Every word that we can muster is the embodiment of the Spirit endowed to each of us by our Creator. For deep within every breath that we breathe, mindfully or not, is a spiritual journey. In my body, there is respiration, aspiration, inspiration, perspiration, expiration all embody and contain spirit and spirit energy. Dr. James Forbes, one of the most prolific and profound preachers in the United States, shared with me recently that in the words respiration, aspiration, inspiration, perspiration, expiration is the word spirit, in each human breath is a person’s spirit. Spirit is not completely definable, for it defies definition, but we use words and symbols, as best we can, in multiple languages, and different forms to define, “indescribable spirit.”
When in Italy I looked and stared at David by Michelangelo Buonarroti for hours. I had been in Italy for a meeting with the Pope. Michelangelo said, “I had a vision of David and I carved away everything in my mind that was not David.” “First I saw the Angel then I carved away everything that was not the Angel and set him free.” Even the work of the great masters cannot deny or completely define spirit, but they try to capture it.
Between 1996 and 2001, I took 3 tours with members of my staff, and I visited more than 2 dozen Civil War Battlefields and sites, from Pennsylvania to Texas more than a dozen states. Each moving and memorable, but the time I spent in Andersonville was among the most. Between Camp Douglass, in the North, and Andersonville in the South, it is difficult to determine which side inflicted the greatest cruelty on their fellow countrymen who were prisoners of civil war. Modern Civil War enthusiasts have debated these issues for longer than the conflict itself lasted. But while in Andersonville, I was particularly moved. The Park Service Ranger took me to a headstone at the National Cemetery, and he asked me to read a letter. The Letter was from Cpl. James Henry Gooding, USCT. 54th Massachusetts. It was addressed to Abraham Lincoln.
Camp of the 54th Mass. Colored Regiment. Morris Island, S.C.
September 28, 1863
Your Excellency, Abraham Lincoln:
Your Excellency will pardon the presumption of a humble individual like myself, in addressing you, but the earnest solicitation of my comrades in arms beside the genuine interest felt by myself in the matter is my excuse, for placing before the Executive head of the Nation our Common Grievance.
On the 6th of the last Month, the Paymaster of the Department informed us, that if we would decide to receive the sum of $10 (ten dollars) per month, he would come and pay us that sum, but that, on the sitting of Congress, the Regt. [regiment] would, in his opinion, be allowed the other 3 (three). He did not give us any guarantee that this would be, as he hoped; certainly, he had no authority for making any such guarantee, and we cannot suppose him acting in any way interested.
Now the main question is, are we Soldiers, or are we Laborers? We are fully armed and equipped, have done all the various duties pertaining to a Soldier’s life, have conducted ourselves to the complete satisfaction of General Officers, who were, if anything, prejudiced against us, but who now accord us all the encouragement and honors due us; have shared the perils and labor of reducing the first stronghold that flaunted a Traitor Flag; and more, Mr. President, today the Anglo Saxon Mother, Wife, or Sister are not alone in tears for departed Sons, Husbands, and Brothers. The patient, trusting descendants of Africa’s Clime have dyed the ground with blood, in defense of the Union, and Democracy. Men, too, your Excellency, who know in a measure the cruelties of the iron heel of oppression, which in years gone by, the very power their blood is now being spilled to maintain, ever ground them in the dust.
But when the war trumpet sounded o’er the land when men knew not the Friend from the Traitor, the black man laid his life at the altar of the Nation, —and he was refused. When the arms of the Union were beaten, in the first year of the war, and the Executive called for more food for its ravenous maw, again the black man begged the privilege of aiding his country in her need, to be again refused.
And now he is in the War, and how has he conducted himself? Let their dusky forms rise up, out [of] the mires of James Island, and give the answer. Let the rich muddle around Wagner’s parapet be upturned, and there will be found an eloquent answer. Obedient and patient and solid as a wall are they. All we lack is a paler hue and a better acquaintance with the alphabet.
Now, your Excellency, we have done a Soldier’s duty. Why can’t we have a Soldier’s pay? You caution the Rebel Chieftain, that the United States knows no distinction in her soldiers. She insists on having all her soldiers of whatever creed or color, to be treated according to the usages of War. Now if the United States exacts uniformity of treatment of her soldiers from the insurgents, would it not be well and consistent to set the example herself by paying all her soldiers alike?
We of this Regt. were not enlisted under any “contraband” act. But we do not wish to be understood as rating our service of more value to the Government than the service of the ex-slave. Their service is undoubtedly worth much to the Nation, but Congress made express provision touching their case, as slaves freed by military necessity, and assuming the Government to be their temporary Guardian. Not so with us. Freemen by birth and consequently having the advantage of thinking and acting for ourselves so far as the Laws would allow us, we do not consider ourselves fit subjects for the Contraband act.
We appeal to you, Sir, as the Executive of the Nation, to have us justly dealt with. The Regt. do pray that they are assured their service will be fairly appreciated by paying them as American Soldiers, not as menial hirelings. Black men, you may well know, are poor; three dollars per month, for a year, will supply their needy wives and little ones with fuel. If you, as Chief Magistrate of the Nation, will assure us of our whole pay, we are content. Our Patriotism, our enthusiasm will have a new impetus, to exert our energy more and more to aid our Country. Not that our hearts ever flagged in devotion, spite the evident apathy displayed on our behalf, but we feel as though our country spurned us, now we are sworn to serve her. Please give this a moment’s attention.
Corporal James Henry Gooding. USCT
The Park Ranger had not shared with me that I was standing at the tombstone of Cpl. Gooding. I broke down in tears. The Stone, that marked the head of his mortal remains, and his final resting place, contained spirit and I was moved. As a sitting United States Congressman, how could I not go back to Washington and not fight for equal pay for equal work and health benefits for all including those who served and had served?
When I sat for hours looking at monuments and statues in our Nation’s Capital, and in our state legislatures, that I visited, I was looking for more than craftsmanship. I was looking for spirit, meaning, and the message that they conveyed of the past, to present, and to the future. I sat out on a unique journey. Shortly after Rosa Parks death, I offered legislation to put Rosa Parks Statue in Statuary hall right next to Robert E. Lee, Confederate general, and Alexander Hamilton Stevens the Vice President of the Confederacy. I could not remove nor did I have the authority to do so, but I could change the narrative and “the spirit of Statuary Hall” by her inclusion. Rosa Parks’ addition to the collection, meant that the tour guides of Capitol Hill could no longer ignore the presence, 150 years after the civil war, of her unique “spirit” and contribution and the “nonviolent spirit” movement that it started. Along with Congressman Zach Wamp of Tennessee, we fought as a “bipartisan team, Democrat and Republican, black and white” to name the newest largest Hall, the visitors center, Emancipation Hall. The beginning of all tours of Capitol Hill begins with the story of Spirit Emancipation and human freedom as a result.
The most important part of the discovery I had made was not just the presence of the Statues, and or their existence, but the existence of Spirit. The stone and statues represent the permanent embodiment of the politic (spirit), that has compromised the principles of equality and fairness for the American people at every phase of the legislative process, since the nation’s inception and equally and even more devastating and tragic, is the advent of the modern Democratic and Republican parties and their roles after the civil war (BIPARTISANSHIP). Both parties represent two sides of a tragic statutory discourse that has “compromised” its way out of addressing equality for all its citizens, from admitting slave states and free states to the union, 1 free state 1 slave state (Missouri Compromise), like animals in Noah’s ark, to every appropriations bill, to every budget bill, to education, healthcare, and housing, as well as the environment and voting. Since the American Civil War not a single piece of legislation has escaped this “compromise” including the admission of the statues to the halls of the Congress itself. In fact, this is the beginning of the most notable use of the legislative term “COMPROMISE.” Whenever Democrats and Republicans celebrate a “compromise or a legislative milestone,” you might as well ask yourself the question, who did you all leave out this time? I already know.
In the Congress of the United States, racism is not just tolerable in the “symbolism” it is also tolerable in congresses’ “substance.” The primary focus of the congress is compromised by this behavior. And rarely do we get to the conversation of why certain congressional districts get everything and other congressional districts get nothing and even more tragically some members of Congress from the neediest districts are so used to the behavior, they “ask” for nothing.
Not a single statue came down, nor did the politics change even with the election and 8-year service of the first African American president. In fact, his supporters spent more time trying to have his image carved on Mount Rushmore, than addressing institutional racism. Joe Biden served in the United States Senate for several decades and as Vice President for 8 years, not a single statue was removed anywhere in the United States! He walked by them every day. Even more tragically than their failure to remove the “symbol of the statues,” together, they did nothing to remove the spirit within the words, stone, bronze, marble, and few changes within the law” and unfortunately, it strengthened the argument for birther-ism (a spirit). After living nearly 8 decades, Biden is “new to fighting institutional injustice” in the very workplace that he served, and he will still get my vote. Of course, that is the paradox. The politics (spirit) leaves African Americans and many progressives with not only the lesser of two evils but the ever-present spirit of two evils, a real, not imaginary, demon.
After the Civil War, the confederacy was diminished by treason but elevated to legitimacy by redemption and inclusion. Lincoln, Johnson, and Grant chose reconciliation with the enemy over the rights and protection of the newly freedmen. And in that elevation, equality through “compromise and bipartisanship,” that ignores all interests central to African American progress and underserved poor white communities, racial, social, and economic progress, too.
And the compromises continue. Charles Schumer for example has allowed Mitch McConnell to advance conservative judicial appointments, as a compromise for budget deals, and other requests that Democrats deemed more important or even worse out of expediency to recess the Senate so that his members can campaign for re-election. Of course, the very judicial appointments that Mitch McConnell has been successful in advancing are devastating to the interests of Black and poor white people. From the prison industrial complex, too desperate sentencing, the ending of the second reconstruction, this is the agenda of these federal jurists advanced by McConnell. For Democrats it is just “politics” until black and brown, poor people, people who have inadequate assistance of counsel, end up facing one of these judges. The flag of the confederacy conveys a troubling legislative spirit, with no white flag hoisted for surrender.
Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden are not present when this part of their benign and sublime, “racially unconscious decision making” and “bipartisan compromises and deals” go down.
Still, other Democrats in Congress who are a permanent part of the fixture and centuries-old behavior of Congress, today will not object to removing statues, but it is their behavior, and support of “moderate legislation” and the obsession with recruiting “moderate candidates for office” (Blue Dogs) that has a deleterious effect on communities of color, that they still do not fundamentally understand. The legitimization of the statues is more reflective of the legitimization of their behavior statutorily, that is most problematic and is an even more enduring, injurious, and dangerous legacy and threatens the survival of the union.