“There is no freedom unless all of us are free.”
– Reginald Hawkins, May 20, 1963.
A week ago, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell wrote U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to express “grave concern” about the department’s approach to U.S. History, which he claimed was promoting “activist indoctrination that fixates solely on past flaws and splits our nation into divided camps.”
He singled out the 1619 Project, led by Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times, which emphasizes the significance of racial slavery in shaping American economy, society, and culture.
Such efforts, McConnell lamented, “increasingly subject Americans to a drumbeat of revisionism and negativity about our nation’s history and identity.” As a result, he warned, “American pride has plummeted to its lowest level in 20 years.”
It is far past time for our nation to genuinely reckon with our deeply flawed racial history. Efforts to hide historic realities beneath “patriotic” platitudes obscure hard truths about both past and present and keep us from shaping a truer, more grounded national sense of pride and struggle.
Last summer, as Black activists across the country rallied against the systemic racism that plagues our nation, I worked with the good people at Queen City Nerve to publish “Black History of Charlotte,” a five-part series that details some of the challenges and accomplishments of Charlotte’s African American residents from the close of the Civil War into the present.
The next issue of the Nerve, on May 19, will extend the series with the first of a two-part “prequel” that examines Black Charlotte history from the 1740s through the Civil War.
The timing matters. May 20 is “Meck Dec Day,” which commemorates the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. Sparse historical records have prompted fierce debates over whether the Declaration, said to have been signed in 1775, is reality or myth. But despite this controversy, the Meck Dec has formed a prominent component of identity in Charlotte and North Carolina for more than a hundred and fifty years. Its date has been on the North Carolina state flag since the Civil War, and it inspired the “First in Freedom” slogan that graces some North Carolina license plates. It thus offers an ideal focus for historical reassessment.
Promoters of the Meck Dec generally focus on the signers’ independent spirit, distrust of authority and “firm belief that all men were equal.” Chronicler J.B. Alexander set this tone in 1902, writing that Mecklenburg County “was populated with a race of people” who “had been taught that liberty and independence were necessary to achieve the highest aims in life.”
What Alexander failed to mention – and what most accounts of the Meck Dec either leave out or gloss over – is that many of the signers were actively engaged in denying liberty and independence to other human beings – the men and women of African descent whom they had enslaved. Men such as John Davidson, Thomas Polk and Hezekiah Alexander built fortunes by exploiting enslaved labor. They justified this practice with the claim that Africans and their descendants were a “lesser” race of people than the white Europeans who enslaved them. The legacy of those actions and ideas remain with us today.
The irony of claiming liberty for oneself while denying it to others has not been lost on Charlotte’s Black activists. Starting after the Civil War, and continuing into the civil rights era, African Americans working for freedom, justice and equality have periodically chosen Meck Dec Day as a forum for their own claims to equal rights of citizenship. “There is no freedom unless all of us are free,” longtime activist Reginald Hawkins proclaimed on May 20, 1963, after leading Johnson C. Smith students on a march from campus to the center city to protest segregation in public accommodations. Our May 19 publication will tell some of these stories.
As pandemic restrictions ease, Charlotteans are planning Meck Dec events for 2021, among them a City Council proclamation that designates May 20-24 “Meck Dec Week,” a noontime reenactment complete with horses and cannon, and a “Captain James Jack” bike ride tied to the story that Captain Jack (he of the statue) carried the Declaration to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
It’s hard to envision how one might incorporate the contradictions between the rhetoric of freedom and the harsh realities of slavery into these events. Mitch McConnell would likely call such an effort “divisive nonsense.” He would be wrong. This is the work of our time. The mindset that allowed so many of our county’s Revolutionary Era residents to envision freedom for some and not for others affects us to this day. The inclination to gloss over this dark side of our history obscures our understanding of our present-day circumstances. There is no freedom unless all of us are free. We have to open our eyes.