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Has America Forgotten About Slavery?

March 25, 2007, marked the bicentennial of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act passed by the English Parliament in 1807. The Act put an end to the trading of African slaves that had gone on unhindered from 1562 when Queen Elizabeth I endorsed the slaving activities of John Hawkins.

            I wonder how many people in the United States realized the importance of March 25, 2007? I wonder how many knew that this date marked the bicentennial of the first British act of parliament to abolish slavery? The 1807 Act was preceded by over two decades of active campaigning and lobbying by influential politicians and social activists. These abolitionists  included William Wilberforce, co-founder of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and contributor to other humanitarian causes. Then there was Granville Sharp, a self taught theologian and lawyer, and gifted musician, who used his vast influence to challenge the legality of slavery.

            While it is Wilberforce and Sharpe who are often featured as the champions of the cause, the one who sacrificed most was Thomas Clarkson, a relentless worker who refused to rest until his African brothers were treated as equals. And its not as if Africans remained silent. Having experienced the indignity and unimaginable horrors of slavery first hand, Olaudah Equiano, upon purchasing his own freedom, actively lobbied the powers that be to end this cruel chapter in human history.

The Beginning of the End

            Of course, the 1807 Act was only the beginning of the end of slavery in the British empire. The definitive law was not passed until 1833, and still did not guarantee full rights to Africans dispersed throughout the Caribbean and the various colonies in Canada and South America. And while slaves in the British colonies made the transition into indentured servitude, the large numbers in the United States, and the colonies controlled by the French, Spanish and Dutch were still treated as cattle.

            Ten-year-old African girls were still being raped by lust-laden Europeans. Men and women unfortunate enough to have survived the middle passage were still being forced to work twenty-hour days. Those who garnered the extra strength to flee their bondage or rise up against their oppressors were still being burned alive and subject to torture more heinous than the current victims in Guantanamo.

Why the Silence?

            As I think about the importance of the 1807 Act, I wonder why there was no real buzz in the United States for this significant bicentennial? I know that the Act was passed more than three decades after the Declaration of Independence, but America had greatly profited from the British slave trade. Remember, before the rebellion, America comprised thirteen British colonies where the majority of the stolen land had been claimed by the British crown and their bigoted cronies. The slavery that built America was a direct inheritance from her British siblings. Why doesn’t America want to remember? Why didn’t the former administration that claimed to be concerned about democracy and freedom celebrate those great liberation events in history? Why the silence?

            Perhaps it’s because there is no reason to celebrate. Why celebrate when slavery still forms the backbone of this economy? True, it doesn’t look the same as it did 160 years ago, but as the occupiers of Wall Street have highlighted, it’s still alive and kicking. How else would you describe a system where executives are rewarded with multi-million dollar bonuses while their companies “downsize” to maximize profits? How else can you describe a system where a government administration uses its armed forces to increase the personal wealth of cabinet members and millionaire congressmen? How else can you describe a system where the rights of workers to organize are being eroded while jobs are being shipped to sweat shops in the two-thirds world? Why celebrate as a nation when there is no reason to celebrate?

God has Not Forgotten

            Although the 1807 Act may not have been on the national priority list as the government attempted to stabilize its new colonies in the Middle East, I believe there was a grand celebration among the angels in the heavenly congress. Like the exodus from Egypt and release from Babylon, every act of emancipation is recorded in the heavenly annals. Every time a tyrannous dynasty is overthrown, it anticipates the ultimate revolution when the forces of evil are finally and permanently eradicated.

            Indeed, this is the essence of the gospel. It’s the gospel about the unparalleled Messiah who has come to liberate. This is the Messiah who pronounced in his inaugural sermon in Nazareth of Galilee, “The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me, for He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, he has sent me to preach deliverance to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.” (Lk 4:18-19) America may have forgotten about the major milestones in the emancipation of slaves, but God has not forgotten.

            Soon and very soon, the Judge of the Universe will pronounce the end of evil and make his grand appearance, at which time all the capitalist merchants whose wealth was built on the various systems of slavery will meet their doom. Until that time, all children of God have a responsibility to champion the rights of the downtrodden, oppressed and enslaved. As you consider the part you can play in confronting the sophisticated forms of twenty-first century slavery, always remember that “a tree is known by its fruit.”

Keith Augustus Burton is the Coordinator for the Center for Adventist-Muslim Relations at Oakwood University. Originally written in 2007, this essay is a part of a work in progress, tentatively titled “Prophetically Correct.”

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