By Gloria Mabeiam Ballason Esq
Sometime in 1830, the paths of three men intersected- Beverly Randolph Snow, an Epicurean chef of mixed racial heritage, John Arthur Bowen, a 19-year old slave boy and Francis Scott Key, an attorney and scion of Maryland’s slave holding aristocracy. Snow bought his way out of slavery and established a luxury restaurant he named the ‘Epicurean Eating House.’ Bowen and his mother were slaves in the home of Anna Thornton while Key became a famous attorney who prided himself as a humanitarian, reformist and a defender of black people. In contrast to Key’s self attribution, he was a distressing racist who deployed and relied on his facades to parley him into political connections and networks. It worked well for him because the period coincided with agitations for the abolition of slave trade that had began to sweep from the margins into the mainstream of civility.
In 1833, the 7th President of the United States of America, Andrew Jackson, appointed Attorney Francis Scott Key as the District Attorney, an acension that saw Key at the pinnacle of political power. By 1835, no less than 53 anti-slavery riots were recorded. Bowen will slip out of his place of service to lead a clandestine meeting of the Talking Society Against Slavery. One evening Bowen returned home and tried to feel his way around the dark house. He had an axe cradled in his arm. Mrs. Thornton saw him and panicked. She woke the entire neighborhood and a riot broke out in a manhunt for Bowen. When Bowen could not be found, White supremacists turned on Beverly Randolph Snow, the well known free man of colour. The invasion was tagged ‘Snow riot’ or ‘Snow storm’.
Although Francis Scott Key was a constant at Snow’s restaurant where lawyers, western land spectators and innumerable congressmen had made a natural rendezvous, Key decided to prosecute Snow personally. He argued for the enforcement of the White man’s right to own property in people and claimed the U.S. Constitution supported it. The Court sadly, ruled in his favour.
In 1836, Key trumped up charges against Reuben Crandall, a New York doctor who brought slavery abolitionist pamphlets into Washington. In the case of U.S.A v. Reuben Crandall, the Court was invited to rule on three submissions: that there was no property in people, that citizens of all races could have equal citizenship and that there was freedom to advocate for both. On these issues, the U.S. Congress received almost 1,500 petitions signed by more than 100,000 people who were in favour of the abolition of slavery. Francis Scott Key lost his bid to discredit the anti-slavery movement. The jury acquitted Crandall of all charges. The Court of public opinion won. That defeat and family tragedies eventually overturned Key’s ambition. In 1840, Key resigned but remained a keen advocate of African colonisation. Key became famous as a sharp proponent of slavery in America which he ironically but poignantly described as “land of the free and home of the brave.” He died in 1843 and left behind a legacy of complicated and contradictory advocacy.
ARE ALL MEN EQUAL?
In the words of Toni Morrison, ‘if you are free ,you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower someone else.’ The corollary of those words ring with such piqued profundity that it provides insight into the workings of the minds of those who make slaves of men. In many of the most hideous crimes against humanity, the individuals who are directly responsible operate within a spectrum that inverts reason and elevates their actions to an appreciable form of group, tribal, religious or regional defense. Like Key, they leave the question of equal humanity on the balance of a notion of human hierarchy that hems in some and excludes others. The self serving arguments are justified with conjured reasoning and historicity that is put together as necessary.
The realities are not far from us: A leadership that reserves plum positions for its kith and kin while the rest wait their turn. An administration that criminalizes demonstrators but pampers insurgents. A court that lays claim to equality before the Law but grants judgment in favour of the powerful guilty and against the powerless innocent. Shiites baned by a ‘legitimate’ government so they can be mowed down without remorse. Operation Python Dance for agitators and rehabilitation for blood thirsty insurgents. Southern Kaduna, a region criminalized by a Governor whose heinous crimes of accessorial murders are made up for by constitutional immunity.
Need we say more? Do we tell of the billions of unaccountable security votes in the hands of politicians while the numbers of IDPs swell?The scenarios abound of how the powerful sink the weak in the hole of misery so they can float in the class of superior humanity.
*LEADERS OF THE CASTE.*
Forgive me for showing up late to the party but the withdrawal of the invitation issued to Governor Nasiru Elrufai to the Nigeria Bar Association makes for a classic example. An occupant of what veteran journalist, Sam Omatseye, describes as a democratic throne and one who leading human rights activist, Femi Falana SAN describes as having ‘a penchant for promoting impunity’, Governor Elrufai’s invitation was withdrawn because of a ground swell of protests of his lacking in the credentials for defining who a Nigerian is.
In true class act, the petition by the Open Bar Initiative against the invitation leads a franchise that is capable of changing the dynamics. First it shows that the Court of public opinion is as alive as it can be true to good conscience. Second, it coalesces the dignity of humans and makes clear that anyone who defines people in castes is unworthy of a platform that promotes the equality of all humans. Third is a grave lesson that the people cannot be fooled all the time by titles and rhetorics that bear no meaning to the requirements of public service. Leadership is not a movie role where a recast is possible. The buck stops on the table of the one ahead of the pack. For those three fundamental reasons, the lawyers who led the movement did off the charts great!
While it may seem too soon to imagine it, the NBA disinvitation sets us on the path of a grand scheme where the provision of value trumps facades and imaging. Public holders may now defer to the law when in doubt and should all else fail, the people are fast learning that to live in the land of the free, they must build a home of the brave.
Ballason is the C.E.O. House of Justice, a Public Interest Litigation firm. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org