Today we celebrate the 226th birthday of our Constitution. But what precisely should we celebrate?
In the summer of 1787, the founders created a remarkable framework for our democracy — but their document was deeply flawed.
Since individual liberty was not protected from the power of government in the original Constitution that was submitted for ratification, a Bill of Rights was added. The Bill of Rights reflected a broader vision of freedom.
Even with the Bill of Rights, the Constitution remained flawed — it protected slavery.
The Constitution we celebrate today, a document guaranteeing equality before the law, required a bloody civil war before amendments brought black Americans within the Constitution.
But it would take another century before black Americans began to redeem the promise of the Civil War amendments. During that time, race discrimination became deeply imbedded in our laws, our political institutions and our culture. Until 1954, it was even legitimized by the U.S. Supreme Court.
It took more than 175 years after the Constitution was written before civil rights laws outlawed discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and voting.
And what is true for the struggle for racial equality is also true about the struggle for other liberties.
The Constitution tolerated the subjugation of women. It was not until 1920 that the 19th Amendment gave women the elementary right to vote. This was not due to the wisdom of the founders and the original Constitution, but to the struggle in the streets that followed.
If the framers knowingly left out blacks and women, they didn’t even consider the rights of gays, children, students, prisoners, the mentally ill and the disabled. For nearly all of our history, these groups were largely unprotected by the Constitution. But one by one, they and their advocates fought to have the Constitution and Bill of Rights apply to them.
But what happens when the government violates the Constitution — when it makes a law restricting free speech or religious liberty?
The conventional answer is that the courts will step in. But courts don’t act on their own. They are powerless to fulfill their function unless an aggrieved person challenges the constitutional violation.
In 1910 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was established, followed in 1920 by the American Civil Liberties Union. They gradually developed the resources to challenge constitutional violations on behalf of people who could not have done it alone: Tennessee schoolteacher John Scopes would not likely have challenged the law making it a crime to teach evolution without the help of the ACLU and its volunteer attorney, Clarence Darrow.
And it’s not likely that Oliver Brown could have challenged school segregation in 1950 without the NAACP.
More than 130 years after the Bill of Rights was adopted, citizens were jailed for holding anti-war views. A minister was sentenced to 15 years for saying that World War I was un-Christian; racial segregation was the law of the land, and sex discrimination was firmly institutionalized. And no one even thought that the Constitution also protected gays, the poor, children, prisoners, the mentally ill and the disabled.
That began slowly to change. People whose constitutional rights had been violated were able to go to court. The NAACP and ACLU were the keys that ignited the judiciary, the guardian of our constitutional rights.
So when we celebrate our Constitution, we celebrate not only the remarkable document drafted 226 years ago at the Philadelphia Convention, not just those who first penned rights on to parchment.
We also celebrate the men and women who took that document seriously, who fought to make those rights a reality and expand its protections to those left out — who risked their lives to fight for the constitutional rights of all Americans.
We celebrate Frederick Douglass in the 19th century and Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s “color line” in the 20th century. We celebrate Oliver Brown, who bravely walked his daughter Linda to their neighborhood school, previously restricted by law to white children.
We celebrate Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., the students at Little Rock’s Central High School, Medgar Evers, Viola Liuzzo and the murdered civil rights workers who were dumped in a Mississippi dam in the summer of 1964.
And we celebrate those who had the vision to create organizations like the NAACP and the ACLU that make it possible to enforce the Constitution and allow people to assert and defend their constitutional rights, and challenge government abuses.
Howard Simon is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.