Racism has reared its ugly head at the siege of the United States Capitol. Some are shocked and some, Black Americans in particular, are not.

After all, our nation was built on genocide against Native Americans, and the enslavement of African people. Neither group was treated as fully human, as entitled to the same rights as the ruling whites, the Constitution notwithstanding.

History is not just “his story,” it is our story. And my personal story includes that one of my ancestors, a Quaker farmer in Colonial Delaware, was a slaveholder. But there is more to the story. Warner Mifflin, 1745-1798, not only freed his own slaves, he turned his life into a crusade to free all slaves. As the leading abolitionist of his time, a century before the Civil War, he lobbied legislatures and George Washington himself to end the abominable practice of enslaving fellow human beings in the greedy pursuit of profit.

Mifflin took a lot of heat for his advocacy, and he was unsuccessful in the short term. Perhaps his life work helped spur the abolitionist movement that much later led to qualified freedom for Black Americans. That freedom, obviously, didn’t create a level playing field and in 2021, there is still a lot of work to do. The Rev. Raphael Warnock will be the first Black U.S. Senator from Georgia – but it took until now for that to happen, and it took work by activist Stacey Abrams other Georgians to register long-suppressed voters of color.

We’ve had a long “siege” under President Donald Trump, who fanned the flames of racial prejudice, white supremacy, bigotry. His term has ended, but that doesn’t put out the fires he lit, which led to a violent attack by his deluded supporters. Perhaps he will be remembered as the president who put children in cages, separating them from their parents, or the president who ignored a pandemic that disproportionately kills people of color, the President who said Covid 19 is just the flu, like sniffles.

Another of my ancestors, of whom I’m quite proud, was Sydney Howard Gay (1814-1888) a lawyer, journalist and ardent abolitionist. He was responsible for helping an estimated 3,000 former slaves escape to freedom on the Underground Railroad. As editor of the Anti-Slavery Standard, He worked relentlessly to end slavery, counting among his friends the former slave Frederick Douglass. Gay disappointed his father by refusing to take a a lawyer’s oath to support the Constitution, because it didn’t outlaw slavery.

Before Gay became an abolitionist, he thought anti-slavery advocates were fanatics, and he told his sister to have nothing to do with them. He then studied the nation’s history of slavery, and changed his mind, ashamed of his previous admonition.

As we honor the martyred Martin Luther King, a black man who became one of the world’s greatest civil rights leaders, we need to ask ourselves who we are, and where we are going. What kind of nation do we want? We can’t erase the past, but we can take a long hard look at it, and try our damnedest not to repeat or perpetuate our glaring injustices.

After the mob attacked the Capitol carrying Confederate flags and erecting a gallows, the President-Elect Joe Biden said this is not who we are. Tragically, it is who we are. But like Warner Mifflin, we can change. We can free ourselves from prejudice and discrimination and open our hearts. It’s very heartening to see Biden nominating people of color for positions in his administration.

It’s never too early, but it’s often too late.

— Special to the Press Herald

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