From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
Celebrate the Ninth of July
by Abdi Soltani
I don’t know about you, but I have found the recent news punishing: separation of families without due process, the Supreme Court’s decisions on the Muslim ban and voting rights, Justice Kennedy’s retirement. It feels like our rights — and our country’s future — hang in the balance. Frankly, this Fourth of July was a hard one for me. I love this country, but I don’t like seeing what our leaders are doing to it.
So this year I need to double down on the promise of America. I celebrated the Fourth of July, but I will celebrate the Ninth of July as well. That’s because on July 9 one hundred fifty years ago, in the wake of the struggle to abolish slavery, the United States ratified the fourteenth amendment. This was the second founding of the United States, and the origin of many of our rights today.
The fourteenth amendment incorporates the Declaration of Independence’s principle that “all men are created equal” into the Constitution in specific terms. Overturning the Dred Scott decision of 1857, which extended slavery nationwide and ruled that free Black people could never be citizens, the fourteenth amendment says that every person born in the United States is a citizen of the United States, and that every person deserves “equal protection of the law.”
One of the amendment’s proponents in Congress, Jehu Baker of Illinois, said he saw it as valuable “for the protection and future growth of liberty.” But that future took longer than Baker expected: the fourteenth amendment and the people it was meant to protect were quickly attacked through violence, states’ actions, and a string of terrible decisions by the Supreme Court that culminated, in 1896, in Plessy vs. Ferguson’s “separate and equal.”
But almost a century after the amendment’s ratification, through advocacy in the courts and mass movements in cities across the country, we finally began to see the future growth of liberty: advancing racial justice, the right to vote, and the rights of women and immigrants and members of the LGBT community, to name just a few of the ways we began to count as equal “persons.”
There are several lessons here for us today. First, no matter who makes up the courts, we need to make our case to the judiciary, and never give up an inch. Second, we need to press our cities and states to lead on the values of equal protection and due process, and to hold the federal government accountable to those values. But most importantly, we need to recognize that the power rests in our hands. You and I can demand equality and freedom and hold the federal government accountable.
I am personally grateful and devoted to the fourteenth amendment. It is how, in 1973, this child of Iranian parents was born also a child of America, and a citizen of this country. As an American citizen, I love the Declaration of Independence, and I also love Section 1 of the fourteenth amendment. In the words of Harvard philosopher Danielle Allen, these documents are worth a slow read. Their principles are worth making our own. They are also worth fighting for.
Take action today:
Be the power behind the fourteenth amendment: learn about the incredible people working every day to advance equal protection and make your own commitment to protecting it.
Abdi Soltani is Executive Director of ACLU of Northern California.