WE THE PEOPLE

Talk given at the ceremony to dedicate
The John Doar History Trail 

New Richmond, WI – Saturday, August 26, 2017

At the start of Freedom Summer, after Mickey, James and Andy were confiscated, John said Burke needed to talk and arranged for myself and James Forman to meet with Burke at the Justice Department.  Unanticipated was Arthur Schlesinger Jr., noted historian and advisor to the late President Kennedy.  At stake was the assumption, current in the national media, that SNCC invoked the Mississippi violence, the burning of churches, the disappearance of young black men, the postured armed defense against a promised invasion of northern left -wing radicals, even communists. 

Does the country always inoculate itself against the collateral damage its actions incur?  How come the astute historian, and even Burke, missed the August March on Washington and President Kennedy’s subsequent announcement of a pending Civil Rights Bill as the gasoline doused on white supremacy furor?  After all, the four Sunday School girls bombed on September 15th in Rev. Shuttleworth’s 16th Street Birmingham Church could hardly be a cause and why wouldn’t collateral damage drift west across the Alabama state line….  Didn’t Mississippi church bombings begin in the fall while the Summer Project announcement was on hold, waiting, apparently, for the Amite county January 31st, 1964 murder of Lewis Allen … the book-end to the 1961 murder of Herbert Lee; it made the Summer Project, in the language of John, “seem like the right thing to do.” What is it anyway about collateral damage that makes it so hard to name?

And what is it about “self-government” that makes it so hard to come by?  At least for John’s very important problem in America on which he went to work:  “A situation in which we didn’t have an honest system of self-government.”  

In his 89th year, John, at Emory University in 2010, reflects on the years 1960 to 1965, as “Revolutionary Times”  … times when blacks and black communities took action … introduces his audience to Ella Baker, Midwife for the birth of SNCC … reads her words to them:

In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed … It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you can change that system.

Facing those Revolutionary times, John, in the shadows of Freedom Riders, SNCC field secretaries and MFDP insurgents, worked to devise means to change the system.

Freedom riders on Greyhound buses facing an American caste system were looking … not to the state of Alabama to affirm their human dignity, but to the nation and its concept of national citizenship; the same for sit-in students and SNCC voter registration insurgents.  The idea that fundamental human rights should depend on the whims of state legislators is laughable when you articulate it just “straight up” … not that Patrick Henry agreed. The white men property owners who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 could have sided with Patrick, opened the Preamble with, “We the Citizens of the Several States,” and tied substantive constitutional obliges and blessings directly to state citizenship.  

On the contrary, Article 4, Section 2, Paragraph 3, tied constitutional slavery obliges directly to national citizenship: federal oversight over properties that decide to own themselves … encapsulating African slavery into the National constitutional conundrum.

Three decades later, in 1820, Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Holmes to name this national constitutional conundrum:

“… 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.”  

Could a system of “honest” self- government  “safely” let go the “wolf of slavery”?  Not if Slavery, when all the “I reckons” are done, emerges as mere collateral damage for Self-Preservation.

In Greenwood in the spring of 1963, a century and a half later, John understood the system that failed SNCC when National Democrats negotiated with Mississippi Democrats to secure the release of SNCC field secretaries in exchange for abandoning pursuit of a federal court enforced right to vote.

A too familiar story: Fundamental human rights put up as collateral damage for “the institutionalized incarnation in the Southern Democratic Party of the will to White Supremacy”: Lynching, Jim Crow, Circular 3591, you name it.

The assassination of Medgar Evers in June of ’63 sealed a SNCC shift from voter to political insurgency.  That 1963 year SNCC ran Fannie Lou Hamer and Annie Divine for Congress, Victoria Gray for Senator, Aaron Henry and Ed King for Governor and Lieutenant Governor, formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and organized a Freedom Vote. 

In the year that followed,  SNCC mounted a “We The People” movement founded on earned insurgencies:  First we had to earn the respect of the sharecroppers and domestic workers.  Why should they risk their homes if not their very lives to work with SNCC?  Words could not do that; we had to get knocked down and get back up one   more   time until it became clear that what we meant was what we did, more so than anything we said.  Then there was earning access to the the legal crawl space permitted under the ’57 and ’60 civil rights bills.  We had to earn the respect of Burke, John and the cohort of civil rights division lawyers:  Avoid direct action like “fly paper”; establish through discipline the presumption that a Mississippi SNCC field secretary arrest was “by the fact itself” a voter registration arrest.  Finally we had to overcome the skepticism of the Arthur Schlesinger network, the defenders of democracy against popular naive insurgencies, organized without their recognizable established leadership structures.  We made an end run around the Civil Rights National Leaders with an appeal to white college students all across the nation, an appeal made to a collective sense of National Citizenship.  I suppose that the national loss of such a collective sense for purposes other than foreign wars is collateral damage to Southern Democrat white supremacy, Supreme Court Confederate Constitution disquisitions, States and their citizens’ Rights that ruled the Nation after the Civil War and Reconstruction.

In any case, for about six months of 1964, a “We The People” insurgency took on a version of John’s “situation”:  We didn’t have an honest system of self-government in the Mississippi Democratic Party Structure.  

In retrospect our “We the People” time was up after the 1964 Atlantic City Democrat Convention:  there was no “We The People” institution, or organization or network to own our “We The People” insurgency.  No Political Party, no Civil Rights Organization, no network of liberals, no National Council of Churches.  Besides, in the biology, sociology, evolution ways of thoughts and actions, Freedom Summer s “We The People” insurgency carried as much freedom as it could handle and handled as much freedom as it could carry.

MR. PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN OF THE CONVENTION: 

“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.”

So here in the 21st century is Lincoln’s nation, searching for a “We” around which to build what he could not.  One document the nation could revisit is the Preamble: available always as an organizing tool for a national conversation about “We The People” insurgencies.

A simple declarative sentence. 

The Preamble has a subject:  “We The People of the United States”

A verb which is present tense and active: “Do ordain and establish”

An object: “This constitution for the United States of America.”

Watch out though: when those present in 1787 rejected Patrick Henry’s insistence on a Preamble whose subject was “We the citizens of the several states,” they opted for a Preamble which leaves open for every generation to invite into a national constitutional conversation all who live in this geography and take it as their home, documented or not.  The point is worth pondering:  Jefferson’s “wolf by the ear” conundrum depicts Slavery as unfortunate collateral damage of Self-Preservation. At stake is the Preamble’s reach.  Whatever one’s constitutional theory, “by the fact itself” the Preamble’s reach has expanded, not contracted, over two and one-quarter centuries.  Jefferson’s Preamble contraction ran up against a civil war, but neither the 1860s Civil War nor the 1960s Civil Rights Movement laid “White Supremacy” to rest and Jefferson’s Preamble contraction has resurfaced:  Voter repression, “sharecropper education,” affordable health care, mass incarceration, a national caste system, immigration and deportation rather than slavery, are current unfortunate Self-Preservation collateral damage.   Lincoln’s nation, once more, awash in civil insurgency, confronts Lincoln’s “We.”

Be that as it may, in the constitutional conversations to come, please help me to honor John by repeating the Preamble after me in your reflective voice, thinking about what it might possibly mean for the “situation” of honest self-government John spent his life addressing:

“We the People of the United States,

In Order to form a more perfect Union

establish Justice

insure domestic Tranquility

provide for the common defense,

promote the general Welfare,

and secure the Blessings of Liberty

for ourselves and our posterity

do Ordain and establish

this constitution

for the United States of America.”

Robert P. (Bob) Moses

Delivered August 26, 2017, New Richmond, Wisconsin

Revised September 13, 2017, Cambridge, Massachusetts

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