The Constitution of the United States of America was ratified on June 21st, 1788. It’s easy to imagine that it said somewhere that all citizens should be treated equally under the law. But it doesn’t. The closest our founding documents come to enunciating that idea is in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. “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.” But even that doesn’t say a thing about equal treatment under the law of all Americans. And, in fact, our founding fathers didn’t even believe that.
Obviously, slaves had no rights that I’m aware of other than what their owners bestowed upon them. They were not citizens, not even fully human. They were property. It wasn’t only slaves that didn’t have rights equal to those of men. Women didn’t. Children didn’t. Men who owned property had rights that those who were landless didn’t have. In fact, one can read the domestic history of the United States from that day in 1788 forward as the struggle for anyone other than propertied men to attain equality under the law and in non-legal social structures. It’s not been easy going.
You would think that we would have settled these issues by now. Yet the past few years have amply demonstrated how unsettled these issues are.
If all Americans truly believed in the equality of women in the home, the workplace, or anywhere else, you wouldn’t need the Violence Against Women Act passed in 1994 and reauthorized last year, would you? Domestic abuse was something that was widely tolerated for decades. Men could slap their wives around with virtual impunity. A husband could force sex on his wife without it being considered rape. Men are still being paid more than women. It’s still more difficult for women to get credit cards and loans than men. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution granting women the right to vote wasn’t ratified until 1920. That was 132 years after the ratification of the Constitution and 144 years after the Declaration of Independence asserted that “all men are created equal”; apparently, women didn’t fit into that designation. In some states today, male-dominated legislatures are passing laws prescribing what their fellow female legislators are allowed to wear; men can wear what they want. And then there is the rollback of the right to an abortion in many states, a decision made by five men and one woman. Do you get the sense that many men want to roll back all the gains that women have made in their desire for equality?
And then there are our fellow Black Americans. The Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in the Confederate states was issued in 1863, seventy-five years after the Constitution was ratified. The 13th Amendment, which established the principles of the Emancipation
Proclamation in the Constitution throughout the United States, was ratified in 1865. The 14th Amendment abolishing slavery and conferring citizenship on all persons born in the United States or naturalized wasn’t ratified until 1868. Furthermore, it insisted that no state could deny any person of their “life, liberty or property without due process of law.” Even more, it said that no state could “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” At last. It took one hundred twelve years after the Declaration of Independence to say that all Americans, all people in America, all men and women with no exception for race, sex, creed, or national origin, were entitled to equal protection under the law.
Following the Civil War, the era of Reconstruction, the attempt by Northern Republicans to force changes in the status and condition of Blacks in the South, ran out of steam by 1877 as white Northern Republicans decided that repairing relations with white Southerners was more important than what happened to former slaves. The retreat from the goals of Reconstruction was cemented in 1886 by Plessy v Ferguson, the Supreme Court decision that upheld racial segregation, saying that “separate but equal” did not violate the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. That decision gave legitimacy to every Jim Crow law passed, allowing vastly different standards for Black and white facilities, from drinking fountains to hotels and, most significantly, to education. Black populations were treated as hostile groups needing extra vigilance and control by police in both the North and the South. It wasn’t until Harry Truman ordered the army to be integrated that real change started to happen. And then, the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision finally upended Plessy v Ferguson ending racial segregation in schools. Ten years later, the Civil Rights Act ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination when it came to things like race, sex, religion, etc. The following year, the Voting Rights Act ended racial discrimination in voting rights.
None of this was easily achieved. The end of legal segregation was not achieved without struggle, without violence being perpetrated on Blacks by whites who fought to maintain their unequal status. That struggle has not ended. Some police forces and individuals still treat the Black community as a hostile entity. Blacks are being killed by police at an alarming rate. Racism, thought to have ebbed considerably as evidenced by the election of a Black president, came roaring back under the white president who followed.
In the just past Super Bowl, the NFL had the audacity to allow Lift Every Voice and Sing, the song/hymn declared by the NAACP in 1919 to be the “Negro national anthem,” to be sung along with America the Beautiful before the singing of The Star Spangled Banner, our national anthem. Sadly, I suppose it was to be expected that today’s political right would hyperventilate and be in a tizzy over the singing of the song, with some even suggesting that the song be banned.
It seems to never end, the desire for some whites to keep Blacks at the bottom of the political and social heap. Perhaps it never occurs to them that most Black Americans, along with immigrants, are the truest believers in the promise of America, that they, along with everyone who has had to fight for equality and justice, remain hopeful.
In the fall of 1957, as a 17 year-old freshman at the University of Maryland, I attended my first and last college football game in the still Jim Crow South. At half-time, the marching band strutted down the field, joyfully playing “Dixie.” I wish I was in the land of cotton. Old times there are not forgotten. Look away, look away, look away, Dixieland. Longing for a glorious past for some Americans that never was.
As the band marched, Confederate flags proudly fluttering, in my head, I was singing, Lift every voice and sing, ‘til earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmony of liberty. Let our rejoicing rise high as the list’ning skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea. Hope for a glorious future for all Americans yet to come.
It’s a song and sentiment worth remembering and worth singing. And it’s worth remembering that rights and equal justice don’t exist because of a piece of paper. They are always in jeopardy and must always be fought for because there are always those who want to take them away.
Michael Saltz is an award-winning, long-time, now retired, senior producer for what is now called “PBS Newshour.” He resides in Hillsdale.
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