The Promise of Equality
On this past weekend, I thought about the words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” In 1776 those words were more powerful than we can even imagine. Equality was not the norm in politics and government. To declare such equality boldly and forthrightly was radical. Truly revolutionary.
The nation grew out of stated words of equality, yet it was profoundly unequal from its inception. We have been in a constant struggle to achieve equality ever since those first days of the nation.
The Declaration stated it to be self-evident that all men are created equal. But they may have meant Whites-only, and men only. Our nation was built on a slave economy. The founding document—the Constitution—accepted the premise of the inherent inequality of a race of people, and labeled them three-fifths persons. The Great Document—and consequently the nation—was founded on compromise, allowing for the slave states to continue engaging in the slave trade and enslaving Africans and African–Americans.
Still, there were bright spots. While voting was in large part restricted to White, literate, propertied, males, the franchise was still more universal than in other nations. While seemingly regressive today, it was progressive for the times. There was a sense among many that it is important to create a participatory democracy. Perhaps more importantly, there is a promise of equality in the structure of our government and its three co-equal, coordinate branches. The Framers created an inefficient structure, with each branch checking the other, but in doing so, the framers protected the people, in another nod toward equality.
But still, individual rights and equality were elusive.
The founding compromise was doomed from the start, and nearly a century after declaring independence, the nation found itself embroiled in a war against itself, fighting over its very soul. Physical force won out, but such force cannot change the hearts and minds of people.
The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution affirmed the results of the Civil War and to enshrine some version of equality into the Constitution. Constitutional amendment was not enough, as Jim Crow laws ensued, and lynchings and other intimidation methods served to demoralize and dehumanize African-Americans and to deny the apparent constitutional promise of equality.
And the U.S. Supreme Court did not interpret the Constitution as providing relief for such matters, or even promoting equality, as seen in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. But I am talking about hope, in the midst of reality. The reality is that race remains our nation’s unresolved dilemma. And the hope is the promise of equality that has always been in our nation, in the Constitution, but has been slow to evolve fully.
That hope has been expressed in the Court’s Brown decision in 1954, in one-person, one-vote case law that ensured equality of participation in the electoral process, and in the numerous constitutional amendments that have expanded the right to vote. And ultimately, the tale of hope found expression in the election of the first African-American President. I don’t mean that in the political sense, but in the sense that our nation struggles, but slowly finds ways to make progress toward equality of opportunity. We have a long way to go, but as we strive to create a more perfect union, the constitutional promise of equality is there.