“I wish I could say that racism and prejudice were only distant memories. We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred and the mistrust…We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better.” ~ Thurgood Marshall, Associate Justice, United States Supreme Court excerpt from his speech upon acceptance of the Liberty Medal.
Justice Marshall (the first black Supreme Court Justice) delivered his “America can do better,” admonishment on July 4th,1992 just two months after America erupted in protests and riots following the jury acquittal of four Los Angeles Police officers accused of beating Rodney King. Twenty-eight years later the world witnessed the police killing of George Floyd and once again America has erupted and rightly so. In recent days we have in fact seen a worldwide eruption against injustice against blacks that has gone on for 400 years in America. 400 years. That’s a long damn time to pass without being able to solve a problem.
George Floyd’s murder was just the latest in a shameful litany of violence against blacks perpetrated by law enforcement, vigilantes, hate groups or by individuals fueled by just plain venom.
“America has no choice but to do better,” said Marshall. He was wrong. There’s always a choice. It just isn’t always the right one.
“America has a race problem.” How many times during your lifetime, however long that may be, have you heard that spoken? After 66 years I couldn’t begin to count.
America has had a race problem since before it’s founding. Upon the founding of their new nation, the so-called “fathers” had a chance to start a new country with a clean slate. Instead they baked racism into the cake. Justice Marshall addressed the constitutional inequities in 1987 when the nation was celebrating the bi-centennial of the U.S. Constitution. In a controversial speech Marshall said of the Constitution’s framers that he did not find their sense of justice, “particularly profound.”
He went on to say that the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today. When contemporary Americans cite “The Constitution,” they invoke a concept that is vastly different from what the Framers barely began to construct two centuries ago.
“…we need look no further than the first three words of the document’s preamble: ‘We the People.” When the Founding Fathers used this phrase in 1787, they did not have in mind the majority of America’s citizens. “We the People” included, in the words of the Framers, “the whole Number of free Persons.” Two hundred and thirty three years later it is STILL defective. It it wasn’t defective, if it was running smoothly, we wouldn’t be having the same conversation after another police stop gone bad, a beating, harassment, or a killing.
Marshall’s speech was not universally well received. After all it was a rebuke of the founders. It went counter to the perception of the founding fathers as sort of folk heroes and it was delivered during the middle of the Ronald Reagan Presidency, a time when America’s general perception of itself could be found in a Norman Rockwell painting. How would Marshall’s speech be received 33 years later in 2020? Times have changed for certain but much of America still wants to view the nation through the brush of Norman Rockwell. Continue reading