In March of 1963, a Field Secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), I testified in the Federal District Court of Judge Claude Clayton in Greenville, Mississippi, my lawyer, John Doar from the US Department of Justice.

A few months earlier, Jimmy Travis, Randolph Blackwell and myself had been greased gunned on the highway outside of Greenwood. Jimmy, driving, caught a bullet in his neck.

In response to this terrorist act SNCC converged on Greenwood, raised food from Chicago, and insisted that families needing food join the right to vote insurgency, march with SNCC to the Courthouse and attempt to register, Greenwood Police arrested and jailed eight SNCC field secretaries.

From the witness stand I stared at the sharecroppers bussed in from Greenwood while attending to Judge Clayton’s constitutional question: Why is SNCC taking illiterates down to register to vote?

BECAUSE, the Nation can’t have its cake and eat it too: It can’t use politics to deny Black people access to literacy and then turn around and say they can’t do politics because they’re illiterate.

Today, more than fifty years later, a contemporary “SNCC” action might provoke a contemporary constitutional question:

Why is “SNCC” taking convicted felons down to register to vote?

In that 1963 Mississippi Federal District Court and in Twenty-First Century America, three sets of constitutional combatants engage each other in a power struggle for the right to vote and the right to a quality public school education: Federal Power, State Power, People Power: Three Powers which have struggled with each other across each of three constitutional eras. Each of these eras has distinctive sets of badges:

We can see this in the fate of young black men across the three eras:

1787 to 1862: In the first constitutional era young black men are
Africans and slaves too valuable to lynch or lock up.

1875 to 1941: in the second constitutional era southern young black men are second class citizens rounded up by the tens of thousands for “peonage” and shackled to work the coal mines.

In this our third constitutional era, mass incarceration 

  • Fueled by President Nixon’s determination to create a war on drugs as a tool to destroy the Black community; 
  • Intensified under the Clinton and Obama administrations;  
  • Decimated the potential black electorate.

The National Democratic Party, authors of all three devastations      cannot claim innocence, because, as Baldwin taught us:

“It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

That said, we are calling on the National Democratic Party to address with us a fundamental question: Who are the constitutional people? What does it mean to be a constitutional person in the United States of America?

On April 22nd, 1820, at the center of the first constitutional era, Thomas Jefferson wrote this to John Holmes about slavery:

“But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”

In that era Democrat Presidents decimated Native Americans, confiscated their lands and rode the wolf of slavery. Young black Africans, Insurgent Runaway Slaves, inspired a Revolutionary People’s Movement to destroy the wolf of slavery pushing Abraham Lincoln to begin his 1858 “House Divided” speech with reflections on the two letter word that, in this very election cycle continues to confound this nation. 

“If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do and how to do it.”

Alas, Lincoln could not construct a “we,” the nation fractured and descended into war.

It took its own sweet time, but Democrats fractured over the same two letter word when, one century after the Civil War, Freedom Summer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), pushed the National Democratic Party to cleanse itself from the politics of white supremacy. 

MFDP had come from the right state. George S. Boutwell, a senator from Massachusetts who helped craft the Reconstruction Amendments and the laws to enforce them, stated the case:

“The evidence shows … that the State of Mississippi is at present under the control of political organizations composed largely of armed men whose common purpose is …to establish and maintain … by acts … of violence, fraud, and murder … the supremacy of the white-line democracy.”

In 1875, a decade after the Civil War, a Democratic Party’s  “white-line” democracy launched the nation into Jim Crow and Slavery by Another Name.

Black youth dropped the curtain on this second Constitutional Era; they initiated and sustained the Sit-In Movement, took it across Alabama and into Mississippi with Freedom Rides, then settled via SNCC across Mississippi and the black belt to organize an earned insurgency for the right to vote. They acted as Constitutional People, citizens of the nation, in defiance of the Supreme Court’s Confederate Narrative and its idea that their human rights depended on something as shaky as the laws of the Confederate States. A notion as absurd as Slavery itself. They enacted a People’s Narrative, a story involving guarantees of national citizenship and national protection of citizens’ rights. 

In this our third constitutional era, our questions remain:
Who are the constitutional people? What does it mean to be a constitutional person in the United States of America?

While those who fought for the Reconstruction Amendments thought they were guaranteeing the right to vote to all citizens, those rights have been deeply undermined by, among others, this Democratic Party. In 1963, Judge Wisdom of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals had this to say about the removal, in 1877, of federal troops from the South:

These events foreshadowed the “lily-white” primary, and marked the emergence of the Democratic Party in the South as the “institutionalized incarnation of the will to White Supremacy.”

In Shelby County v. Holder, Chief Justice Roberts elevated a Confederate Narrative of states’ rights over a People’s Narrative of universal citizenship, providing a judicial façade for the contemporary “will to White Supremacy.” 

To reinforce the intent and purpose of the Reconstruction Amendments, and to ensure that all of our citizens, including incarcerated persons, have full political rights, the SNCC Legacy Project, and those of us who commit to organizing earned insurgencies of People Power, champion, in opposition to Chief Justice Roberts, a People’s
Narrative.

“That the nation rejected both slavery and its assault on human dignity and altered its slave-tolerating Constitution to give the Federal Government power to protect the People’s rights.”

We ask that the National Democratic Party take a revolutionary stance: Confirm the right to vote and make it explicit; adopt in your platform the following statement:

The National Democratic Party agrees to work for the following Voting Rights Resolution.

Voting Rights Resolution

Section 1. The People’s right of representation being necessary to our republican form of government, the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be infringed.

Section 2. The Federal branches of government shall protect this right.

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