WE THE PEOPLE

At the start of the 1964 Freedom Summer, after Mickey Schwerner, Andy Goodman and James Chaney were captured to be assassinated, James Forman, executive director of SNCC, and I were summoned to meet with Burke Marshall, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, at the Justice Department in Washington D.C.  Unanticipated was the presence of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., noted historian and close advisor to the late President Kennedy.  At stake in the meeting was the assumption, playing out in the national media, that SNCC had invoked the Mississippi violence:  the burning of churches, the disappearance of young black men, the postured armed defense by the state of Mississippi against a projected 1964 summer invasion of northern left-wing radicals, communists even.

Does the country always inoculate itself against the collateral damage its actions incur?  How come the astute historian, and even Burke, missed the gasoline doused on White-Supremacy-Furor:  President Kennedy’s announcement after the August 1963 March on Washington promising a Civil Rights Bill?  After all, the four Sunday School girls bombed away on September 15, 1963, in Reverend Shuttlesworth’s 16th Street Birmingham church could hardly have been the cause. And, why wouldn’t that species of collateral damage for a presidential promise drift west across Alabama’s state line?  Didn’t Mississippi church bombings begin in the fall of ’63 while Summer Project announcements were on hold, waiting, apparently, for yet another justifying murder:  the Amite County January 31st, 1964 assassination of Lewis Allen, the book end to the September 1961 murder of Herbert Lee?  The murder of Lewis Allen had turned the Summer Project into “The right thing to do.”

“What is it about collateral damage that makes it so hard to name?”  For that matter, “what is it about “honest self-government” that makes it so hard to come by for African-Americans since 1875 and undocumented people since, at least, the 1970s?  

Ella Baker, mid-wife for the birth of SNCC thought it this way:

In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful, they 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 change that system.

Freedom Rider insurgents crossing Alabama on Greyhound buses devising means to obliterate Jim Crow, facing down America’s system of caste, looked not to states to affirm their human rights.  No!  They focused on the nation and its concept of National Citizenship.  The same goes for SNCC-organized Mississippi sharecropper voter registration insurgents.  The idea that fundamental human rights should depend on the whims of state legislatures is laughable when you articulate it just “straight up”!  Not that Patrick Henry agreed.  Patrick Henry wanted white men property owners gathered in the 1787 Philadelphia Constitutional Convention to open the Preamble with:  “We the citizens of the several states”, which would have bound substantive constitutional obligations directly to state citizenship.

“We The People … do ordain and establish this constitution for the United States of America”

A declaration which reaches beyond state citizenship to establish at the heart of the constitution the concept of national citizenship, at least, in 1787, for white men property owners, the first class of “First-Class Constitutional People.”  A class moreover entitled to federal protection for their property as outlined in Article 4, Section 2, Paragraph 3.  Which property?  Africans!  Federal jurisdiction protected African property of constitutional people; African properties that just might decide to establish a 19th century Young People’s Project. Teen and twenty year old constitutional property the might decide to own themselves and change their constitutional status from constitutional property to constitutional people.  

In the 19th century these teenage insurgent runaway slaves encapsulated African slavery into a national constitutional conundrum:  Thomas Jefferson’s “Wolf of Slavery”:

“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.”

So wrote Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes in 1824.  “Honest” self-government could not “safely” let the wolf go:  Slavery, 19th century collateral damage, inflicted for the self-preservation of white supremacy.

“As it is” the contemporary wolf which can neither be held nor safely let go, wrestles a nation which struggles to grip both its ears:  mass incarceration and undocumented people as 21st century collateral damage inflicted by the wolf:  the self-preservation of White Supremacy.

“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 did Abraham Lincoln address the 1858 Republican convention, the one haunted by the wolf of slavery, by the fundamental question for which Lincoln had no “We” in the 19th Century and for which the nation has no “We” in the 21st:  Whose lives matter?

Our nation, searching for a “We” around which to construct what Lincoln could not, will have to revisit the Preamble:

A simple declarative sentence with:

A subject:  “we the people of the United States…”

A present tense active verb:  “…do ordain and establish”

An object:  “…this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Be careful however:  When those present in 1787 opted for “we the people”, not “we the citizens of the several states,” they opted as “undocumented people.” Their only option to document themselves was as citizens of a state.  In the final analysis, they opted for a preamble which leaves open for every generation to invite into the constitutional conversation all who live in this geography and take it as their home to become part of a society in which everybody’s life matters.

The point is worth pondering:  Jefferson’s “wolf by the ear” conundrum depicts slavery as the unfortunate collateral damage of self-preservation.  At stake is the Preamble’s reach.  Whatever one’s constitutional theory, by “the facts themselves,” the Preamble’s reach has expanded, not contracted, over two and a quarter centuries.  Jefferson’s “wolf of slavery” contraction of its reach ran up against a civil war:  but neither the 1860s’ Civil War, nor the 1960s’ Civil Rights Movement were sufficient to lay to rest self-preservation by White Supremacy, and Jefferson’s explicit contraction of the Preamble’s reach has resurfaced: in the 21st century voter repression, affordable health care, aspirational public education, mass incarceration, persecution of undocumented people, an expanding national race/class system of caste, have replaced 19th century slavery as the unfortunate collateral damage of the will to self-preservation via White Supremacy.

It doesn’t have to end up that way.  But the way forward requires a commitment to national citizenship for the public good that is currently in short supply.  Even so, the Preamble points the way.  We can use it in the 21st century as a declaration that reaches beyond state citizenship to establish in the heart of the Constitution the concept of national citizenship for the public good.  The way forward requires an expansion, not a contraction of the Preamble’s reach, an “earned amnesty” for the mass incarcerated and undocumented peoples.  This will require that we agree to think about what it meant in 1787, what it has meant across two and a quarter centuries and what it means for the 21st century.  

I invite you to reflect on what it means now to you:

“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 Blessing of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

 – Bob Moses, speech at the Noonan Scholars and South Central Scholars annual gala, Los Angeles, CA, Saturday, October 28, 2017 – revised 10/31/17, Cambridge, MA

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