U.S. Constitution – ratified 1788 – The new nation makes slavery official. Listen as the flag flies over slaves who have no voice, no representation, and no hope for a better future. Mourn the broken families and broken spirits created by a constitutionalized evil. Ask for forgiveness for a nation that claimed to stand for justice and yet enshrined unspeakable injustices in the same document.
Article I, Section. 2
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
Article I, Section. 9, clause 1.
The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.
Article IV, Section. 2.
No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.
…No Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article.
Indian Removal Act – 1830 to 1862 – As the stars and stripes flew over the United States, Presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren oversaw the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral homes. Listen as men, women, and children weep as they make the arduous journey across unforgiving landscapes. Mourn the more than 5000 Cherokee and more than 3500 Creek who died on the Trail of Tears. Ask forgiveness for a nation that put white people’s “right of discovery” ahead of the natural rights of the original occupants of the land.
Slave markets – not ending until the 1860s – Listen to the cries as husbands and wives and children are torn apart and sold to the highest bidder. Listen as auctioneers and buyers expound on the attributes of each slave as if bidding on a piece of livestock. Mourn the lives ruined and families destroyed. Ask for forgiveness for a nation that flew its flag over the trade of human beings.
Suffragists imprisoned – 1917 – As the flag flew over the White House, suffragists were arrested and imprisoned for daring to protest for the right to vote. Listen in as they are harassed, and abused, and force fed. Mourn their treatment and the callousness of the men who commanded it. Ask for forgiveness for a nation that would deny its female citizens the right to vote.
Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment – 1932 to 1972 – Listen to the lies told poor, black sharecroppers as representatives of their government conduct experiments on them using the syphilis bacterium. Mourn with their friends and family as they die from lack of appropriate treatment. Ask for forgiveness for a nation flying a flag representing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that also conducts deadly experiments on its own citizens.
Women considered property of husbands, denied the right to credit, to secure housing in their own name, to receive equal pay for equal work – 1777 to 1981** – Listen to the economic struggles of women who are denied the ability to secure goods and housing without the consent and assistance of a man. Mourn with them as their country treats them as inferior to men. Ask for forgiveness for a nation that intentionally denigrates half its population.
Civil Rights Acts – 1857 to 1991*** – Listen as non-white citizens must repeatedly go to Congress and ask for redress. Mourn as these citizens are continuously denied access to housing, transportation, jobs, and education by those who live under the same flag. Mourn as they must make their case over and over. Ask for forgiveness for a nation that repeats a flag pledge of “life, liberty, and justice for all” and yet continues to deny some of its citizens access to justice.
If you feel compelled to justify, rationalize, or explain away any of the above, you aren’t listening. You may be protecting your comfortable life that shields you from acknowledging the shortcomings of your nation, but you aren’t listening. If you feel the need to explain how all of this is in the past, is no longer pertinent, and people should just move on, you may be making it easier to ignore the work that still needs to be done, but you aren’t listening. If you feel compelled to say, “I wasn’t personally involved in any of this,” you aren’t listening. You may be soothing your own conscience, but you aren’t listening.
If you are listening, you realize we all need to be better individuals in order to be a better nation. We each need to take responsibility for the failings of our nation and pledge to work to reconcile the past to build a better future. If you are listening, you realize we can’t conquer the divisions in the nation unless we address the past that created those divisions.
*Dates represent the first stage of Indian removal under the Indian Removal Act. Removal efforts began as early as 1802 and persisted after the Civil War.
**Dates encompass the years in which court cases and legislative action have altered how women are treated. Additional cases and legislation continue to work through the system.
***Dates encompass the years from the first to the last Civil Rights bills passed in Congress. Court cases and other legislation occurred and continue to occur.