Of all the red-letter dates in this month -- Independence Day (July 4), the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (July 2), Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall's birthday (July 2, 1908), the founding of the National Association for Colored Women (July 21, 1896) and the founding of the Niagara Movement (July 11, 1905) -- it is today, the anniversary of the ratification of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1868, that should be cause for the most celebration.
This was the amendment that made black people citizens. Although many Americans continue to make a mockery of the law, its adoption was no hand-me-down, but rather the result of hard-fought battles, including much bloodshed, that must never be forgotten.
"While the Union survived the Civil War, the Constitution did not," Thurgood Marshall said during a controversial speech in Hawaii in May. "In its place arose a new, more promising basis for justice and equality, the 14th Amendment, ensuring protection of the life, liberty and property of all persons against deprivations without due process, and guaranteeing equal protection of the laws."
It is ironic -- sad, really -- that on this anniversary and as the nation begins its celebration of the Constitution's 200th birthday, a candidate has been nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court who, had he been around in 1868, probably would have sided with white southerners to deny black people equal protection under the law.
It is chilling that a man as brilliant as Judge Robert H. Bork casts nothing but dark shadows when it comes to matters of race and civil rights.
The possibility of his confirmation to the highest court in the land brings to mind another Supreme Court justice whose impact on black people was devastating. In 1857, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney sounded remarkably similar to Bork when he delivered the opinion of the court in the awful Dred Scott decision that retarded black progress for years.
The question at hand then, as now, was civil rights. Was the Negro a citizen? No, Taney wrote, justifying that conclusion by divining that the framers of the Constitution never "intended" to include blacks in "the whole human family."
When the Constitution was drafted, Taney wrote, blacks were considered "so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect . . . the negro (sic) might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit."
Bork has not gone that far, yet. He says he opposes legalized segregation, but has said that portions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act are unconstitutional.
"The cost -- and loss of personal freedom, constitutional distortions, disrespect for law, and increased racial and religious antagonism -- seems prohibitively high," Bork wrote, sounding just like those who opposed the 14th Amendment.
To make matters worse, the 14th Amendment itself is under siege by big business, which has claimed successfully in court that a corporation is a "person," and therefore subject to the same protections that were set up explicitly to help newly freed slaves.
In light of these troubling developments, the words of Thurgood Marshall are particularly refreshing and insightful.
Marshall urges that when focusing on the events that took place in Philadelphia two centuries ago, we not overlook the momentous events that followed -- the Civil War, for example -- and thereby lose our sense of perspective.
To that, I would add that when it comes to understanding and appreciating the 14th Amendment and the danger that it now faces, it is also necessary to look at what preceded its ratification.
It was for this law that people such as underground railroad leader Harriet Tubman and Quaker Levi Coffin risked their lives. Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey died for it. To take that history for granted, particularly at this time, is to lose more than the proper perspective that Marshall speaks of for black people, especially when there is nothing less than equal protection under the law at stake.