America has had a turbulent history with the word “all” since its very beginning. In 1776, during the founding of our nation, the founding fathers thought it important to define freedom and the inalienable rights of man in the Declaration of Independence, forever coining one of the most powerful statements in the pursuit of justice and liberty everywhere – “all men are created equal.” Unfortunately, the phrase that’s often used to defend the agency, equality and humanity of all persons, has been used insidiously as a means of erasure instead of inclusion in this nation’s history.
When the founding fathers wrote that all men were created equal, they wrote this during a time where black bodies were considered property, Native Americans were considered savages, and women had no political capital. Many of them, in fact, owned slaves while demanding that all men be considered equal. If we could go back in time, and update what “all” meant to accurately reflect its intent, the Declaration of Independence might have read: “all white, property-owning males are created equal.” I’m sure that probably wouldn’t have had the same romantic, historical resonance to it. Regardless, it would take 11 more years, in 1787, for the majority of blacks in America to finally be counted as people. Well, somewhat that is. The Three-Fifths compromise decided that slaves would count as 3/5ths of a person in the newly-formed United States. And not because the larger society was getting closer to recognizing black personhood, but rather, so that southern white, property-owning males could leverage the population increase for representation in government. When a certain group of people are invisible, and not even regarded as entire, complete human beings in society at large, how could they have ever been included in the definition of “all” to begin with?
On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. orated his “I Have a Dream” speech, one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century, and one which powerfully underlined the still present, dimly flickering optimism that remained in the Civil Rights Movement at that time. In it, he called out the founding fathers – and subsequent generations of Americans that followed them – for failing to uphold their promise of equality: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note… Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
Martin Luther King, Jr. fundamentally understood the tragic irony of the word “all” in America’s long-running struggle for true equality. “All” never meant to include black people, women, or any other minority for that matter. The term that, at first glance, seemed to include everyone was actually a door meant to keep certain people in and shut everyone else out. As long as politicians and the American constituency could decide who “all” was intended to be, minorities of all creeds would never be able to get a seat at the table. However, “all” has the important distinction of allowing for possibility. Just because nearly 190 years of discrimination, exclusion and prejudice kept America from achieving the truest form of liberty during the time of Dr. King, that didn’t mean it wasn’t achievable. King, Jr. believed that if he could fight, march, speak, and boycott enough, then maybe white Americans and politicians would understand that “all” included other people, too. He had “a dream that one day this nation [would] rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed” so that his own children could “one day live in a nation where they [would] not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” And not only black people, but that “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, [would] be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” Unfortunately, he died in 1968, never allowing him the chance to see that dream fully actualized. Despite all the progress that has been made in society since King’s passing, the misuse of the word “all” still finds a way creep back up and massage the deep rooted tensions that linger amongst the culture.
In recent times, there has been what seems to be steady rise in black deaths at the hands of excessive police force and a lack of justice enacted against their assailants. In 2012, around the time George Zimmerman was put on trial for (and ultimately acquitted of) the killing of Trayvon Martin, the #BlackLivesMatter movement was born. The trend of unarmed black deaths reached a critical point after the death of Michael Brown, an 18 year old who was shot dead by police in Ferguson, Missouri in August of 2014. As a result, #BlackLivesMatter took social media by storm, and the political movement has mobilized hundreds of activists and spurred several protests after further incidents of police brutality that followed – including the deaths of Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. The onslaught of high-profile cases of unarmed black men and women being killed, have led to approximately 60% of Americans believing race relations in the U.S. are “generally bad.” To add insult to injury, as a response to #Blacklivesmatter, the hashtag #alllivesmatter appeared as an effort to counter the messaging some people felt the Black Lives Matter movement elicited.
The issue with #Alllivesmatter, however, is that in its effort to counteract what it perceives as racism, it undermines the fact that black lives, in and of themselves, matter. The use of “all” becomes a direct attack, insinuating that issues specifically affecting black communities need not be singled out because that’s somehow unfair to other people; even if the issue in question does not impact those other people. Declaring that “black lives matter” does not imply that other lives don’t. In fact, it serves as a reminder to society-at-large that black lives, like everyone else’s, do matter and instances of unwarranted violence that lead to death by those who are called to protect us shouldn’t be tolerated anywhere. Conversely, declaring that “all lives matter” as a rebuttal to the fact that black ones matter is a backhanded slap in the face; one that fails to recognize the fact that other groups need to be acknowledged, validated and uplifted, too.
The soon-to-be 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump (who has also been very vocal against the Black Lives Matter movement), gets sworn into office later this week on Friday, January 20th. It’s been a major point of concern that he largely embodies the arrogant obliviousness of the men who penned the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Trump is a man who practically started his entire political career by publicly doubting the citizenship of America’s first Black President, Barack Obama, and kicked off his candidacy during the 2016 election by essentially calling Mexicans drug peddlers, rapists and criminals. He is a man that called for a ban of all Muslims, and assumes all black people living in the inner-city, receive poor educations from failing schools, and risk getting shot just by walking down the street. During his second presidential debate with Hillary Clinton, an African-American town-hall audience member posed the question “Do you believe you can be a devoted president to all the people of the United States?” That is a question that fails to go far enough, however. We are well past the point of assuming that “all” garners the political and societal inclusion that it ought to. It fails to define those on the fringes, and those whose lives invariably mean less to some the political leaders elected to serve them. On this Martin Luther King Day, we need to ask how the incoming President and the GOP-controlled House and Senate, will serve a diverse nation? How will they work to represent and fight for the needs and rights of citizens of different races, classes, genders, religions, veteran statuses and sexual orientations? What are their plans for making us a stronger, more united nation? Also, we need to look to ourselves and ask how will we as a nation work together to become strengthened by our differences and not divided because of them. America cannot afford to use vague, blanket language to address the complex issues it’s facing. We need to be specific, because, frankly, “all” isn’t cutting it anymore.