'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal'

(Web Desk) - It all began from the ‘discovery’ of the Americas in 1492. Christopher Columbus claimed that he had found the ‘new world’ and the pendulum of the world power started shifting to the west as the new routes of trade were defined through the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean gradually started receding in vitality. The momentous changes that it brought to the course of the world history included the rise of a new power on the global scene, recession of Constantinople (Istanbul) to a port city of lesser importance, and the consequent downfall of the Ottoman Empire. Europeans found a new market in the ‘new world’ and the East and South gradually started regressing into the colonies of the western countries like Spain, Britain, France, Netherlands, Portugal and Italy. While it gave rise to colonialism in Asia, it was the Africans who received the biggest blow as slave trade found a new market in the West.

The history of slavery

Slavery is one of the many things about history that the modern world should be ashamed of. It is as old as the history itself. The oldest civilisations that we know of include Egypt, Greece, Rome and Persia. These were four major players in the ancient history and slavery has been an integral part of all four of them. Arabs continued the practice throughout their period of world dominance and it is said that the whole economies of some regions during the Abbasid era thrived on this business. Peter Frankopan argue in his monumental book ‘Silk Roads’ that the people living in what we call Russia today had an economy primarily based on the slave trade with Central Asia and Baghdad. The region was rich and the best slaves were sold here. The Rus people, who were descendants of the Swedish Vikings, resorted to looting and plundering various regions after the fall of Vikings. These Rus people found most pretty, as well as defenceless, girls and boys in the Balkans. They looted the lands of these poor villagers, napped these youth and sold them in the markets like those of Baghdad, Samarqand and Bukhara. So big was this trade that even the word ‘slave’ is derived from the name of these people living in the Balkans: Slavs. And these Rus traders went on to form the modern Russia.

So slavery has remained a mode of production almost throughout the history. But in the recent history it emerged in its worst form when the European traders started colonising vast swathes of territory in Asia and Africa. While the Asian lands that they occupied were developed enough to produce enough revenue, like India, Indonesia etc, the African lands produced almost nothing of significance but humans. The economy there was not even agricultural by that time and the social structure was tribal in most parts of Central and Southern Africa. So the Europeans started enslaving these humans. The ‘new world’ had ample space to accommodate the rich in the Europe and these rich settlers had so much land that it was impossible to toil it for them alone. These ‘colonisers’ had already cleared these lands from the ‘native’ Americans, widely known at the time as Red Indians, and the land that they had acquired after this ‘genocide’ could only be toiled with the help of slaves. They paid handsomely for the African slaves, who were tough and strong to toil the land, yet so helpless and socially primitive that revolting was not an option.

Hundreds of thousands of men and women from African regions, primarily from the areas now known as Senegal, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Congo, Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania and Madagascar were brought to America.

(Ref: Gomez, Zahkeem A: Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South, p. 27. Chapel Hill, 1998)

Slavery in the American Union continued to thrive throughout the second half of the 16th century to 1850s when it finally started to gain ground as a hot topic in American politics. The influx of Europeans into Americas after the independence changed the demography of the country completely and since there were ‘have-nots’ of the traditionally privileged ‘White’ races too in the country now, the movement for civil rights started gaining momentum. The Afro-Americans, called with derogatory terms as ‘Blacks’, ‘Negros’ and ‘coloured people’ at the time also benefited from this movement as the more industrialised North of the country became more receptive towards the idea of social equality and justice. This gave impetus to the rise of the greatest hero that the American continent has produced: Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln and the Civil War

President Abraham Lincoln with General George McClellan (third from left) at his headquarters in Antietam, Maryland in 1862.

The most crucial part of American history is the American Civil War. Abraham Lincoln was a politician gifted more in mind than in looks. Called as ‘the ugliest man in America’ by the haters, Lincoln made anti-slavery narrative central to his politics and his election to the office of President in 1860 gave the history of the ‘new world’ a turn that would bring far-reaching changes to not only American but to world history. The South-North war, in which South preferred slavery over civil rights due to the particular economic model there, began in 1961 as South Carolina decided to secede from the union on December 20, 1860 and Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas followed the cue in January and February of 1861. These states joined hands to form the ‘Confederate States of America’ on February 4, 1861. These states are generally referred to as ‘slave states’. When on April 12, Lincoln ordered a fleet for the resupply of fort Sumter in South Carolina, the war broke out.

The war continued for four years and when the Unionists finally emerged victorious in 1865, slavery officially came to an end in the United States as the 13th amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865.

Civil rights movements of 1950s and 60s

The end of slavery didn’t mean an end to the woes of the African-Americans. They remained victims of hate and discrimination even after the end of the civil war. In fact they are discriminated against even today, though the things have improved a lot over the course of last century and half. But this change was primarily the outcome of the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 60s. African-Americans were unable to use public facilities till then like the Whites. These movements claimed their right to the use of public facilities like transportation, public bathrooms, parks, educational institutions etc.

Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington

Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most significant leaders of the civil rights movement. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and Christian beliefs, being a Baptist himself, King based his movement on nonviolence. In 1963, the movement planned a March on Washington to highlight the plight of the ‘Blacks’ in the south. This was where Martin Luther King delivered his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech. Although criticised by other leaders of the movement, including Malcom X and ‘Nation of Islam’, the march is remembered for this speech and certainly played a huge role in the years to come in securing the rights for the African-Americans.

Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, Malcom X and Mohammad Ali

Deemed heretic by most Muslims, Nation of Islam has to its credit three of the biggest stars of the civil rights movement i.e. Elijah Muhammad, Malcom X (al-Hajj Maalik el-Shahbaz) and Muhammad Ali - the boxer. Termed as ‘Black supremacist’ by opponents, Nation of Islam worked for the rights of the Blacks in America and claimed that Blacks were the original humans, and followers also asserted that even (Hazrat) Adam was Black.

Muhammad Ali also converted to Islam after being inspired by Malcom X and Elijah Muhammad. After Elijah Muhammad’s fall from grace in an infamous sex scandal, which Elijah admitted to as well, the assassination of Malcom X in 1965 and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Muhammad Ali remained the only major leader for the Blacks and he led the movement with exemplary persistence for the next several years, though as a Boxing star and not a political leader.

The years that followed

After the removal of all major leaders in one way or the other, the African-American community was eventually left with no significant political leader with universal acclaim after 1968. Muhammad Ali certainly remained a global celebrity for next several years, and he remained vocal about the rights of the Black people, but the political organisation that is required for any movement to thrive on was lost.

However, the activism continued at various levels in the following decades. Scholarly works were produced continuously and an academic challenge to racism from scholar-activists like Noam Chomsky, Edward Said and Eqbal Ahmed continued to change the hearts and minds, eventually bringing things to a point where Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘dream’ was finally realised.

Barack Hussein Obama

On this day, in 2008, America elected its first president of African-American descent as Democrat leader Barack Hussein Obama first defeated Hillary Clinton in the intraparty elections and then defeated the Republican candidate, the highly respected war veteran Senator John McCain.

In his election victory speech, Obama said, “It s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled – Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America”.

The statement certainly rhymed with Martin Luther King Jr’s speech 45 years earlier in Washington before hundreds of thousands of African-Americans where he said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed:  We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal. 

Obama swearing in ceremony attended by thousands in Washington, 2009


The story has been written and researched by Ali Warsi.