History of 1776 offers hope for all Americans

The beautiful story of America’s founding, the most radical experiment in self-government and individual liberty, is becoming lost in an agenda-driven narrative. 

By now, most Americans are aware of The 1619 Project, a political project of The New York Times aimed at rewriting America’s founding. The project weaves together a divisive narrative not only about the foundation of our nation, but also our country’s core principles. An unfortunate consequence of this rewrite of our nation’s history is that this project excludes the possibility of redemption — at both the national level and the individual level. 

The primary problem with The 1619 Project is a pervasive one that runs throughout the entire presentation — namely, the over-emphasis on slavery as the defining institution before and during our nation’s founding. The writers who participated in the project jettisoned facts in favor of a fictitious recounting of why our Founders formed a new nation. From the 1619 Project’s perspective, the overarching motivation behind the founding of the United States of America was the desire to expand slavery. 

Criticizing The 1619 Project’s flawed methodology and conclusions is not to excuse slavery. Slavery is, without a doubt, one of the most complicated and tragic aspects of American history. That our founders, who strived so diligently to break free from the bonds of the British crown, could allow — and, in many cases participate in — the evil institution of slavery is a blight on our history and a deep moral failing on their part. The Founders’ letters to one another offer glimpses for us so we see how much they struggled with the inconsistencies of slavery and this new political experiment. 

But one need not be an apologist for slavery to find fault with The 1619 Project’s myopic view of the founding. “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written,” reads the headline of The 1619 Project essay. This statement merely reflects the authors’ misguided understanding of the power of our founding ideals.

The Declaration of Independence, one of the most important political documents ever produced, contains this key passage: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Is slavery compatible with the ideal that all men are created equal? Of course not.

Is slavery compatible with the recognition that we have God-given rights, chief among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Definitely not.

Slavery is the most egregious example where we, as a nation, failed to implement and execute the vision for a government of free individuals. Many of our Founders understood this inconsistency, and fought to abolish slavery from the start. Slavery’s existence at our founding is commentary on the frailty of those individuals who participated in slave ownership, not on the hollowness of our founding documents. 

The overarching theme of our founding documents is the possibility of what the individual can achieve, thanks to his or her freedom. We often call it the American Dream. It is the heart and soul of our nation’s mission statement. 

As a pastor on the south side of Chicago, I see the effects of racism, but I also see the effects of missing out on the American Dream. That missed opportunity comes in many forms — as a result of rampant black-on-black violence, the self-defeating bonds of thinking of ourselves as victims, and from avoiding rewarding hard work. 

Project H.O.O.D., a program I founded on the south side of Chicago as a ministry of our church, offers a path forward out of poverty that is rooted in the American Dream. Part of our goal through our ministry programs, of course, is to help people find freedom in Jesus Christ. At the same time, we also show them the freedom that comes from participating in the American Dream, the most empowering economic opportunity there is. 

Through our programs, I have seen many lives changed. And they were changed because the individuals saw themselves as part of — not excluded from — the American Dream. 

Working directly with former gang members, we provide a course correction in their lives. If they want something better for themselves and their families, we offer valuable jobs training in the areas of construction, lawn care and trucking. We have seen young men go from being part of some of the nation’s most violent gangs to bringing home steady paychecks in their new careers — and loving the freedom that comes with their independent life. 

The story of Jonathan Watkins is a powerful reminder of how a life can be turned around. In all of my years of ministry, Jonathan’s story is the most horrifying one I have ever witnessed, but, because of the extreme sadness, the redemption of his life is all the more joyful. 

Jonathan was 29 years old and had a 6-month-old baby girl in 2013. He stole a video game system, and once the owner of the system found out, he came to Jonathan’s house with a gun. Seeing Jonathan in a car, he began shooting at the car. Tragically, one of the bullets struck Jonathan’s little daughter, Jonylah, and she died the following day in the hospital. 

Over the past seven years, Jonathan has had to make a concrete decision: Would he continue down his path, with all of the destructive violence, or would he do the hard work of pursuing a new plan? I am pleased to say Jonathan made the better choice and is an inspiration to others. I have had the privilege of mentoring Jonathan, and he is now pursuing his GED. He works with Project H.O.O.D. to do violence intervention and training.  

Another uplifting story about an individual who embraced the empowering opportunities associated with the American Dream is Billy Kelly. Billy served time in prison, but now owns Panda Construction[1] , a multimillion-dollar business, and he has helped give others in the community the opportunity to gain skills and jobs in the construction industry. Billy’s personal success story has multiplied to become hundreds of other black individuals’ own success stories, as they work through his training programs and gain steady employment. 

Varney Voker, once of the notorious Black Disciples gang, oversaw a highly sophisticated drug dealing operation on Chicago’s south side for many years until he was convicted.  Upon his exit from prison, he returned to Woodlawn where I had since set up shop.  I challenged Varney to use his experience to help other youth in Woodlawn avoid his path.  He is now one of our best mentors and runs a successful logistics company. 

That’s why Project H.O.O.D. exists. We want to magnify these individual success stories. Our vision is to end violence and build communities, one neighborhood at a time. We equip youths, adults and families with the resources, skills and tools they need to harness their own American Dream success story. We often say, “We seek to empower, not enable. We seek to equip, not excuse. We seek to inform, not ignore.” 

Political projects such as The 1619 Project do nothing to help black Americans escape the noxious “us versus them” mentality, and they rob generations of Americans of the power of the American Dream. 

I have discovered on the south side of Chicago that the absolute best way to overcome racial disparities in economic and academic outcomes is to teach individuals about the incredible opportunities of being in America — not to fixate on the mistakes of the past. Personal responsibility, an American concept closely linked to individual freedom, is the ticket to a turned-around life.