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Full Circle

By Robert J. Gieb

Freedom and dignity for all men. The idea inspired the founding fathers in the creation of a new government. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The application of the idea moved slowly in the ante bellum years following the revolution. Then that idea, that grand truth of equality and the unalienable right to life and liberty for all human beings, lurched forward amidst the pain and agony of the Civil War. This nation may have been formed in a revolutionary war waged to fulfill its citizens’ declaration of their right to self-government, but the very heart and spirit of these United States of America came to life in the war between the states, in that bloody and painful conflict to bring equality and liberty to all in this great republic.

The subsequent collapse and failure of federal reconstruction efforts in the south, and the ensuing years of segregation and racial injustice that included in too many times and places terror and death, slowed but never stopped the progress toward freedom. Pushed on by the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, the idea of full human dignity for all Americans moved closer to legal reality.

After World War II the drive for freedom and liberty for all began to pick up momentum. The civil rights movement, then led by Martin Luther King, marched doggedly through the streets of the Deep South. The content of one’s character, and not the color of his skin should be the measurement, said Dr. King. Every human being has inherent human dignity, and the right to be treated as a human person. Not unimportantly, the federal courts were finally sympathetic to Dr. King’s message.

One hundred years after the Civil War, the Supreme Court was in a new frame of mind about race. In sharp contrast to Scott v. Sandford in 1857 and Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, the Supreme Court in post war America, beginning with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, was ready to begin to make the founders’ talk of equality and freedom a practical reality for black as well as white. By the late 1960s the Court’s project was running along at a full gallop.

During this time the politics of civil rights changed. While historically the Republican Party was the party of Lincoln and emancipation, and the Democratic Party that of slavery and racial injustice, as the 20th century unfolded the latter became the party of civil rights. The old tradition of civil rights advocacy seemed to have faded in the Grand Old Party. In contrast, the civil rights wing of the Democratic Party, made up of the racially oppressed, but also of white liberals and assorted left wing groups with agendas of deconstruction, became ascendant. By the 1960s the segregationist wing of the party was being crushed by liberal federal courts, its own party leadership, and, not least, by public opinion informed and inflamed by a sympathetic media who had the weapon of television.

The great freedom train that had pulled out of the station so many years before, and which had been slowed to a crawl so many times, was now rolling down the tracks toward equality for all. “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” Abraham Lincoln had said on that November day in1863 at Gettysburg. By nine score and eight years after 1776 the idea of liberty for all was finally a reality, even if a very imperfect reality.

Then in 2008 the crowning glory came to the old civil rights movement. The freedom train finally pulled into the station. Barrack Obama, a black man, was elected the 44th president of the United States. This man, a member of a race that until the Civil War was considered by law to be not fully human, was, eleven score and twelve years from the founding, elected to the highest elected office in the land.

In a message to Congress on December 1, 1862 Lincoln told the assembled legislators: “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free -- honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.” Certainly, on matters of race the election of Obama in 2008 is proof that Americans did indeed “assure freedom to the slave,” and thus did “assure freedom to the free.” But even so, have we nobly saved or meanly lost the battle for human dignity and the struggle for legal protection for all human beings? Sadly the battle is still on, and there is a reason for this.

As the old segregationist strongholds and legal impediments fell to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and a continuing procession of decisions from ...

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