I’ve been thinking a lot about free speech, due process, and equal protection lately vis-a-vis the difficulty of being heard by some officials and promoters of the reservoir plan. I wonder if the constitutional values which are the underpinning of our democracy are really shared by some of these decision-makers and promoters. We shall see. Today’s message (below) celebrating Constitution Day is a good message to share. Happy Constitution Day!
Constitution Day: What Should We Celebrate?
“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 African Americans within the Constitution.
But it would take another century before African Americans began to redeem the promise of the Civil War amendments. During that time, race discrimination became deeply embedded 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 immigrants, gays and lesbians, 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, or denying a group due process or equal protection of the laws?
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. People whose rights had been violated were able to go to court, and their actions ignited the judiciary.
For 130 years after the Bill of Rights was adopted, the most notable thing about it was its almost total lack of implementation by the courts. By the beginning of the 20th century, racial segregation was legal and pervaded all aspects of American society. Sex discrimination was firmly institutionalized and workers were arrested for labor union activities. Legal immigrants were deported for their political views, the police used physical coercion to extract confessions from criminal suspects, and members of minority religions were victims of persecution. As late as 1920, the U.S. Supreme Court had never once struck down any law or governmental action on First Amendment grounds.
So when we celebrate our Constitution, we celebrate not only the remarkable document drafted 226 years ago at the Philadelphia Convention. 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 — some of whom risked their lives to fight for the constitutional rights of all Americans.
In Indiana, we honor the brave men, women and children who have stood up for their rights against incredible odds, on the promise that, in the words of the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Happy Constitution Day.”
Members of the ACLU of Indiana Board of Directors:
Alice Bennett, President, Muncie
Bryan Bullock, Calumet
Andrea Cohen, Indianapolis
Georgia Cravey, Indianapolis
Dave Frank, Fort Wayne
Leonard Goldstein, Fort Wayne
Cris Halter, Indianapolis
Pat Helms, Muncie
Larry Hesson, Indianapolis
Robert J. Hohl, South Bend
Terri R. Jett, Indianapolis
Joan Laskowski, Lafayette
Mark E. Miller, Evansville
Paul Newman, Bloomington
Nancy Papas, Indianapolis
Caroline Richardson, Indianapolis
Anne Riley, Lafayette
Mary Runnells, Bloomington
Sharon Russell, Terre Haute
Roberta Schonemann, Lafayette
Fran Watson, Indianapolis
Reba Boyd Wooden, Greenwood