Now let us notice first that we have made meaningful strides. I think I should point out that the Negro himself has come a long, long way in reevaluating his own intrinsic worth. In order to illustrate this, a little history is necessary. You will remember that it was in the year 1619 when the first Negro slaves landed on the shores of this nation. They were brought here from the shores of Africa. Unlike the pilgrim fathers who landed at Plymouth a year later, they were brought here against their wills. Throughout slavery the Negro was treated in a very inhuman fashion. He was a thing to be used, not a person to be respected. The famous Dred Scott decision of 1857 well illustrated the status of the Negro during slavery. For in this decision, the Supreme Court of our nation said in substance that the Negro is not a citizen of the United States, he is merely property subject to the dictates of his owner. And it went on to say that the Negro has no rights that the white man is bound to respect. And with the growth of slavery, it became necessary to give some justification for it. It seems to be a fact of life that human beings cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some thin rationalization to clothe an obvious truth, a wrong rather in the beautiful garments of righteousness. And this is exactly what happened. Even religion and the Bible were misused in order to crystallize the patterns of the status quo and justify the whole system of slavery. And so it was argued by some that the Negro was inferior by nature because of Noah’s curse upon the children of Hamm, the Apostle Paul’s victim became a watchword, servants be obedient to your master. Then one brother had probably read the logic of the great philosopher, Aristotle. You will remember that Aristotle did a great deal to bring into being what we now know as formal logic in philosophy. Formal logic has a big word known as dysteleogism. And dysteleogism has a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. And so this brother decided to put his argument of the inferiority of the Negro in the framework of an Aristotelian syllogism. He came out with his major premise, all men are made in the image of God and then came his minor premise, God as everybody knows is not a Negro, therefore, the Negro is not a man. This is the kind of reasoning that prevailed.
"... the basic thing about a man is not his specificity but his fundamentum, not the texture of his hair or the color of his skin, but his eternal dignity and worth."
While living with the system of slavery and then later segregation, many Negroes lost faith in themselves. Many came to feel that perhaps they were less than human. But then something happened to the Negro and circumstances made it possible and necessary for him to travel more—the coming of the automobile, the upheavals of two world wars, a great depression. And so his rural plantation background gradually gave way to urban industrial life. Even his economic life was gradually rising through the growth of industry, the influence of organized labor, expanded educational opportunities. And even his cultural life was gradually rising through the steady decline of crippling illiteracy. All of these forces conjoined to cause the Negro to take a new look at himself. Negro masses all over began to re-evaluate themselves. And the Negro came to feel that he was somebody. His religion revealed to him that God loves all of His children and that all men are made in His image. And that the basic thing about a man is not his specificity but his fundamentum, not the texture of his hair or the color of his skin, but his eternal dignity and worth. And so the Negro could now unconsciously cry out with the eloquent port, fleecy locks and black complexion cannot forfeit nature’s claim. Skin may differ but affection dwells in black and white the same. Were I so tall as to reach the pole or to grasp the ocean at a span, I must be measured by my soul, the mind is the standard of the man. With this new sense of dignity and this new sense of self-respect, a new Negro came into being with a new determination to struggle, to suffer and to sacrifice in order to be free. And so in a real sense, we’ve come a long, long way since 1619. But not only has the Negro himself come a long, long way in reevaluating his own intrinsic worth. If we are to be true to the facts, we must say that the whole nation has come a long, long way in extending the frontiers of civil rights. There are so many things we could point to. As one who has lived in the South all my life, I can certainly point to this because it is so easy to see the change. Thirty years ago, even 25 years ago, a year hardly passed when numerous Negroes were not brutally lynched in the South by some vicious mob. But lynchings have about ceased today. At the turn of the century there were very few Negroes registered to vote in the South. By 1948 that number had leaped to about 750,000, by 1960 it had leaped to 1,300,000, by 1964 it had leaped to 2,000,196. And the Supreme Court of our nation rendered a decision known as the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision which established a doctrine of separate but equal as the law of the land. Of course we all know what happened as a result of the Plessy Doctrine. There was always a strict enforcement of the separate without the slightest intention to abide by the equal. The Negro ended up being plunged into the abyss of exploitation, where he experienced the bleakness of nag and injustice. Then in 1954 the Supreme Court of our nation examined the legal body of segregation and on May 17 of that year, pronounced it constitutionally dead. It said in substance that the old Plessy Doctrine must go, that separate facilities are inherently unequal and that to segregate a child on the basis of his race is to deny that child equal protection of the law. And so since that that decision we have seen many significant developments. Along with that we have seen other legislative developments which have brought us nearer to the goal of justice. In 1964 President Johnson signed a comprehensive civil rights bill which had been so ably recommended by the late President Kennedy. Then in 1965 President Johnson signed the new voting rights bill, which is now the law of the land. All of these things are significant. And so in a real sense, to put it figuratively in biblical language, we have broken lose from the Egypt of slavery and we have moved through the wilderness of separate but equal and now we stand on the border of the promised land of integration. And we have come a long, long way since 1896.