Major commemorations of historical events, like the recent celebration of the Statue of Liberty, have a tendency to deteriorate into mindless evocations of the American Dream--patriotic, orchestrated, self-congratulatory, ritualistic orgies with little substantive content.
The celebration of the Constitution, under the grandiose title "Miracle at Philadelphia," also threatens to become shrouded in mythology. This is less a time to celebrate miracles than to reflect on what was left undone at Philadelphia 200 years ago.
This is a time to recall the struggle that had to be waged to bring all Americans, black and white, men and women, within the meaning of the Constitution. The slave rebels, the abolitionists, the Reconstruction Congress, the black activists and officeholders in the post-Civil War South, the civil-rights and women's movements, the individuals who went outside the mainstream of American politics to raise the issues that major political parties chose to ignore, the men and women, who by asserting their rights and questioning the assumptions and wisdom of those who held power, helped to strengthen the Constitution--all these people deserve a prominent place in the bicentennial celebration.
A democratic society depends for its very survival on its severest critics, on moral inquiry, dissent, and agitation--the highest forms of loyalty and patriotism. "Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation," Frederick Douglass declared in 1857, "are men who want . . . rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its many waters." In that spirit, on this 200th birthday of the Constitution, we need to consider American values and the American character, to assess this nation's use and abuse of its power, wealth and resources.
The Bicentennial of the Constitution has been proclaimed a celebration of 200 years of impartial government and the rule of law, 200 years of liberty and freedom. The Constitution, declared Chief Justice Warren Burger, gave Americans "a new kind of freedom" and people everywhere hope for a better life. "In this 200th anniversary year," President Reagan told Congress, "you and I stand on the shoulders of giants, men whose words and deeds put wind in the sails of freedom." No document in history, affirmed a member of the national bicentennial commission, did more "to give people freedom and opportunity."
If those are the grounds for commemorating the anniversary of the Constitution, they reveal a perverse and limited reading of the American past. It is to read American history without the presence of black men and women, to define them out of American identity, to exclude a people who enjoyed neither liberty, impartial government nor the equal protection of the law. It is to read out of American history a long legacy of slavery and segregation. The same "wind in the sails of freedom" perceived by Ronald Reagan condemned some 700,000 black men and women to nearly three-quarters of a century of unfreedom. The same nation that boasted of its dedication to the proposition that "all men are created equal" was based on the most enormous of human inequalities.
It had been the genius of the Founding Fathers to sanction, protect and reinforce the enslavement of black men and women in the same document that promised to "establish justice, insure domestic tranquility" and also "secure the blessings of liberty" to Americans. It had been the genius of the Founding Fathers to build safeguards for slavery into the Constitution without even mentioning slavery by name. The legitimization of slavery was the price of the new federal union, and the Founding Fathers shared the values and attitudes of most Americans, among them the assumption that blacks were culturally and genetically unsuited for democracy.
The Constitution remained for the first 78 years of its life a document protective of racial enslavement and discrimination. It required years of agitation and a stalemate in a bloody Civil War to bring national leaders to consider extending the Constitution to black Americans. It required the efforts of the enslaved themselves--claiming their freedom, enlisting in the federal army--to bring black Americans within the meaning of the Constitution. It would require still another century of long, bitter and violent struggle, waged in the streets, courts and jails--often in defiance of law enforcement--before black people could fully realize the constitutional protections granted them 100 years earlier.
For two centuries, Afro-Americans, by their sheer presence, have furnished the severest test of the quality and depth of America's loyalty to its professed ideals and values. That test, more often than not, revealed profound contradictions between American professions and practices.
The experience of black Americans belied assumptions about success and recognition as the rewards for hard work: Faithful adherence to the work ethic brought most of them nothing.
The history of black Americans is not simply a history of mob violence; it is a history of violence sanctioned by the law, revealing the deep complicity of the criminal- justice system and the legal profession in the perversion of justice. It is the paradoxical history of a people denied the rights and opportunities of American citizens, yet required to demonstrate the same quality of patriotism as their more privileged white brethren.
"The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers," Frederick Douglass told a white audience on July 5, 1852, "is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn." This was the inequity inherited by the civil-rights movement, when thousands took to the streets, mostly young people, defying the laws, disciplined by nonviolence, insisting upon bringing the Constitution and the nation's professed values into closer harmony.
What they achieved was impressive, far reaching in the ways it changed the face of the South--if not the nation. But it was revealing, too, for the contradictions it exposed. For all the political gains, the dismantling of Jim Crow, the mass marches and the optimistic rhetoric, many of the same tensions of anxieties persisted and festered.
Even as the civil-rights movement struck down legal barriers, it failed to dismantle economic ones. Even as it ended the violence of segregation, it failed to diminish the violence of poverty.
Twenty years have passed since the Kerner Commission warned that America was "moving toward two societies, one black, one white--separate and unequal." That process continues, with dire implications for the 21st Century.
The deepening gap between the haves and have-nots, the deteriorating quality of public education, the revived racist epithets and acts of terrorism, the insensitivity in high places, in the highest places (the White House and the Department of Justice)--all suggest that the commitments made in the 1960s are being revised, compromised, permitted to erode or abandoned altogether to accord not only with new priorities in Washington, but with old and still deeply held convictions about race.
The bicentennial, then, affords us an opportunity to think in different ways about our heritage and democratic responsibilities. It is easy enough to study, teach and honor the Founding Fathers. Their place is secure, having left ample testimony, theoretical treatises and an impressive document--the Constitution.
But how do we choose to remember the men and women, losers in their own time, rebels, disturbers of the peace who tried to flesh out, tried to give meaning to abstract notions of liberty, independence and freedom? How do we honor them? That is a more formidable task--and the most exciting challenge of the bicentennial.