Let’s face it. The United States of America has never quite lived up to the promise and high minded ideals of its founding documents. Our 45 Presidents after swearing to uphold the Constitution have a very checkered record. (Joe Biden has the 46th Presidency. Grover Cleveland was both the 22nd and 24th President.)
The vision is clearly articulated: We hold these truths to be self-evident….. And what are these self evident truths that we so boldly proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and celebrate every 4th of July? …..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 – …..
A country where everyone enjoyed these rights would truly be a wonderful place to live. In 1776, we began the fight to accomplish it, a fight that goes on to this day.
We needed a government to guarantee these rights for all. The original Articles of Confederation were just not working. We needed a strong constitution. Given the conflicting economic interests of the states, that was not going to be an easy document to cobble together. Our fledgling country limped along under the Articles until 1788 when we finally came to it: We the people of the United States….. Once again the ideal was articulated beautifully; the people of the United States. Not the individual states, not red states and blue states, but one people of one country. …..in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity……
The promise of this new country was awesome. Our 45 Presidents have all sworn to protect those rights. Now, 233 years later, we are still trying to fulfill that promise. We have never quite made it.
Those who refer to our founding fathers like they were of one mind and knew what they were doing in writing a constitution that is sacrosanct are not acknowledging what went on in Philadelphia in 1787-88. Nor do they understand the document that was produced. The Constitution. was hotly debated, rewritten, and amended many times. Debate points were compromised in the taverns after hours and deals were struck. Slavery, a big sticking point was finessed in order to get a deal done. The word ‘slavery’ did not appear in the Constitution, but everyone knew that ‘property’ meant slaves. It bought a little time, 72 years to be exact. The rupture of the Union in 1861 was baked into the founding document by not dealing with this human rights issue. What most of our founding fathers knew but would not say out loud was that slavery was a foul, evil poison. By not dealing with it they assumed it would die out of its own accord. They miscalculated. Its name was racism; a dehumanizing view that denied any civil rights to non-whites. Even many ardent anti-slavery abolitionists did not believe people of color were entitled to civil rights. The poison took on a life of its own that still pulses in America today.
The U.S. Constitution was written in vague language, intended to be flexible and open to interpretation. Our country’s leaders have used the words of the Constitution strictly and narrowly, or loosely and pliable as their political sensibilities dictate. The only universal agreement among the founders was that only educated men of means and good breeding were to have a say in the new government. Women were excluded, despite Abigail Adams’s caution to her husband John. And so were people of color.
The time the framers of the Constitution had bought by not dealing with slavery ran out in 1861 when the shooting started. In the middle of the war, the country took a giant step forward in realizing the promise of the American Republic when Abraham Lincoln showed the world what real leadership is all about. He put politics and his advisors aside and did what he knew in his heart was right. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery effective January 1,
1863. It took two more years to end the war and to add the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, but slavery in these United States had finally been dealt a death blow.
Now the issue became civil rights. There is no way to know what might have happened had Lincoln not been assassinated in 1865, but even though he referenced at Gettysburg the country that was brought forth four score and seven years earlier – dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal – there is evidence that he did not entirely get it. He once backed a scheme to resettle freed slaves in Africa.
Twelve of our first eighteen presidents owned slaves at some point during their lives. Slave labor was used in building the White House. Ulysses S. Grant was the last of the slave-holding presidents, but even after he left office in 1877 the benefits of citizenship were largely denied people of color. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing all citizens equal protection of the law and the 15th Amendment guaranteeing the right of citizens to vote were supposed to fix that,. The reality was that people of color had few, if any, rights.
Over the next 70 years, as European immigrants flooded into America and struggled to be assimilated into society, they fared better and had more opportunities than native-born, non-white Americans The last half of the nineteenth century saw the rise of the Ku Klux Klan terrorizing blacks and the passage of Jim Crow laws that denied basic rights to non-whites. Lynchings were all too frequent occurrences, meant to send a message to black communities. These were murders that were rarely investigated and almost never resulted in convictions.
At the dawn of the 20th Century, even the great reformer Theodore Roosevelt failed the test of leadership on race issues. He tried to do something about lynchings but found it was not politically advisable. In 1906 he ordered 167 black soldiers in Brownsville, Texas discharged from the Army without honor due to an incident where a white man was killed. They had all been in their barracks at the time. It was not his best moment. His civil rights record was abysmal.
The military provided an opportunity for many blacks to demonstrate their courage and patriotism in WWI and WWII, but those contributions were little noted at the time. Woodrow Wilson, one of our most highly educated Presidents swept Negros out of Federal office positions and began demanding photos with job applications. He even screened the overtly racist film Birth of A Nation based on the book The Clansman at the White House. Many of his policies were carried on by the Presidents that followed him until Truman put an end to them. Even the new dealer Franklin D. Roosevelt was slow to embrace civil rights. Most of the advances made during his administration happened due to the constant insistence of his wife Eleanor who cared little about political ramifications.
The Supreme Court has had a checkered history of two steps forward and one back as well. The 1857 Dred Scott decision was perhaps the court’s worst in history in denying rights while the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education unanimously declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional was one of its best. President Eisenhower was called on to enforce that decision with federal troops in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, which he did.
The civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King in the early 1960s pressured the Kennedy administration but the politics of reelection tempered progress. The riots at the University of Mississippi over desegregation and the brutal police response to peaceful protest marches in Alabama televised to the nation spurred the administration into action. However, much of the progressive legislation proposed by Kennedy’s New Frontier, especially regarding voting and other race issues, was stymied in Congress. There is no way to know what might have happened if President Kennedy had not been killed, elevating Lyndon Johnson into office.
Johnson was a savvy politician, wise in the ways of the legislature. He recognized a rare moment in the country’s temperament following the assassination and took advantage, passing a
blizzard of progressive legislation, much of it originally brought forward by JFK. There is an entire room in the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas dedicated to his Great Society legislation passed during this time including voting rights, education, Medicare, crime, civil rights, transportation, poverty, economic opportunity, housing and many more. It was another giant leap forward.
By the turn of the 21st Century, it seemed we were well on our way. Segregation in schools and housing was less than it ever had been. We elected and re-elected out first black president. Real progress was being made, until we started a backwards step. As the economic chasm between the wealthy and the middle class grew into the ultra-wealthy and the working class poor, the election of 2016 happened, exposing a deep vein of xenophobia and racism that too many Americans did not realize was there.
It is not possible to legislate what is in a person’s heart. Government cannot change the beliefs of those who have deeply rooted racism and hatred in their lives, being fed by media, social and otherwise, that reinforces their views. But government can protect, indeed government has a responsibility to protect those who might be victims of racism and hatred. The three branches of our republican government: the executive, the legislative and our courts, must step up to their responsibilities if our republic is to survive and continue to evolve. It is not a given that our republic will survive.
I don’t like terms like Black, or white, or Asian American, or Hispanic. If we are ever going to live up to the promise of America, we must get our heads around the fact that there is no American race. We are a nation of immigrants, except for the indigenous peoples the early settlers treated badly. I would prefer that our citizens be called Americans. If they must be distinguished then let our citizens be referred to as Americans of African descent, or Americans of European descent, or Americans of Asian descent, or Americans of Mexican descent, or Americans of whatever country or ethnicity or religious tradition they descend from. The point is that we are all Americans and no ethnic group has more rights than another. Civil rights are the rights of all American citizens. Grant those rights and protect them with all three branches of our constitutional government. Only then will the words ring true when we place our hands over our hearts and make our allegiance pledge to the American flag which stands for the republic that is one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.