By Jennifer Gamble-Theard, ASALH Historian
The United States Constitution, which includes the Bill of Rights, or the first 10 amendments, was signed and became the supreme law of the land in 1787. After much debate and compromise, it was established as the structural foundation of laws that would guide the new nation. Within a 13 year period, two more rules of law were added.
The Eleventh Amendment, which was established to protect each state from certain legal entanglements, followed by the Twelfth Amendment that provides specific procedures for presidential elections. The constitutional rules are followed today and used almost as strategic guides of worship for those who interpret the written words according to their own will and way of thinking. This is especially seen in the Second Amendment, “the right to bear arms.”
Looking back on the underlying philosophy of what the Constitution expressed, it became quite concerning that it took more than 60 years before anything was added that would “establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility…secure the blessings of liberty” to the nation’s citizens as stated for the purpose and aims of establishing the new United States of America.
In order to move forward as a nation, it became necessary to acknowledge the use of a chattel (personal property) slavery system had begun to tear the country apart. By 1864, slavery had finally become an issue that had to be formally recognized as a problem that needed critical attention.
Thus, between 1865 and 1870, the Reconstruction Amendments, also referred to as the Civil War Amendments, were adopted. The Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 abolished slavery and involuntary servitude (except for those convicted of a crime).
Next was the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, which provided formerly enslaved people with national citizenship and equal protection of laws for all persons. Then in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited discrimination of voting rights of citizens on the basis of race, color or previous servitude.
These particular amendments were intended to guarantee freedom to formerly enslaved people and to prevent discrimination in civil rights to all citizens of the United States. Unfortunately, the promises of these amendments were compromised by state and federal laws and most importantly Supreme Court decisions that occurred throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
Consequently, there was the development of legally enforced Jim Crow laws that took root in southern states as a reaction to the Reconstruction Era perhaps by racist, ignorant, malicious, nasty individuals and particular groups. African Americans experienced a heavy-handed legal backlash and a systematic pushback against their freedom, dignity, progress and participation in American democracy.
Various state courts were notorious in creating assaults against black, brown, poor and minority citizens in the United States. Throughout the years to current times, judiciary systems, courts or governmental authorities have laid claims to control the freedoms of “We the People” who are of color.
There have been a few Supreme Court decisions that came after the Reconstruction Amendments that have not been in the best interest of African Americans. Such decisions were designed to keep black people in a lesser place and in an inferior state of existence.
This was exemplified in the Civil Rights Act of 1883 that allowed racial segregation and discrimination as part of a local practice within states. It was this doctrine that further developed Jim Crow Laws.
Another example that had a sweeping magnitude was the Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 whereby the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation for public facilities. That decision established the doctrine of “separate but equal” that endured until 1954.
It wasn’t until Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case in 1954 when the Supreme Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. That decision had a broad impact on the principles of civil rights that have helped to shape current debates about racial discrimination, immigration policies, LGBTQ rights and executive power.
As we pay closer attention to news events of today, we must take an interactive part in the ideal of “democracy” that gives strength to freedom. Democracy becomes a most important vehicle to freedom. In our daily lives in the communities we live, we have a responsibility to maintain that “freedom” that our ancestors strived for in so many different ways.
Be it blood, sweat, tears or prayers, they paved a way for us to follow. In these crazy political times, we have a right and responsibility to be informed about what is needed for the greater good.
We must strive for justice; pay attention, be informed, participate in something that has meaning, be more interactive and WE MUST VOTE. And yes, there will be obstacles, but together we will overcome.
One of most crucial barriers to freedom of current times is the obstruction in voting rights for African Americans. Those barriers will be broken down as we work together.
Let’s continue the fight and remind ourselves that we as descendants of enslaved people represent a moral compass for this country that we share. Let’s do something that will persist in our forward movement.
Jennifer Gamble-Theard, M.Ed. is a retired Pinellas County educator in the study of history and language. She is also the historian for the St. Petersburg Branch of ASALH.
This article originally appeared in The Weekly Challenger.