AMISTAD AND RACE RELATIONS 1998

FEBRUARY 15, 1998
R.M. FEWKES

Movie director Steven Spielberg will no doubt always be remembered for his science fiction films, of which he's done many, but especially E.T., each with their grand special effects to capture your imagination and draw you into the action of the film. He will probably do many more such films in the future. They are usually big money makers. But every once in awhile he sets his mind and heart to do a serious film as he did with "Schindler's List" a few years ago, telling the true story of how a crafty German industrialist, Oskar Schlindler, managed to save 1200 Jews from certain extermination in the death camps, a powerful movie indeed. Now he has done it again in his most recent film about a slave rebellion in 1839 on the Spanish Ship "Amistad" on which the captain and the crew were killed and only two whites, the owners, were spared. The Amistad was later picked up by a U.S. naval vessel and the rebellious slaves brought into New Haven on charges of murder and piracy.

A series of trials followed: first in the State of Connecticut, and finally in the United States Supreme Court. The owners of the slave ship argued that the slaves belonged to them and were purchased in Cuba. But the slaves understood not a word of Spanish nor English for that matter. The Spanish Crown wanted the slaves returned to them where they would then be tried for murder and piracy in their courts, which then President Van Buren was only too eager to do to keep peace with Spain. Southern Senators wanted them to be tried in American federal courts on the same charge. It was a legal nightmare to say the least.

The acting in the film is first rate. Matthew McGonaughey, who had a less than prestigious role in the movie "Contact", plays the part of Roger Baldwin, an ineffectual real estate attorney turned abolitionist lawyer, who incidentally later became Governor of Connecticut. The leader of the slave revolt, Cinque, is played by an African born former model, Djmon Honsou, who in the movie speaks no English, only his native W. African Mendi tribal language. Spielberg uses with great effect the technique of flashbacks (through the mind of Cinque) to fill in the missing pieces of the experience of the abducted slaves on board ship after leaving African waters. It was not uncommon for slave merchants at sea to drown some of the slaves on board when it was clear they did not have enough provisions to sustain them for the long journey. They would tie them together and drop them over board with a heavy weight which would pull them quickly under the sea. This cruel action apparently happened on the first leg of their journey and is portrayed in the film with powerful and agonizing effect.

In the movie Roger Baldwin argues that the Africans cannot be tried for murder if they are not in fact native born slaves on a plantation, but are instead freemen taken from their native land by slave traders which by 1839 was an illegal action according to both American and Spanish law. Since they cannot speak a word of English it is clear that they are not American born. A Catholic judge rules in favor of the defense and orders that the native Africans be set free. But the prosecution appeals to the Supreme Court where they hope to win their case at the highest level. Enter John Quincy Adams played superbly by British actor Anthony Hopkins who has his Boston-Braintree accent honed down to a "T", or should we say down to the lost "Rs." There are some scenes of Hopkins at the Adams Estate in Quincy or a replica thereof. The defense implores John Quincy Adams to help argue their case before the Supreme Court which he eventually agrees to do.

In the actual case John Quincy Adams speaks for eight and a half hours and argues that the African slave trade was not only illegal but against the natural right of all human beings for freedom. Though the Court had a majority of Southerners sitting on the bench Adams' eloquence so impressed the jurists that they finally ordered Cinque and the other Africans to be set free and returned to their native Africa. In the movie Hopkins holds a copy of the Declaration of Independence in his hands which he tears in half and says that it would be a worthless document if the Court ruled against the right of Cinque and the Africans to seek and fight for their freedom. It is a very impressive scene.

Spielberg does take some liberties with the history of the event for dramatic effect, but he does remain true to the spirit and implications of the case. For example, he portrays Protestant abolitionists carrying crucifixes as they protest and pray for the slaves, something that no Protestant sect ever did then or now. Crucifixes were associated with "Popery" which they wanted no more to do with than with slavery. Spielberg has some very moving and dramatic encounters between John Quincy Adams and Cinque which not only never happened, but it is unlikely that Adams ever met Cinque in person. The African prisoners may have been present in the courtroom in Connecticut, but not in the Supreme Court as they were in the film. Anthony Hopkins portrayal of John Quincy Adams' speech before the Supreme Court, though based on the event, never quotes anything from the actual historical text. It was entirely rewritten for the movie. But that's all right. Anthony Hopkins rises to the challenge and gives a very convincing performance.

The fall out from the Amistad rebellion was that the international slave trade was dealt a severe blow. Other rebellions at sea followed. The case helped awaken the abolitionist movement in the States and contributed to the moral climate that led to the Civil War. What is interesting is that before Spielberg's movie the "Amistad" case was little known and often not much more than an extended footnote in history texts. But it was indeed a key historical event and one that truly capped the political career of John Quincy Adams. He was 74 at the time and still serving in the Congress, the only former President to do so in the history of the republic. The case elevated Adams into one of the nation's strongest voices against slavery. Until his death in 1848 he was hailed and celebrated in the North and hated and vilified in the South.

Remember when the Mendi Bible and three other rare books were stolen from the Adams National Historic Site's library in November 1996? Fortunately, the books were recovered from a Portsmouth, N.H. gym the following January. Well, the Mendi Bible was presented to John Quincy Adams as a token of thanks for his able defense of their case before the Supreme Court. What happened to Cinque after his return to Africa? Apparently he returned home only to find that his wife and family had all been sold into slavery. There was a historical rumor, probably perpetrated by Southern racists, that Cinque set himself up as a slave trader. But there is not a shred of historical evidence to support that scurrilous charge. Cinque disappears into the mists of history one of the early black heroes who had the courage to rebel against the slavery of himself and his people. Steven Spielberg has done himself proud to bring Cinque back from our dark national history of of slavery, to restore him to historical memory and to elevate him into the hall of heroes along with the likes of Roger Baldwin and John Quincy Adams.

The slave rebellion on the Spanish ship Amistad took place 149 years ago. We've come a long ways since those terrible days of the slave trade. But we and the world still have a long ways to go to restore the relations between the races to full justice and respect between peoples. Though slavery as a legal institution has disappeared from American shores the practice of slavery in the world has by no means disappeared and there is still slavery to be found on the North African continent. Charles Jacobs, research director of the American Anti-Slavery Group in Somerville, talks about the remnants of slavery still to be found around the globe:

"In Asia, women are bought and sold and forced to serve in brothels frequented by US businessmen....In India child "carpet slaves" weave the orientals that adorn suburban homes....In Pakistan child slaves make soccer balls....In Mauritania...up to 90,000 black Muslims serve their Arab Berber masters....In Sudan, a civil war rekindled the slave trade. Radical Islamists in Khartoum use slave raids as a weapon in their jihad on black Christians and animists of south and on black Muslim moderates in the Nuba mountains."

Jacobs has tried to corral white liberal and black leadership to address the issue of slavery in North Africa. Rep. Barney Frank has given his support as has liberal journalist Nat Hentoff. The Quakers are trying to bring the issue to college and university campuses. But that's about it. Jesse Jackson has decided not to speak out about this issue because it might be perceived as "anti-Arab." The NAACP resolved to "come to the front of this battle" but has yet to take any action. Not even Amnesty International has taken up this cause as worthy of its concern. It wants "more study." That was three years ago. Jacobs asks, "Where are the liberals on this issue of black slavery in Africa?" Only the Christian right--Pat Robertson, Bill Bennett, Ralph Reed, Gary Bauer--"are fighting hard against black slavery today in Africa." Jacobs says that some of his liberal friends have told him to reject their support (meaning the religious right), but Jacobs replies that "human freedom is not a question of right or left, just right or wrong." And then he concludes: "America almost tore itself apart over the issue of one man owning another. It is inconceivable that any part of America would abandon today's black slaves for any reason. And we will not."

I confess that until I read Jacobs column in the GLOBE a few months ago I was not aware of this continuing issue of black slavery in Africa 149 years after the Amistad rebellion. Barney Frank has warned that liberal whites could do little about this issue without black leadership and support. I think he's probably right. Jacobs would like to reignite the antiapartheid coalition vis-a-vis Sudan. Freedom, he says, should be as precious in Kartoum as it was once thought to be in Johannesberg. I for one would like to see the UU Service Committee take on this issue. If modern day slavery is not an issue of justice and human dignity I don't know what is. Perhaps there is not much we can do about the continuing practice of slavery in Mauritania or Sudan, but we should at least not delude ourselves that slavery has disappeared from the modern world.


In the meantime we have much to do to address issues of racism, discrimination and prejudice in our own land. To his credit President Clinton has sought to promote conversations about race relations in America on a citizen to citizen basis. It is certainly something that is needed, but is it enough? For many years affirmative action was used to promote greater black participation in jobs and education, and it helped to do just that. But many whites felt resentful that it was being applied in such a way as to discriminate against whites who were in many instances better qualified to be chosen. California was one of the first states to reject affirmative action policies of any kind as unlawful and unconstitutional. The result has been a dramatic reduction in black students being admitted into university undergraduate and graduate programs. Many of the more intelligent black students have chosen to attend black schools and colleges rather than to go where they now feel they are not wanted. Is that what we want in our schools and colleges, a return to segregation in education? I don't think so.

I remember when I came to Norwell in 1969. One of the controversial issues being talked about at the time was the concept of "reparations." This was based on the view that since blacks had been discriminated against for so many generations that they had not had an equal opportunity for education and job training. Whites on the other hand had been living off the economic profits and benefits of a past history of slavery and discrimination. To right these wrongs black leaders were saying that white society had a moral obligation to redistribute wealth and to open up the doors of educational and economic opportunities for the black minority. Only by so doing could the wrongs of centuries be righted and blacks truly be integrated into the opportunities of American culture.

It was not a popular concept among middle class whites at the time who had no desire to pay for the sins of past generations. On the other hand they had no compunctions about living off the advantages--political, social and economic--that past generations had bequeathed to them--knowing full well that they did not receive those advantages in a fully just, fair and equitable manner. The experiment of affirmative action was considered a means to address the issue raised by the reparations controversy. It was thought of as a temporary social program to give blacks an opportunity to educate and improve their lot over a generation or two. In the best of all possible worlds such a program would not be necessary. But we do not live in the best of all possible worlds, neither then nor now. The question for us today is, if not affirmative action of some kind, however defined, then what?

Last month the Norwell Mariner had a special section on race relations on the South Shore. It had excellent coverage of the METCO education program which has bussed black students from Dorchester and Roxbury into suburban schools in Braintree, Rockland and Cohasset. The program, which was begun by Jeanne McGuire, is in its 32nd year. For all its problems, and there have been some, it has been an enormous success. White students in a town like Cohasset, who would almost never have had the opportunity to go to school with a student with a black face, have gotten to know their fellow black students as people with similar needs and many of them have become friends. There is no substitute for face to face encounters in school and society.


Though blacks are clearly more visible in all walks of life--in teaching and education, in sports and entertainment, in politics and the professions, we should not become so apathetic that we assume the struggle for equal opportunity and economic access for blacks and other minorities is a done deal. There are many who would turn the clock back if they could, and some think that with the ending of affirmative action programs we have done just that. We should also not forget that hate groups and organizations like the Klu Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party, though less powerful than they used to be, are far from dead. Given the opportunity they would rise to the occasion and participate in organized violent activities leading to genocide of blacks and Jews and any others who would stand in their way. That is why I continue to remain a member and supporter of the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center which keeps tabs on the activities of the Klan and other hate groups, much as B'nai B'rith does the same in terms of watching out for the actions of anti-semitic groups and individuals.

Justice and freedom can never be taken for granted. Only to the extent that we are willing to protect and assure those rights for minorities in our society can we ensure that we will have those same rights for ourselves. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once put it so beautifully: "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Or as it says in the words of our closing hymn:

"When a deed is done for freedom, through the broad earth's aching breast/ Runs a thrill of joy prophetic, trembling on from east to west/....All earth's ocean sundered fibres feel the gush of joy or shame;/ In the gain or loss of one race all the rest have equal claim."