Could diplomacy have worked?

By Lawrence J. Fedewa, May 4, 2018 — The 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. celebrated his life, his death, and his legacy.  The occasion also brought to mind the strategy he embodied in his quest for equal rights, namely, non-violent civil disobedience. He became the conscience of the nation, a beacon of righteousness in the darkness of an evil stain on America’s dogma of “the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. And finally, a martyr to the cause of non-violent conflict. Yet, even in death, he accomplished a volcanic shift in America’s understanding of our failings and our need to change.

The civil rights era of the 1960’s occurred 100 years after the last major civil rights conflict, the Civil War. The contrast between the two events could hardly be more profound. The most obvious difference is in the cost of the violent confrontation. It is estimated that there were 650,000 casualties between 1861 and 1865. Between 1960 and 1968 the most notable casualty was Dr. King himself.

What was accomplished?

Clearly, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 14th and 15th Amendments established a sound legal basis for the outlawing of slavery and ownership of human beings, and equal voting rights of African Americans. And for the first few years of Reconstruction, African Americans were able to vote and elect a new leadership of the South — until the Southern whites re-organized. Then began the “Jim Crow” era of legalized segregation which stifled the entire movement for the next century.

So, in the end, what was really accomplished? The paperwork of equal rights became the law of the land. But life in the South merely exchanged legal slavery for economic — and therefore political – slavery. Was that worth the lives of an entire generation of young men?

What if the philosophy of Dr. King had been in the air in the 1850’s? What if diplomacy had come before War? Diplomacy prevented the Cold War from becoming World War III. Even now we are using diplomacy to prevent war on the Korean peninsula. What if the Abolitionists had been held at bay, and the North had agreed to recognize the Confederacy under certain conditions? Such conditions would of necessity have had to appease the less bloodthirsty of the Abolitionists. For example, one condition might have been that the property rights of slave owners with respect to human beings would not be respected by the United States of America, which would enforce its proclamation that “all men are created equal”. Thus, any slaves who could escape to the North would be unconditionally free.

Another condition might have been that unincorporated territories could proclaim their allegiance to either nation or to a new nation by a free and open plebiscite, which would be respected by both nations.  This would probably have led to a geography of the American continent looking more like Europe than the current United States.

There would have undoubtedly been many other such conditions. It is also highly speculative to imagine that the Abolitionists could have been denied their War. It seems, however, more likely that slavery could not have lasted much longer in the South, since emancipation was in the air. Slavery had been abolished in England and its colonies more than a half century earlier, and the pressure from competition of the North and Canada would have become overwhelming. How the South would have handled its own conversion is a matter of further speculation. It could hardly have been any worst than the Jim Crow approach, especially as enforced by the Ku Klux Klan.

What would have been avoided is the extreme hostility between North and South which endured for generations. It is one thing to have a debate with an opponent. It is another thing entirely to watch that opponent kill your son or your brother. Such hatreds are enkindled by violence as in no other way. And this was one legacy of the Civil War for which the African Americans of the South paid dearly.

Ultimately, we can, of course, never know what might have been. Perhaps it would have been better than what was. Perhaps not. The value of such speculation is to help us understand the consequences of wars and the implications of the quest for peace.

(c) Richfield Press, Ltd. 2018 All rights reserved

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