Today we celebrate the 226th birthday of our Constitution. But
what precisely should we celebrate? In the summer of 1787, the
founders created a remarkable framework for our democracy - but
their document was deeply flawed.
Since individual liberty was not protected from the power of
government in the original Constitution that was submitted for
ratification, a Bill of Rights was added. The Bill of Rights
reflected a broader vision of freedom.
Even with the Bill of Rights, the Constitution remained flawed -
it protected slavery.
The Constitution we celebrate today, a document guaranteeing
equality before the law, required a bloody civil war before
amendments brought African Americans within the Constitution.
But it would take another century before African Americans began
to redeem the promise of the Civil War amendments. During that
time, race discrimination became deeply embedded in our laws, our
political institutions and our culture. Until 1954, it was even
legitimized by the U.S. Supreme Court.
It took more than 175 years after the Constitution was written
before civil rights laws outlawed discrimination in employment,
housing, public accommodations and voting.
And what is true for the struggle for racial equality is also
true about the struggle for other liberties.
The Constitution tolerated the subjugation of women. It was not
until 1920 that the 19th amendment gave women the elementary right
to vote. This was not due to the wisdom of the founders and the
original Constitution, but to the struggle in the streets that
If the framers knowingly left out blacks and women, they didn't
even consider the rights of immigrants, gays and lesbians,
children, students, prisoners, the mentally ill and the disabled.
For nearly all of our history, these groups were largely
unprotected by the Constitution. But one by one, they and their
advocates fought to have the Constitution and Bill of Rights apply
But what happens when the government violates the Constitution -
when it makes a law restricting free speech or religious liberty,
or denying a group due process or equal protection of the laws?
The conventional answer is that the courts will step in. But
courts don't act on their own. They are powerless to fulfill their
function unless an aggrieved person challenges the constitutional
In 1910 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored
People was established, followed in 1920 by the American Civil
Liberties Union. …