"Free at last, free at last, Great God a-mighty, we are free at last." --Martin Luther King Jr.
To many, these words are simply characteristic of the tempestuous civil rights era, but might they also characterize an enduring theme of the Black struggle in America? The question has become grave today, with the Reagan administration's policies jeopardizing recently acquired benefits. Can and will Blacks continue to advance while the government discourages more busing to desegregate schools and lets Black unemployment climb to more than 16 per cent, and Conservatives more openly oppose the won-with-blood Voting Rights Act of 1964?
There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America attempts to show the continuity of the Black fight for justice, from the beginning of the slave trade to the end of the Civil War. By reexamining Black history and depicting the different but interrelated protests that Blacks have made throughout the centuries, Vincent Harding hopes to identify the long, continuous course of the "river" that continues to flow even now. Veteran of the Black freedom movement in the 1960s, first director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center and teacher of history, Harding shows bias in River--the first of two volumes--by often using "we" and "us." But he still writes compellingly.
The struggle began when Africans were packed into slave ships, where, even after being kidnapped, chained and beaten, they choose again and again to face the firearms of the whites. Sometimes their spirits, resolve and sheer numbers would overwhelm the enemy, but more often than not, they failed. Yet whites on those vessels admitted that the Africans never conceded and would always renew the battle. But once out of sight of the African shore, suicide remained as the only truly viable form of protest for the soon-to-be slaves; though starvation and drowning seem to be passive actions of giving up, Harding asserts that these moves occurred rather to defy the whites and return the Blacks spiritually to their homeland.
In the New World, the Africans only changed their tactics, incorporating the American customs to gain freedom. Their own culture and language savagely repressed, they studied Christian theology and natural rights to convince whites that they deserved liberty. Quoting the Bible and George Washington, they presented numerous petitions to white leaders but were constantly rebuffed.
And if words failed to bring respite, then they resorted anew to violence. The Blacks never suffered passively. Nat Turner led only one of the many uprisings in American history, and hundreds of slaves torched buildings to protest their bondage.
The protesters come to life, with Harding guessing the thoughts behind their actions. His hypothesizing of the motives of Frederick Douglass, John Brown and others makes the book more interesting while also introducing doubt about the accuracy. But he did not intend the book to be simply a survey of Black radicalism, or a general history of Blacks or Black protests. River is an attempt to find the underlying emotions that drove them forward to overcome and remove all obstacles. And despite some interpretation of history to serve the "river" theme, the plethora of examples and sources indicates that very little of what he writes is controversial. All of it is plausible.
Harding believes that, in spite of current dim forebodings, the '80s will provide Blacks with opportunities to develop. Consciousness of past accomplishments and of the difficulties that others have faced can stimulate a movement that will remold the entire country's attitudes and prejudices. Whether this decade realizes his prediction is not absolutely essential; he has, and will instill in others, King's dream that "one day this nation will rise up [and] live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.'" As long as the dream endures, the day will come.
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