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Source: Philadelphia Tribune
Date: July 9, 2002
Byline: Linn Washington Jr.

Op-Ed: Philly's Black elected officials MIA

The eloquent proclamation Thomas Jefferson made within America's "Declaration of Independence" stated, "We hold these Truths to be self-evident."

Those self-evident "Truths" referenced by Jefferson in that immortal manifesto ratified in Philadelphia by America's founders were that all men are "created equal" …possessing "certain unalienable Rights" including "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."

A principal reason driving Jefferson and his compatriots to declare their independence was the King of England's failure to see those asserted rights as self-evident.

The refusal of the King to recognize rights like liberty as self-evident produced what the Declaration described as a "History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations" heaped on American colonists.

One of the major ironies of human history is that those signers of that Declaration also engaged in ugly "Injuries and Usurpations."

The founders' waged genocidal wars against the original inhabitants of this land - Native Americans - refusing to consider them men "created equal."

The founders' excluded women from certain ‘unalienable Rights' like voting and numerous civil liberties.

Moreover, the founders', despite their deep desire for freedom, brutally enslaved Blacks and deliberately denied America's Free Blacks the same measure of "unalienable" rights bestowed upon whites.

This contravention of rights based on color has created consternation and chaos since the July 4, 1776 issuance of the Declaration of Independence.

"That the fathers did rightly and justly in signing and issuing the Declaration of Independence is not to be doubted for a moment," noted William H. Johnson during a July 4, 1859 address at Philadelphia's Benjamin Banneker Institute not far from Independence Hall.

"But that the colored people have been deprived of those inestimable rights (granted) to all Americans by the letter and spirit of the Declaration of Independence, is evident to all," Johnson pointed out while detailing deprivations like the then recent US Supreme Court ruling declaring that Blacks had no rights that whites were bound to respect.

After the Revolutionary War, where Black and white Americans both suffered, "the white man's reward was liberty, while that of the black man was chains and slavery, and it is of this we complain," Johnson declared, speaking straight into the hearts of the predominately Black audience hearing his address.

While Johnson saw racially discriminatory deprivations against Blacks as "evident to all" the vast majority of white Americans in Philadelphia and elsewhere saw nothing wrong in fighting to block Free Blacks from ‘unalienable rights' to Life (working and obtaining education) and Liberty (voting and receiving equal justice).

Even today, far too many whites in America continue feeling that it is inherently wrong for Blacks to even raise the issue of receiving those constitutionally guaranteed rights that William Johnson said in 1859 "have been withheld from us by selfish and unprincipled administrations."

The wide ranging, repeated denial of enshrined rights to Blacks certainly compares to the "History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations" castigated in the Declaration of Independence.

The fact that fidelity to historical accuracy in historic Philadelphia is not a self-evident truth to the National Park Service is the reason why 500 folks held a protest at the Liberty Bell last Wednesday.

This protest by ATAC, the Avenging The Ancestors Coalition, is part of its organized campaign to push the Park Service to fully recognize the fact that George Washington held slaves literally at the entrance of the new pavilion being constructed to house the Liberty Bell.

Recognizing the liberty exemplifying fact that two of Washington's slaves escaped to freedom from his Philadelphia White House in no way denigrates the symbolic value of the Liberty Bell, an object that ascended to national icon stature largely through the work of 19th Century anti-slavery abolitionists - Blacks and whites.

"There is so much of our history that they don't want us to know," said famed local historian Charles Blockson during remarks at last week's demonstration.

One man taking part in last week's protest demonstration was Kenneth Owens-El, who traveled from Pittsburgh after hearing about the protest the night before on a nationally syndicated radio program.

"I came because it is important for Blacks to move from strategy to action," said Owens-El, executive director of the Triad Consultant Group.

Conspicuously absent from the crowd protesting at the Liberty Bell last week were the majority of Philadelphia's federal, state, and local Black Elected Officials who received invitations to attend.

Only State Representatives Leanna Washington, Ron Waters, and Jewel Williams attended. State Senator Shirley Kitchen issued a resolution supporting ATAC's campaign and State Rep. Curtis Thomas provided his office for a pre-protest press conference.

Certainly, those missing BEO's should see the self-evident importance of making sure that Black tourists (and the $80-million they bring to Philly's economy annually) see accurate legacies of their ancestors at the Liberty Bell.

Surely, the failure of Philly's BEO's to support the self-evident importance of ensuring historical accuracy at the Bell - a truth recognized by Hispanic City Council Angel Ortiz who supports ATAC - raises that reality noted in the Declaration of Independence that it is: the "Right of the People" to replace those who govern in a "destructive" manner.

William Johnson, in his 1859 address, endorsed incorporating the Declaration into protests for those rights continually denied Blacks.

"[W]ith the Declaration of American Independence in one hand, and with the other we will unfold to the wide world a scroll containing the history of the wrongs, the oppressions and enslavements imposed upon us by this bogus republican government…"

Linn Washington Jr. is an award-winning writer who teaches journalism at Temple University.


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