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.