The unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

On July 4, 1776, America’s Founding Fathers, who were gathered in Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence, casting off the shackles of British rule. The 56 men who signed that remarkable document proclaimed it to be obvious that “all men are created equal” with “unalienable Rights” to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It was understood by the signers that slaves were not included in the men who were entitled to the blessings of liberty. After all, historians report that 41 of those who placed their John Hancocks on the document were slave owners.

Slaves did not begin to enjoy any unalienable rights until after the Civil War, despite the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Lincoln on January 1, 1863. Slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. States were required to accord equal rights to all under the Fourteenth Amendment in 1866. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited denial of the right to vote to citizens based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

The freed slaves were able to exercise their unalienable rights for a number of years but slowly and relentlessly those rights were taken away by white supremacists. Laws were enacted at the state and local level to establish racial segregation and keep Blacks from voting, receiving a decent education and exercising other basic rights. These laws continued in effect through the first half of the 20th Century.

Business and social practices took hold across the country through mid-century to keep Blacks from living in white communities. Blacks could not get housing loans for certain areas through a practice called redlining. Restrictions in deeds and covenants kept Blacks out of many neighborhoods. Those restrictions could still be found in Idaho property documents into the second half of the last century.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that separate schools for black kids were not permissible. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited a broad range of discriminatory practices, including in employment, housing and public accommodations. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was designed to provide people of color equal access to the polls.

Despite all of this history of racial discrimination and the efforts to correct it, black and brown people still do not enjoy the same rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that their white brothers and sisters take for granted. The recent deaths of George Floyd and other black citizens at the hands of law enforcement have brought that graphically to the nation’s attention.

The disproportionate death rate among people of color in the pandemic speaks of the need to better address their health needs. The efforts of some states to make it harder for these citizens to vote call for strong remedial action.

This is a wonderful country but its blessings are not equally available to all who live here. We are a work in progress and, while progress has been made in the last 244 years, we still have a long way to go. Parents of all races should have confidence that their child who leaves home wearing a ski mask will return home safely, that they and their children will have access to good medical care, and that they will have an equal opportunity to vote.

The present atmosphere in the country is favorable to extending the blessings of liberty more widely to all Americans in keeping with the unmet promise of the Declaration of Independence. As we celebrate the birth of our nation this July 4th, we should not let this moment to improve it pass us by.

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2 thoughts on “The unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”

  1. I appreciate your comments on Civil Rights Act of 1964. One of the reasons we find ourselves facing the dissension we are currently experiencing is the result of the ruling by the supreme court in Shelby V Holder in 2013, relieving southern states of preclearance in voting requirements (Sec. 4b) and no replacement by the congress when states began to slip into their old deliberate ways which disenfranchised people of color, reducing polling places, requiring additional I.D., making it more difficult to have representation at the local, state and federal level. I refer your readers to Wikipedia: Shelby County V Holder for that sad congressional history.
    Fran Greenlee
    (former Idahoan)

    Shelby County v. Holder
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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    Shelby County v. Holder
    Seal of the United States Supreme Court
    Supreme Court of the United States
    Argued February 27, 2013
    Decided June 25, 2013
    Full case name Shelby County, Alabama, Petitioner v. Eric H. Holder, Jr., Attorney General, et al.
    Docket no. 12-96
    Citations 570 U.S. 529 (more)
    133 S. Ct. 2612; 186 L. Ed. 2d 651
    Argument Oral argument
    Case history
    Prior Petition denied, 811 F. Supp. 2d 424 (D.D.C. 2011); decision affirmed, 679 F.3d 848 (D.C. Cir. 2012); cert. granted, 568 U.S. 1006 (2012).
    Subsequent Remanded, 541 F. App’x 1 (D.C. Cir. 2013); motion for attorneys’ fees denied, 43 F. Supp. 3d 47 (D.D.C. 2014), affirmed sub. nom., Shelby County v. Lynch, 799 F.3d 1173 (D.C. Cir. 2015); cert. denied, 136 S. Ct. 981 (2016).
    Holding
    Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is unconstitutional.
    Court membership
    Chief Justice
    John Roberts
    Associate Justices
    Antonin Scalia · Anthony Kennedy
    Clarence Thomas · Ruth Bader Ginsburg
    Stephen Breyer · Samuel Alito
    Sonia Sotomayor · Elena Kagan
    Case opinions
    Majority Roberts, joined by Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Alito
    Concurrence Thomas
    Dissent Ginsburg, joined by Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan
    Laws applied
    U.S. Const. amend. XV; Voting Rights Act of 1965
    Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. 529 (2013), was a landmark decision[1] of the US Supreme Court regarding the constitutionality of two provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965: Section 5, which requires certain states and local governments to obtain federal preclearance before implementing any changes to their voting laws or practices; and Section 4(b), which contains the coverage formula that determines which jurisdictions are subjected to preclearance based on their histories of discrimination in voting.[2][3]

    On June 25, 2013, the Court ruled by a 5-to-4 vote that Section 4(b) is unconstitutional because the coverage formula is based on data over 40 years old, making it no longer responsive to current needs and therefore an impermissible burden on the constitutional principles of federalism and equal sovereignty of the states.[2][3] The Court did not strike down Section 5, but without Section 4(b), no jurisdiction will be subject to Section 5 preclearance unless Congress enacts a new coverage formula.[4]

    In its wake, the ruling has made it easier for state officials to make it harder for Black and other racio-ethnic minority voters to vote.[5] Research shows that preclearance led to increases in minority congressional representation and increases in minority turnout.[6][7] Five years after the ruling, nearly 1,000 polling places had been closed in the U.S., with many of the closed polling places in predominantly African-American counties. Research shows that the changing of voter locations and reduction in voting locations can reduce voter turnout.[5] There were also cuts to early voting, purges of voter rolls and imposition of strict voter ID laws.[8][9] A 2020 study found that the jurisdictions which had previously been covered by preclearance massively increased the rate of voter registration purges after the Shelby decision.[10] Virtually all restrictions on voting subsequent to the ruling were by Republicans.[11]

    1. Thanks for your comment, Fran. You are right on the mark. The majority opinion in Shelby County was result oriented and a travesty of justice. The Court said the formula justifying the pre-clearance provisions of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was out-dated, even though Congress had re-enacted the Voting Rights Act just 7 years before the decision. The Court’s decision essentially disregarded the action of Congress. Shameful!

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