Virtually all of the Founding Fathers of our nation, even those who rose to the heights of the presidency, those whom we cherish as our authentic heroes, were so enmeshed in the ethos of slavery and white supremacy that not one ever emerged with a clear, unambiguous stand on Negro rights.  No human being is perfect.  In our individual and collective lives every expression of greatness is followed, not by a period symbolizing completeness, but by a comma implying partialness.  Following every affirmation of greatness is the conjunction “but .”  Naaman “was a great man” says the Old Testament, “but…”-that “but” reveals something tragic and disturbing-“but he was a leper.” George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, John Quincy Adams, John Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln were great men, but-that “but, underscores the fact that not one of these men had a strong, unequivocal belief in the equality of the black man.  

No one doubts the valor and commitment that characterized George Washington’s life. But to the end of his days, he maintained a posture of exclusion toward the slave. He was a fourth-generation slave holder. He only allowed Negros to enter the Continental Army because His Majesty’s Crown was attempting to recruit Negros to the British cause.  Washington is not without his moment of torment, those moments of conscience when something within told him that slavery was wrong. As he searched the future of America one day, he wrote to his nephew: “I wish from my soul that the legislature of this State could see the policy of gradual abolition of slavery. It might prevent future mischief.” In spite of this, Washington never made a public statement condemning slavery.  He could not pull away from the system. When he died, he owned, or had on lease, more than 160 slaves.

Here, in the life of the father of our nation, we can see the developing dilemma of white America: the haunting ambivalence, the intellectual and moral recognition that slavery is wrong, but the emotional tie to the system so deep and pervasive that it imposes an inflexible unwillingness to root it out.

Martin Luther King Jr. [Where Do We Go From Here, Chaos or Community?]1968