As U.S. President Biden prepared his State of the Union address on Tuesday, a group of younger speakers were delivering remarks not far from the White House. District of Columbia elementary and middle school students gathered at historic Ford’s Theatre, where president Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, for the annual Lincoln Oratory Festival. Among the speeches the students recited were Lincoln’s “House Divided,” Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is Your Fourth of July?,” and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “To the Mountaintop.”
Lincoln gave his “House Divided” speech in 1858 at the Illinois Republican Party Convention, where he had been nominated to run for U.S. Senate against the Democratic incumbent, Stephen Douglas.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Lincoln said to the 1,000 delegates, quoting a well-known Bible verse. He continued, foreshadowing the Civil War, three years distant: “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free…It will become all one thing or all the other.”
While Lincoln lost his Senate race, the campaign gained him national recognition. He won the presidency two years later, largely on the power of his oratory and unwavering determination to end slavery. By the time he died, on April 15, 1865, the morning after he was shot, the North had effectively won the Civil War.
A critical moment in civil rights history followed, known as Reconstruction, when federal troops gave freed Black people in the former Confederacy some protections from hostile whites, especially the Ku Klux Klan. Reconstruction ended by 1877, ushering in almost a century of Jim Crow, lynchings, and white racist terror.
Violence against Black people, though, was never limited to the South. On March 31, 1870, the first known killing of a free Black man by a police officer in the U.S. occurred in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Constable Whiteside shot Henry Truman in the stomach, killing him.
On April 2, 1870, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported court testimony from eyewitnesses. Mary Black testified, “Truman said to the constable, ‘What is the matter?’ and he was answered by the constable, ‘I’ll show you,’ and drawing a revolver Whiteside fired and shot him.”
That was on page 2 of The Inquirer. Page 1 featured a story about President Ulysses Grant’s visit to Philadelphia the previous day. Black Philadelphians serenaded him in thanks for successfully enacting the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing Black men the right to vote, ratified only two months earlier.
The police killing of Henry Truman in 1870 was memorialized during Biden’s State of the Union address by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, wearing black buttons bearing the number “1870.” The button was distributed by Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, the first African-American woman elected to Congress from New Jersey. She explained the 1870 button in a video:
“153 years later, the Black community is still waiting for justice. Last month, history repeated itself, from Henry Truman to Breonna Taylor, the murder of Tyre Nichols echoes countless other police killings of unarmed Black Americans. I mourn each and every life that has been stolen from us. But I have grown tired of mourning. Mourning alone will bring us no closer to justice. In 2022, police killed at least 1,176 people – the highest number on record…The time is now to demand real reform from police departments that have built and maintained a culture of racism and violence.”
Tyre Nichols was beaten to death by five Memphis police officers last month. Like Henry Truman, Tyre Nichols appealed to the officers. “I didn’t do anything,” he said, as the police escalated their violence against him.
Tyre’s parents, RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, were in the gallery at the State of the Union, guests of First Lady Jill Biden. When President Biden acknowledged the grieving couple, both sides of the chamber, Republican and Democrat, stood to applaud them. It was a rare moment of accord during an evening defined by division and rancour.
“The parents of Tyre Nichols…had to bury Tyre last week. As many of you personally know, there’s no words to describe the heartache or grief of losing a child. But imagine, imagine if you lost that child at the hands of the law,” Biden said.
RowVaughn and Rodney Wells are advocating for passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, to combat police misconduct and to hold police accountable for abuse, most controversially by restricting “qualified immunity” of officers.
The bill passed the Democrat-controlled House last term, but was blocked in the Senate with a Republican filibuster, a parliamentary relic that predates the Civil War, used by Southern Senators to protect the institution of slavery. It has little chance of passing under the current, Republican-controlled House.
Much has changed since Abraham Lincoln gave his “House Divided” speech, but too much remains the same.
This column originally appeared in Democracy Now!