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I don’t know about you, but sometimes the world comes at me, asking me to make the connections it’s holding out for me to observe. “C’mon!” it seems to be saying, “It’s all right here in front of you. And there are no coincidences.”
Such a time is right now, with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. I happened to be reading a book I’d plucked rather randomly from the library shelves, Rita Mae Brown’s “Dolley,” historical fiction covering First Lady Dolley Madison’s life, primarily during the War of 1812. Some turn up their noses at historical fiction but I find a well-written novel can give you insight hardcore historical facts don’t. And in this case, Brown’s exploration of Dolley Madison’s struggle to reconcile slavery with her Quaker upbringing was truly gripping.
James Madison was the “Father of the Constitution.” He was also, like Washington and Jefferson, a Virginian, and his plantation at Montpelier was worked by slaves. There were slaves in the White House during his administration, some of whom stayed loyal to Dolley long after her husband was dead and she was forced to sell Montpelier.
The Quakers hated slavery and were some of the first and most fervent abolitionists. As Brown depicts it, Dolley Madison also deplored slavery—but shrugged off the solution to “the peculiar institution” for another generation. She died in 1849, already anticipating the War Between the States.
I’m reading virtually every day about the Sesquicentennial of the war. All we have to do here in our city is stretch out a hand and we can touch remnants of that tragic time. The Hunter Museum’s wonderful Whitfield Lovell exhibit contains a piece dedicated to “Camp Contraband,” where slaves fleeing north could find refuge once the Union had taken Chattanooga. Immediately after the war, many former slaves who did not move all the way north came here to find work in the city’s industries, to this day one of the reasons Chattanooga’s population is a third African American.
Dr. King, as is well known, almost became a pastor here, before finding a home at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. The famous “I Have A Dream” speech specifically calls out Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, as a place he hoped to see his dream come true one day. I never met Dr. King, but I was very fortunate to be sitting behind Congressman John Lewis when he came to town a year and a half ago to speak at a benefit. Urged by Pastor Kevin Adams, everyone turned to hug the people next to them. A hug from John Lewis gave me a direct line to Dr. King and the movement that here in Chattanooga, is epitomized by State Rep. JoAnne Favors, with whom I've worked in the past.
Rep. Favors has been in the news recently talking about her memories of Lincoln Park, when it was the only park black people were allowed to go to on a regular basis. Lincoln Park has been in the news because a group of community leaders have spoken out against the city’s original plan to extend Central Avenue straight through their historic community.
And here is where all these threads form a picture for me.
Dolley Madison left the fight, really had to leave the fight, against slavery to the generation that came after her. Thousands of them fought and died in a war that produced the Emancipation Proclamation and eventually, the 13th Amendment. But that amendment did not end racism, hatred and discrimination—that was left to yet another generation, Dr. King’s, to bring to the fore.
And as so many have said, Dr. King himself passed the torch. There’s still so far to go before we actually realize his dream. We have a black president—and a Tennessee Republican Party that in 2008 thought it was just fine to joke about “Barack the Magic Negro.” We have a voter registration law that was clearly designed to prevent black people from exercising their right to vote. Didn’t work in the 2012 election—but that ridiculous law needs to be stricken from the books.
We have a city of Chattanooga in which unemployment in some of the primarily black communities exceeds 20 percent. We have a group of wealthy, politically well-connected people who thought they could just ram that Central Avenue extension through a poor black neighborhood and no one would notice or care. Fortunately, some did notice, did care, and Lincoln Park is now getting a say in its future.
We are the generation—and here I don’t just mean boomers like me, but every American alive today—that must take up that torch. Don’t buy it when you hear, “Oh, that’s old news. We’re post-racial now!”
That is just plain wrong. Dolley Madison, transported two hundred years forward to 2013, would be astounded by Barack Obama (and Michelle Obama) but would weep over East Chattanooga. But if she had the chance, she’d stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Dr. King in his journey to the mountaintop. Neither one ever got there. But we can. I still believe that.