The 13th Amendment abolished the enslavement of human beings as well as involuntary servitude in the United States, with the exception of imprisonment as pointed out in magnificently dramatic form in Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary “13th.”
The 14th Amendment granted all American citizens “equal protection of the laws.” Yet, the amendment was used in cases to include Brown v. Board of Education to argue that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional because maybe the people in the back couldn’t hear it.
More time has passed, and it is clear as the videos of unarmed African Africans being shot and killed by police officers for minor traffic violations, the perception of being a threat or for no crime at all that this equal protection is still arguable.
It reads in part, “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” But this was not the case for Kalief Browder.
In 1870, the 15th Amendment granted African American men the right to vote. Blood, sweat, tears, poll taxes, literacy tests and lynchings – there was still more needed for the law to take effect.
Women wouldn’t get the chance to participate in American democracy until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. But due to state laws, African American women were not allowed to vote.
Government leaders wrote it down but unfortunately, African Americans would still need to work, bleed and die for it.
Protests are often needed to move the country forward as the sociopolitical construct of race continues to take the country hundreds of years backward.
So, African American citizens protested to be included in “we the people” until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed. It was needed to enforce the 15th Amendment.
It is the one that is up for renewal, the one that Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell from Kentucky, who is the majority whip, refuses to restore though it has nearly 50 co-sponsors. He won’t even restore the act in honor of the late Congressman John Lewis, who died earlier this year.
Lewis, a civil rights icon, is known for being beaten for the right to vote. It is named in his honor, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Needless to say, McConnell does not represent the will of “we the people.”
The Constitution has been amended to continue to include more people in “we the people.” The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (affectionately known as “Notorious RBG”) is captured by the Clinton Foundation saying it this way:
“[The] Constitution begins with the words, ‘We the people of the United States in order to form a more perfect union.’ Think about how things were in 1787. Who were ‘We the people’?” she asked. “Certainly not people who were held in human bondage because the original Constitution preserves slavery. Certainly not women whatever their color and not even men who own no property.
“It was a rather elite group, ‘We the people,’ but I think the genius of our Constitution is what Justice Thurgood Marshall said. He said he doesn’t celebrate the original Constitution, but he does celebrate what the Constitution has become, now well over two centuries,” Ginsburg continued.
“That is the concept of ‘We the people’ has become ever more inclusive. People who were left out at the beginning – slaves, women, men without property, native Americans – were not part of ‘we the people.’ Now all the once left-out people are part of our political constituency. We are certainly a more perfect union as a result of that.”
Despite its false claims of Manifest Destiny and greatness, the United States remains a work in progress, working more people into a historical document that was more exclusive than inclusive, working more people in while making promises it has yet to keep consistently. But we’re working on it.
This is why American citizens must vote. Ballots cast are hands raised, representing more of “we the people.”
Voting allows us to continue to revise our founding documents and work in more people who would not have been counted otherwise. Voting ensures fair and full representation, reflective of communities across the country and not a single story captured hundreds of years ago.
It is a democracy amended, a reality edited to capture the full voices of those marginalized and oppressed, cut off by capitalist and political talking points.
It is your right and responsibility as you have a say in how you are governed, by what laws and by whom. You have a say in how this country is led and the direction that it will take, in the resources allocated and rights afforded to all its citizens.
Your vote puts your hand in as we work for true democracy – not only for “us” or just “them” but “we the people.”
Minister to empower congregations at the D.C. Baptist Convention. She is a member of the Good Faith Media strategic advisory board.