The pledge of allegiance suggests that the United States, a nation “under God,” is a land where everyone must be treated equally. And the words of the national anthem echo that ideal with the promise to create a hard-won “land of the free.” Surely, if any nation should hold civil liberties sacred, it is America.
But equality is easier talked about than achieved. Slavery persisted for more than a generation in “free” America, and even after emancipation, when black Americans – the men, that is – were supposedly able to vote, some states deliberately imposed conditions designed to keep them from the ballot box.
Women, white or black, did not get the vote until the nineteen hundreds, and it took decades of agitation – even civil disobedience – to get it.
It was not until the mid-nineteen sixties that all black Americans were truly free to vote. With the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the federal government assumed watchdog responsibility over states that had a record of voter suppression. It was this law that the Obama Administration relied on to block a resurgence of legislation designed to deprive minorities and the poor of access to the polls in 2012.
Now, the Supreme Court has struck down that key provision protecting minorities from disenfranchisement. It’s back to the drawing board for civil rights advocates. Back to Congress. Back to the streets if necessary.You might have thought that historic fight was won but it is far from over.
At the same time, the justices gave states the right to allow same-sex marriages. The shameful persecution of Americans with minority sexual orientation is losing legitimacy. The society draws nearer to enlightenment on at least one front.
And the fight for women’s equality? Sadly, that is not going well. Women’s rights are under attack in Congress and in legislatures across the land. The culture of male domination has raised its ugly head in Congress and Republican-controlled state legislatures. Women are systematically being deprived of the freedom to determine their own reproductive destiny.
In this theater of the civil rights war, a new hero has emerged. Her name is Wendy Davis (photo above), and she is a Texas state senator. Ms. Davis strapped on a pair of orange sneakers and took to her feet for 11 hours Tuesday night to filibuster away an oppressive bill prohibiting abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
The Texas bill will not die so easily of course. As long as Republicans control state legislatures, as long as they have a majority in the House of Representatives, they “will not cease from mortal fight, nor will their sword sleep in their hand” till they have cut down the 1973 Supreme Court’s historic Roe v. Wade ruling.
But as long as we have warriors like Ms. Davis, these male tyrants will have a battle royal on their hands. This nation “under God” will not abandon the goal of “liberty and justice for all” that the Founding Fathers set. The goal is elusive. The civil rights war is yet to be won. But the fight goes on.
Civil rights advocates lost one battle this week – voter suppression lives. But they won one – on gay rights. A third – women’s equality – is undecided.
And a fourth? Is the immigration debate a civil rights issue? I think it is. I think you could call the 11 million undocumented immigrants a persecuted minority. True, they are not citizens. But neither were the slaves. African captives were brought here against their will and became a part of this society.
Nobody asked those Hispanic children whether they wanted to come to America, either.
Furthermore, it could be argued that global economic policies and corporate colonialism have deprived many Latin Americans of the means to make a living in their homeland, and their only recourse was to seek a new Promised Land. In the case of Mexico, I would contend that there is an even more compelling historical justification for “illegal immigration.” Much of what is now California and all of Texas belonged to Mexico and was lost to American expansion.
I know, that was then, this is now. But what about “justice for all”?
Make no mistake, the quest for liberty and justice for all is is a never-ending struggle. The opponents of civil liberty are not going to give up easily. Tyranny is with us always, and it is the deadliest foe of democracy.
As Thomas Jefferson is credited (wrongly?) with saying, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.