Yearning to Breathe Free
I have been asked why I thought the murder of Mr. George Floyd started a mass social movement when all other police murders and racially motivated violence we had witnessed for years did not. In the nine-minute video of a black man crying out “I can’t breathe” under the knee of a white police officer, we witnessed the physical manifestation of the euphemism “the man has his foot on my neck.”
The words of Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty makes clear as to who left Europe in waves of mass migration:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The most telling is the phrase “yearning to breathe free.” Living under the economic oppression of the feudal system, those who did not own land were relegated to life of poverty and vulnerability of working for someone else. Their livelihood was dependent on the benevolence of a wealthy person who would offer them a “job” and offer equitable compensation. European existence was dependent on owning land, and only those who owned land were able to generate generational wealth. Those who did not own land lived lives of insecurity and were unable to “breathe free.”
The ones who were not good enough to make in Europe, those whom white Europe deemed were “wretched refuse” of human beings, and those who were “poor” and “homeless” were the founders of the U.S. They came because they yearned to “breathe free.”
The desire to “breathe free” is the source of all migration. This was the case when the movement to the New Land began in the 1600s with those who had no future in Europe traded their freedom for a boat passage and became “indentured servants” for 5 to 7 years. When the landowners did not want former indentured servants to be their competitors for wealth, they turned to enslave African Americans.
The desire to “breathe free” from the oppressive economic system was also expressed by freed Africans during the Civil War. The origin of reparations was from the African American community itself. It was presented by the African American clergy at a meeting with General Sherman and Secretary of State Stanton in January of 1865. When asked what the freed former slaves wanted, without a beat, Rev. Garrison Frazier, a Baptist minister, said, “Land!”.
He articulated the heartbeat of all humans when he said, “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor… and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare… We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy and make it our own.”
Four days later, Sherman signed the Special Field Order 15, after Lincoln approved it, set aside 400,000 acres of land along the coastal South Carolina to Florida to be given to freed slaves. Immediately 1,000 African Americans came and settled in the area, and by June, 40,000 settled there and created self-governing communities. Sherman later said the military could “lend” them a mule to till the land, and thus, came the birth of the phrase “40 acres and a mule.”
Forty acres is ¼ mile on each side and slightly smaller than a football field and was thought of as big as one man could till and manage by himself, but big enough for him to take care of his family. It was a statement of self-sufficiency and an opportunity for self-determination.
However, following Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson reversed the order and returned the land to those who declared war on the United States, and the freed Africans never “breathed free.”
This desire to “breathe free” is shared by many who have migrated and those who are still migrating from all parts of the world. The migration will continue to happen as long as people have breath in them.
Scripture tells us that we are human because God breathed the breath of God into us. Therefore, the desire to “breathe free” is the fundamental cry of humanity. The desire to “breathe free” is not only a physical statement, but it is the most spiritual statement we can make. Every system, economic, political, educational, religious, or social system that stifles human freedom, or prevents people from breathing free must be challenged and dismantled. This is our spiritual mandate.
As a church, we must examine ourselves to ensure that the way we structure our church, relate to each other and how we treat the community all give life - not snuff out the breath from people. We must work to lift every foot or knee of oppression off the neck of the people and uphold their desire for self-determination and freedom. The cry for Black Lives Matter is a call to “breathe free.”