War, Economics, and Civil Rights

I spent this summer as a PolitiCorps Fellow in Portland, OR. The program is funded by The Bus Project, a nonprofit that works in civic engagement and youth empowerment. We learn how to run campaigns, get our feet wet in state and local politics, and get to meet some incredible policymakers and politicians all over the state–from incoming Portland Mayor (and current Oregon Treasurer) Ted Wheeler to Congressman Earl Blumenauer.

A few weeks ago, Erious Johnson, the Director of Civil Rights at the Oregon Department of Justice came in to speak with the cohort. His words were some of the most powerful that I heard all summer. He talked through the history of civil rights in our nation and helped me understand the connections between citizenship, war, and economic reasoning. [You might have heard of Erious Johnson, JD, because his civil rights were recently violated when he was profiled by his own department, a shameful occurrence]

At its core, slavery was an economic system, a way to profit off of human lives and labor. This economic system was politically protected (12 of our first 18 presidents were slaveholders, as were 5 out of 9 of the supreme court justices who ruled on the Dred Scott case). Why would a country overthrow a system that was economically sound? The three-fifths compromise is an ironic example of this very phenomena: how slaves didn’t matter as human beings, but mattered as an economic and political bargaining chip for Southern representation.

Something that I didn’t realize was that when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he didn’t make slaves citizens–he just agreed to stop forcefully deporting them. (This has parallels with Obama’s DACA and DAPA immigration policies) Lincoln made this choice because encouraging slaves to come to the North (and “be free”) would make the South suffer economically while boosting the North’s military might. This link between war and citizenship is notable over time. When did the Women’s Rights movement finally gain the vote? During World War 1–when women proved their worth in the workforce. When did 18 year olds gain the right to vote? During the Vietnam War when 18-year olds protested that they could be drafted, but couldn’t even vote in elections. And when did LGBTQ rights become a national issue–in the 1990’s, when “don’t ask don’t tell” became the military’s stance on disclosing orientation. [It is also notable that the bus boycott in Alabama was successful because it economically impacted the bus companies–without the economic incentive, political rights cannot be won.]

Aren’t the connections between violence and citizenship startling when viewed through a historical lens? I certainly think so–thank you to Mr. Erious Johnson for a incredible and insightful presentation.

 

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