencing Commission recommendation to end crack cocaine law inequities.

Clinton did grant a few clemencies to persons serving onerous crack law sentences unlike his predecessor President George H.W. Bush.

The first President Bush did grant Christmas Eve 1992 pardons to six of his Reagan Administration colleagues involved in the Iran-Contra Scandala scandal where the Reagan White House ignored illegal cocaine sales inside the United States that help fund the Contras.

President George H.W. Bush failed to either pardon or grant clemency to the Washington, DC teen lured to the park across the street from the White House by federal drug agents to make a purchase of crack that Bush used as a prop during a September 1989 presidential speech about the war on drugs.

Experts see promise in easing crack law injustices from a December 2007 US Supreme Court ruling and a sentencing reform action by the US Sentencing Commission days after that ruling.

Rev. Absalom Jones’ 1797 petition to Congress criticized the hypocrisy of those in “eminent stations” who would callously deny free blacks “public Justice and the protection which is the great object of Government.”

Then Virginia Congressman James Madison, an author of the US Constitution and a proponent of the adoption of the Bill of Rights, proved to be one of those hypocrites.

In urging the adoption of the Constitution, Madison had written that justice is the end of both “government and civil society.”

Yet when it came time for Madison to back his beliefs by fighting for justice for illegally enslaved freedmen, he urged his congressional colleagues to reject consideration of that petition authored by Rev. Jones.

Jones, during his 1/1/1808 Sermon, said “Let us further implore the influence of his divine and holy Spirit to dispose the hearts of our legislatures to pass laws to ameliorate the condition of our brethren still in bondage.”

Congress can take a big step towards ameliorating historic injustice by resolving this year to approve measures to end abuses in racial profiling and crack law inequities.

Linn Washington Jr. is a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune and a graduate of the Yale Law Journalism Fellowship Program.
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Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.

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