Newspaper article

African-Americans and the Commonwealth of Freedom

Newspaper article

African-Americans and the Commonwealth of Freedom

Article excerpt

The great problem to be solved by the American people is this: whether or not there is strength enough in democracy, virtue enough in our civilization, and power enough in our religion to have mercy and deal justly with four millions of people lately translated from the old oligarchy of slavery to the new commonwealth of freedom.

— Frances Harper, 1875

Young people have heard of the injustices of slavery, segregation and their aftermath. As historian Jeff Kolnick recently described in MinnPost, this legacy is “the very air we breathe.” The understandable anger that young people often feel about injustices also can fuel the “us against them” mentality that is contributing to fraying of the nation’s civic fabric.

Young people haven’t heard about the commonwealth of the black poetess Frances Harper. It created hope and common ground across racial, economic, and partisan divisions. It can do so again.

'The commons, shared civic resources'

Commonwealth meant popular government; four states (Massachusetts, Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania) are still known as commonwealths. It also meant “the commons, shared civic resources” built by the labors of everyday people. This is the “public work” citizenship tradition. In it, ordinary citizens develop authority for their claims to equality in the world they help to create.

This view animated the poetry of Langston Hughes, the African-American poet. In “Freedom’s Plow,” written in 1941, Hughes proposes that common people have authority and audacity to be free citizens because of their labors in building the common world: “Out of labor-white hands and black hands-/ Came the dream, the strength, the will, / and the way to build America/ America! / Land created in common, / Dream nourished in common/ Keep your hand on the plow/Hold on!”

I learned about the commonwealth and the claims from civic construction as a young man working for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s civil rights movement. The bookends of King’s career – domestic workers walking to work rather than ride segregated buses in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the garbage workers on strike in Memphis in 1968, with their signs, “I am a Man” – convey the dignity and public value of work. “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep even as a Michelangelo painted,” he told Cleveland high school students in 1967. “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance.”

Chronicling history of civic construction

This story of civic construction is now told in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which I visited last fall. The museum doesn’t sugarcoat the horrors of racial oppression. But it pairs these with stories of building a common world. It describes resistance and also other kinds of work of civic construction like creating churches, schools and colleges, women’s organizations like the Council of Negro Women and labor groups like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

These created resources for black communities, which also became vital parts of America’s commonwealth. …

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