LEWISTON — The country’s founding documents that promise freedom to all get messy when examining the history of race, the keynote speaker at Bates College’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day said Monday.

William Jelani Cobb, who teaches history at the University of Connecticut, is an author and a journalist for The New Yorker. Cobb said race is often considered a sidebar to American history.

“We can’t understand American history unless we understand the history of race,” he said.

In his “The Half Life of Freedom” speech, he said what has happened to blacks — past and present — doesn’t match the democracy theories of the country.

The inconsistencies started early.

The first draft of the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson denounced the slave trade; Jefferson described it as an “evil upon people who have done no harm and brought in shackles to the colonies.”

That didn’t make it into the final version.

“So every Fourth of July, we recognize the nation’s independence; we also recognize the anniversary of the black community being copy edited out of the founding document,” he said.

Despite the promise of democracy for all, laws protected the slave trade; free states were to return “property” of fugitive slaves to owners.

Like the federal government, states have race histories.

“Tomorrow, I’m going to Florida,” Cobb said. “Florida became part of the union because in 1819, Gen. Andrew Jackson marched into the Spanish possession and seized it.”

Jackson did that at the request of Georgia landowners concerned about losing their “property” since the Spanish did not recognize slaves, Cobb said. Before Jackson captured Florida, enslaved blacks from North Carolina or Georgia knew they would not be returned to slavery if they made it to Florida.

Even Maine has a race history, Cobb pointed out. Maine was admitted as a state through the Missouri Compromise of 1820, “making sure there would be an even number of slave states and free states.”

“Remember, the Alamo” also has race roots, Cobb said, referring to the battle at the Alamo Mission in San Antonio, Texas, during the Texas Revolution in 1836. The Mexican government was welcoming Americans to grow cotton in what is now Texas, but forbade Americans from bringing slaves.

“This was at the center of this controversy,” Cobb said.

Time and time again, for blacks, “this idea of democracy and freedom is curtailed,” he said.

More recently, when the heroin crisis first emerged in the 1970s, it was considered a drug problem among blacks, in part the basis for war on drugs, Cobb said.

“My oldest brother served in Vietnam,” he said. “He came home addicted to heroin. He died contracting HIV using heroin.”

Today, the conversation is “staggeringly different,” he said.

Recently, Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie talked about the way heroin has destroyed lives and families.

“What he did not say is we should respond by locking more people up,” or get tough on crime, Cobb said. “This is how we find ourselves; we have nearly 900,000 incarcerated (African-Americans) people in this country.”

Maine Gov. Paul LePage’s recent “white girl” remarks are disturbing, Cobb said, not because it was silly or clumsy “casual racism,” but because “it echoed an idea dangerous in American history — we have to protect white women from the menace of black men.”

In 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, some thought the race issue was solved.

But he pointed out only 39 percent of whites voted for Obama.

Recent killings of blacks such as Eric Garner on Staten Island, the massacre at a church in Charleston, S.C., and Trayvon Martin in Florida, represent an “ongoing drumroll of questions about the very nature of American citizenship under the first African-American president,” Cobb said.

What has emerged appears to be a citizenship for blacks similar to counterfeit money, he said.

“It is identical in all ways save for the actual value attached to it,” Cobb said. “We see a system where there should be legal protections, but these legal protections fail time and time again.”

There are bright spots, he said.

Cobb said he’s heartened by groups such as Black Lives Matter, by people standing up to Donald Trump’s call to forbid Muslims into the country and discriminating based on religion.

When Martin Luther King Jr. accepted his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he talked about seemingly impossible odds of maintaining faith.

Agreeing with King, Cobb said to push through the turmoil toward a civilization that has yet to be born is possible.

“This is our task,” he said.

Speakers before Cobb included U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, Bates professor Joseph Hall, Bates President A. Clayton Spencer and Bates student Rakiya Hohamed.

Pull quote:

What has emerged appears to be a citizenship for blacks similar to counterfeit money. “It is identical in all ways save for the actual value attached to it. We see a system where there should be legal protections, but these legal protections fail time and time again.” — William Jelani Cobb, Bates MLK Day keynote speaker 

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