Monday, May 17, 2004

Celebrating Freedom - Frederick Douglass and Thurgood Marshall

Much of our history is devastatingly shameful and ignorant, if not hateful, as regards the treatment of our brothers and sisters of African heritage (let alone other ethnicities and minorities). At one time, Frederick Douglass was motivated to state:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?

I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.

To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy -- a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.

There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Indeed, Americans proudly and happily celebrated the 4th of July in those days, but it wasn't about the Declaration of Independence or universal enfranchisement, but a selfish independence borne of ignorance and malice.

To our credit, we've kept our eyes on the prize, and especially those black Americans denied the American Dream kept their eyes on the prize, so that today we may celebrate the anniversary of a great court ruling declaring that all Americans are equal members of our popular sovereignty and community. That separate is not equal. This only happened through perseverance and struggle, however, and in acknowledgement that our mission as a free nation is evolving, and not set in stone at our founding.

So, on this day, I defer to the great Thurgood Marshall, who argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court, in his own words speaking on America's Bicentennial, both as a counterpoint to our common illusions and myths of our history, and to Frederick Douglass' criticism and dissent a century and a half earlier:

The men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 could not have envisioned these changes. They could not have imagined, nor would they have accepted, that the document they were drafting would one day be construed by a Supreme Court to which had been appointed a woman and the descendent of an African slave. We the People no longer enslave, but the credit does not belong to the Framers. It belongs to those who refused to acquiesce in outdated notions of "liberty," "justice," and "equality," and who strived to better them.

And so we must be careful, when focusing on the events which took place in Philadelphia two centuries ago, that we not overlook the momentous events which followed, and thereby lose our proper sense of perspective. Otherwise, the odds are that for many Americans the bicentennial celebration will be little more than a blind pilgrimage to the shrine of the original document now stored in a vault in the National Archives. If we seek, instead, a sensitive understanding of the Constitution's inherent defects, and its promising evolution through 200 years of history, the celebration of the "Miracle at Philadelphia" will, in my view, be a far more meaningful and humbling experience. We will see that the true miracle was not the birth of the Constitution, but its life, a life nurtured through two turbulent centuries of our own making, and a life embodying much good fortune that was not.

Thus, in this bicentennial year, we may not all participate in the festivities with flagwaving fervor. Some may more quietly commemorate the suffering, struggle, and sacrifice that has triumphed over much of what was wrong with the original document, and observe the anniversary with hopes not realized and promises not fulfilled. I plan to celebrate the bicentennial of the Constitution as a living document, including the Bill of Rights and the other amendments protecting individual freedoms and human rights.

God Bless and may all enjoy the fruits of freedom and equality before the law.