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Long Before King, 'Letters From a Man of Colour'

09/26/2013 04:03 pm ET | Updated Nov 26, 2013

Anniversaries of historical events, such as last month's observance of the 1963 March on Washington, get us thinking about the past and present. They prod us to reflect on the choices we make, the values we espouse, the dreams that have been realized, and the ones that have not. As it happens, 2013 is the 200th anniversary of another important moment in the struggle for equal rights.

During the War for Independence, a young, black Philadelphian, James Forten, decided to fight on the American side following the passage of a state law titled "An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery." It convinced him that Pennsylvania, at least, was on the right side of the struggle. Forten survived the war, including several months on a British prison ship.

A couple of decades later, Forten was a leading citizen of the city, the owner of a sail-making operation who was widely known in the black and white communities.

By then, the United States was embroiled in its second war with the British Empire. The crisis created opportunities for reactionary forces to bring more than one bill before the state Senate that would have effectively reinstated slavery in Pennsylvania.

The bills' sponsors claimed that British military activity in the South would drive hordes of runaway slaves into the commonwealth. To control the situation, they planned to close the border and to require that all people of African descent in the state register with local authorities. If they could not produce the necessary papers on demand, they could be jailed and fined or sold into slavery.

Forten had committed himself early on to the fight against slavery. But he also had substantial financial interests in his shop just off the Delaware River, in real estate holdings, and in private banking. He had important customers, the vast majority of them white, and an integrated workforce to worry about.

In 1813, marches, public gatherings, and speeches by African Americans were not an option. For them, there was no right to assemble, nor could they vote. However, Forten did what he could, despite the considerable risks. He wrote a series of open letters, under a pseudonym, arguing passionately against the proposed legislation. They were published as a pamphlet, "Letters From a Man of Colour." According to Forten's biographer, the author's identity was an open secret.

These letters still have the power to move readers: "Has the God who made the white man and the black, left any record declaring us a different species? Are we not sustained by the same power, supported by the same food, hurt by the same wounds, wounded by the same wrongs, pleased with the same delights and propagated by the same means? And should we then not enjoy the same liberty, and be protected by the same laws?"

The bills were defeated, but the threat of government action against black Pennsylvanians surfaced repeatedly for the rest of Forten's life, in response to either economic downturns or social unrest. As William Faulkner noted: "The past is never dead. It's not even past.""