At The Root Of Unalienable Rights Was He

The written word, the truth they sometimes hold, their lies sometimes, but those words we document may be the only remnant we leave that we lived at all. When you seek these truths of the past, tell your stories, beyond just the dash between the dates that you find those words to be precious. For the written word can be a powerful tool, and for all genealogists, professional or amateur, an essential one. Words in a census define our place of residence, our livelihood, where we were born, our parents, our children, layout incidentals that can sometimes speak volumes to those who may come after looking. They record our race, religion, and place of origin, all eventually find their way into the historical record, through newspapers, wills, in military documents, through journals, memoirs.

I actually had watched this episode first a few months back, and it was one I found quite powerful and offered a slice into the history of racism in America. Mentioned this before, but bears repeating, U.S. history is not my strong suit and quite frankly, I’ve learned most of what I know from watching these genealogical programs. 

Maybe it’s just sheer nosiness, yet for whatever reason, I do really enjoy watching others discover their history. Our histories, our ancestors, often relegated to the shadows, hidden, sometimes from shame, often from just time and how those deeds of the dead slowly erode and disappear generation after generation. There are stories that lay hidden in words, and if you do decide to go looking you never know for certain what you may find. Will there be heroes or crooks? Princes or paupers?

So this episode of Finding Your Roots originally aired I guess a few years ago and featured two men, one a Congressman, the other now a Senator.

“I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”

Martin Luther King Jr. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Probably this one resonates because the one featured guest has a storied past, a leader born out of the civil rights movement of the ’60s in America, and a man I would not expect to see so moved by the story his ancestor had to tell him, and I’ll admit, I’d never heard of until that show.

On these programs to have the person in question get a little teary is common, just I always think of statesmen, leaders such as him who saw so much, did so much, as maybe super human. Yet, I know some of our ancestors led some fairly dismal lives, did amazing or terrifying things, experienced great poverty, injustice, victims of ignorance, unjustified prosecution, disease, and a host of atrocities and hardships most of us will never know. But to me, THIS man seemed not the type, but it is a powerful thing, I know how that sense of discovery feels.

U.S. Congressmen John Lewis came face to face with a person that had a story to tell him, and considering who his grandson became, and what he did, does still.

… the youngest of the Big Six civil rights leaders as chairman of SNCC from 1963 to 1966, some of the most tumultuous years of the Civil Rights Movement. During his tenure, SNCC opened Freedom Schools, launched the Mississippi Freedom Summer, and organized some of the voter registration efforts during the 1965 Selma voting rights campaign. As the chairman of SNCC, Lewis had written a speech in reaction to the Civil Rights Bill of 1963. He denounced the bill because it didn’t protect African Americans against police brutality or provide African Americans with the right to vote.


In the middle of the 1800s this ancestor was a slave, yet upon their emancipation first thing went to the local church to be married, as slaves could not marry, could not have families. They prospered, after being granted land by the man who had owned them, left to them in his will as he had wanted to ensure they both, being elderly, were taken care of in a time when many ex-slaves were living in extreme poverty. Which is interesting, and unique for the time, but not entirely uncommon either, as history is never neat and tidy, but full of gray and uneasy truths.

That’s all well and good, but it was the last detail they revealed that moved this man of Congress, and moved me, the one thing that would take a story of the strength of will and intelligence into the realm of rare gift, insight into why we are who we are, do what we do, fight the fights we fight.

After the civil war, from 1863 till 1877, African-Americans were first granted the right to vote, and his ancestor was one of the very, very first African Americans to do so. However, and this is what he himself fought for all those years, it would take 125 years for that same man’s great-grandchildren to be granted that same right back, to recognize that all are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights, like ALL American’s should enjoy.

Black voting rights are one of the pillars of what this man has spent his life working at, from marches and sit-ins, and experiencing first hand the violent fist of white supremacy when he was beaten up rather severely during those days of the Civil Rights Movement. It didn’t stop him, it probably fueled him, and so it must have also felt so powerful to understand that this sense of purpose he had his whole life, beginning way back when he grew up experiencing the racist minds that surrounded him in the Jim Crow south and even than fought against it, is something in his blood, this DNA, this force within his nature, was etched inside him from a man he never knew even existed. That this sense of purpose, this strength of character, this desire to stand and be counted, was an inheritance given to him from someone who lived in slavery for most of their life, and that he was granted an inheritance with far more value than a plot of land.

“The measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

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