As most Americans celebrated the independence of the United States from Great Britain this past weekend it’s doubtful that organization like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) or Amnesty International went through their minds. Today, the 4th of July is about barbecues, bunting, parades and fireworks and a vague sense that this was the day that we separated ourselves from the British crown after a long train of abuses and usurpations. But it is worthwhile to contemplate the significance of the basic document that established our nation, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution and Bill of Rights that it produced, and those who labor tirelessly to protect the liberties guaranteed therein.
Though it took our founders over a decade to produce the Constitution and the Bill of Rights after declaring their intentions to throw off British rule, it is proper to consider them as a complete package because the subsequent documents flow directly from the basic premises stated in the original, that is, that the fact that all men are created equal and that their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is something guaranteed to them by God.
It took a long time to get where we are today, and hard, often perilous, work by right-thinking people to ensure that those natural rights the founders held to be self-evident were guaranteed to everyone, and not just white, land-holding men as jaded critics of our government enjoy pointing out. African-American men didn’t get the right to vote until the Fifteenth Amendment was passed in 1870 and for almost a hundred years thereafter were subject to state laws and violence that prohibited them from freely exercising their franchise. Women weren’t allowed to vote until 1920. Though today, we acknowledge that these rights are self-evident, there are still many in our country who are routinely denied their constitutionally guaranteed rights and it is the defenders of these individuals that should be celebrated.
The fight to guarantee the right to vote was long and bloody in the Reconstruction South and continued well into the last century with many cases reaching the Supreme Court which always decided in favor of a free vote. Even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law, intimidation and violence were often used to deny minorities their rights, and groups like the SPLC rose to defend them. As late as 2007, the SPLC was fighting the Klan here in Kentucky. For filing on behalf of a teenage Panamanian immigrant who was severely beaten by five Meade County klansmen, a price was put on the head of SPLC leader Morris Dees.
The ACLU is well known for picking the most awkward cases to defend. For the older generation, the ACLU’s 1977 defense of Illinois Nazis to parade in Skokie, Illinois, is perhaps the most notorious, but if you believe that all men, even Illinois Nazis, are created equal then their right to free speech cannot be abridged, no matter how objectionable it is. Today, their are few who would weep if a bus carrying the entire congregation of the odious Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church were to hurtle off a cliff and burst into flames, but the ACLU defended Phelps’ misguided coreligionists the right to spread their hate-filled message at a reasonable distance from funerals of U.S. servicemen and women. The Supreme Court recently agreed 8-1 that, again, despite its odious nature, the hateful Phelps family and their followers speech is protected.
While the ACLU, the SPLC and other civil rights group are often in the news, another huge group of individuals labor every day to defend the civil rights of our citizens. If you’ve ever sat in our local courts you will see Kentucky’s public defenders at work in the most challenging situations. It is not unusual for these civil servants to meet their clients for the first time at the accused’s arraignment. These underpaid and understaffed lawyers will have a quick huddle with the accused moments before they go in front of a judge and the public defenders put together the best argument they can in the short time allotted. Again, the presumption of innocence, equal protection and a fair trial are guaranteed to all, and this unsung group, most of whom could be making a lot more money working someplace other than the Public Defender’s Office, do their best under the most trying conditions.
Those battling to preserve and promote civil rights do not stop at the borders of the United States. Another frequently criticized group is Amnesty International (AI), a group founded in Britain in 1961 to free nonviolent prisoners who are incarcerated because of their politics, color, ethnicity or religious beliefs. Amnesty’s work focuses on ending torture, abolishing the death penalty, and protecting the rights of women, children, minorities, and while most of its work is abroad, AI has an interest in the continued detention of prisoners without trial at Guantanamo Bay. After the 9/11 attacks, the head of AI was told by a senior U.S. government official, ‘Your role collapsed with the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York,” but they soldiered on, going so far as to call for an investigation and the arrest of former-President George Bush for fomenting torture and kidnapping in his pursuit of the Global War on Terror. Like the ACLU, AI is not out to win a popularity contest; they just believe that civil rights should be guaranteed to everyone.
There are hundreds of groups and many thousands of civil libertarians who fight the good fight against oppression, intolerance and the abuse of power every day. Their cause is frequently unpopular but just. None of them argue that criminals should not be punished or that anyone else’s civil rights be violated in the pursuit of justice, they simply strongly believe that the basic tenets of the holiday we just celebrated should apply to everyone, everywhere without regard to race, creed, color, sexual orientation or national origin.
And for that, they should be saluted.