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Ferguson - A Country Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand

18/08/2014 09:16 BST | Updated 17/10/2014 10:59 BST

"A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new -- North as well as South." A. Lincoln

The House Divided Speech was given by Abraham Lincoln on June 16, 1858 upon accepting the Illinois Republican Party's nomination as that state's United States Senator, at what was then the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield.

Although Lincoln lost that election for the US Senate to incumbent Stephen A. Douglas, of the Lincoln-Douglas 1858 campaign debate fame, Lincoln's remarks in Springfield emblazoned upon the country an image of the dangers of slavery and a people living half slave and half free.

It was on the Illinois State Capitol steps a century and a half later that Illinois Senator Barack Obama launched his successful campaign to become America's first Black President.

On October 16, 2011, I posted a Huffington Post UK Analysis Blog titled:

An America Divided marking the 150th Anniversary of The Civil War.

A century and a half ago, Americans struggled with both the end of slavery and a conflict that pitted brother against brother and divided the nation.

Today, in August of 2014, that struggle continues as America still wrestles with the legacy of slavery and oppression and tries to get a handle on exactly what went terribly wrong on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri.

We are once again trying to understand each other through the lens of yet another tragic event.

It is 49 years since the Watts Riots of August 1965; 22 years since the Rodney King beatings in 1992; 20 years since the OJ Simpson Murder Trial in June of 1994 and only 2 years since Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida - and now Michael Brown killed in Ferguson, Missouri.

Not much has changed!

Despite all the efforts toward racial equality from the Emancipation Proclamation to the 13th Amendment, from Plessy vs. Fergusson to Brown vs. the Board of Education, from "The Little Rock Nine" in Arkansas to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor Peoples March on Washington; from busing to quotas, all the way to the election of the first Black President in 2008, the economic and social divide between White and Black Americans stubbornly persists.

Despite the efforts of Fredrick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Robert F. Kennedy, John R. Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin, Ralph Bunche, Whitney Young, Julian Bond and Malcolm X, along with countless others....we still remain separate and unequal.

We are still consumed by an overwhelming sense of social and economic upheaval and a fear of one another.

From To Kill a Mocking Bird to Guess Who is Coming to Dinner to Do The Right Thing to 12 Years A Slave - the lesson, that we are all people who have a common bond - to love our families and our children and to give them a better life than we have had - is one we just cannot seem to learn.

White and Black Americans have fought in one way or another, side by side in the Union Army, in World War I and II, in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, only to return to their own separate neighborhoods, separate houses of worship and their own separate lives.

Black and White Americans, for the most part, simply do not live in the same society and do not see the world around them in the same way.

Many White Americans see the police as their protectors while many Black Americans view them as a group of armed enforcers who are naturally predisposed to doubt their innocence...."Driving While Black."

From birth many White Americans truly believe they are entitled to a good education, have every opportunity open to them, that their only limits are their own willingness to work hard to achieve a goal - and that they are innocent until proven guilty.

While many Black Americans believe that a good education for their children is something that is out of reach for them, they do not believe they have the same opportunities in the workplace for promotion - and they believe they will be treated as if they are guilty until they prove their innocence.

Even the most affluent Black Americans teach their children "special rules"- how to behave when confronted by police, where not to go, how not to dress and what not to say or do in an effort to ensure that they will not fall victim to a "fatal misunderstanding."

Perhaps the worst irony is that white "Hip Hop" suburban kids try to dress and act "black" to be cool.

However, they are not subject to and never will experience the fear that comes with simply being black in a society where most positions of authority are held by White Americans.

When a situation like Ferguson erupts in a black neighborhood the local police now tend to "deploy" their heavy military weaponry to ensure that things do no get out of control. They have developed a "Swat Team" mentality where use of excessive force has become the status quo.

Ferguson has shown America and the world just how militarized these responses have become thanks to free surplus military equipment from Congress. (That's another Blog)

So once again we watch as yet another tragedy unfolds before us and becomes a "A Media Event" with it's very own "theme".

A young man is dead and a police officer's life will never be the same again. As information dribbles out, White and Black Americans will process it differently through the lens of their own experience.

No matter how this situation is resolved we will never really know how these two individuals perceived one another at the critical moment that lead to this tragedy.

Whatever the outcome, both the officer and the young man were living out their roles against a backdrop of misunderstanding and distrust.

These problems are not only deeply rooted in each person's perception of the other they are also exacerbated by tough economic times.

Lately the sacred "American Dream" where each generation does better than the last seems more like an impossible dream for both White and Black Americans.

Many in the Black Community had hoped that the election of Barack Obama would make a real difference not only in the lives of Black Americans but in the perceptions of White Americans.

In his effort to be the president of "all Americans" some believe President Obama has not done enough to bridge this gap and seize this grand opportunity.

After his Philadelphia Campaign speech in 2008 many believed Candidate Obama would do more to engage Americans on the issue of race. Perhaps his reluctance to do this and his desire to be judged on his own merits and not as the "First Black President" speaks volumes about how far America still has to go to be truly free from its past.

Although President Obama has weighed in once again he knows he is speaking to a divided nation.

This latest situation cries out for the leadership of a Lincoln or a Dr. King - someone who is able to rise above the moment and give voice to a "New Dream".

In 2008 candidate Obama addressed the differing perceptions of White and Black Americans eloquently in his Philadelphia speech.

"This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy - particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

But I have asserted a firm conviction - a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people - that working together, we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. ....And it means taking full responsibility for own lives - by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children... teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.....

In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination - and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past - are real and must be addressed... It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper. "

White and Black Americans need to find a new way to engage with one another - more mistrust and violence cannot be the answer.

They know the old rules of the game simply don't apply anymore and they are looking for leadership to help them find that path forward.

Although President Obama has been chided by his detractors for his rhetorical abilities, there may never be a time when those abilities are needed more.

He is blessed with a unique perspective of what it is like to live in both White and Black America.

As President Obama looks forward to his legacy this event and it's aftermath may have presented him with an historic opportunity to heal this long festering wound.

After all, words do matter. In fact the words and challenges of our greatest presidents and leaders live on with us long after they have left the public stage - they continue to guide and inspire our lives and deeds.

The challenge for President Obama, if he chooses to accept it, is to use this moment in time to make a lasting difference in the way White and Black Americans see and relate to one another.

The challenge for all of us is clear. Now is our time as a Nation to start listening to one another and begin walking in our brother's and sister's shoes perhaps for the first time.

If we don't, in light of all that has happened, we will continue to hear the somber words of Abraham Lincoln - "A house divided against itself cannot stand."