The readers’ forum

Why we celebrate U.S. Constitution

 

Today we celebrate the 226th birthday of our Constitution. But what are we celebrating?

The founders created a remarkable, but flawed, framework for democracy. A Bill of Rights had to be added to protect individual liberty. But the Constitution remained flawed — it protected slavery.

The Constitution we celebrate, guaranteeing equality by law, required a civil war before amendments protected black Americans. But black Americans didn’t begin to redeem the promise of these amendments for another century — before discrimination in employment, education, housing, public accommodations and voting were outlawed. Race discrimination was so deeply entrenched in our laws and institutions that until 1954 it was even legitimized by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The founders also tolerated the subjugation of women. It wasn’t until 1920 and tumultuous struggle in the streets that the 19th amendment gave women voting rights. If the framers left out blacks and women, they never considered the rights of gays, children, students, prisoners and the disabled. For nearly all of our history, they were unprotected by the Constitution. Nor did it protect immigrants, who are still fighting to be included in the Constitution. And, what happens when the government violates the Constitution?

Conventional wisdom says that the courts step in. But courts are powerless to be the guardian of freedom unless an aggrieved person challenges the constitutional violation. In 1909, the NAACP was established, followed in 1920 by the ACLU. This was the key that ignited our constitutional engine. It’s unlikely that John Scopes would have challenged the law criminalizing the teaching of evolution without the ACLU and volunteer attorney, Clarence Darrow, or that Oliver Brown could have challenged school segregation without the NAACP.

So we celebrate not only the rights that our founders scrolled on parchment, we also celebrate those who fought to make constitutional rights a reality and expand protections to those left out. We celebrate Frederick Douglass and Jackie Robinson; Oliver Brown, who bravely walked his daughter Linda to a school previously restricted to white children. We celebrate Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., students at Little Rock’s Central High School, Viola Liuzzo and the murdered civil-rights workers dumped in a Mississippi dam in ’64.

And we celebrate those who had the vision to create organizations like the NAACP and the ACLU, making it possible to enforce the Constitution and allow people to defend their constitutional rights and challenge government abuses.

Howard Simon, executive director, American Civil Liberties Union

of Florida, Miami

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