[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Saturday KCRW broadcast.]
“If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time or die by suicide.” Abraham Lincoln was almost 29 years old when he said that during a speech he gave in Springfield, Ill., on Jan. 27, 1838.
It was as if he had seen the future of his young America. It was as if he knew that this powerful and rapidly developing country would be only as strong as its people were free.
Years later, the United States, which Lincoln called “the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil and salubrity of climate,” tore itself in half and clashed for half a decade. Eventually, a bullet found him as millions of Americans set about on the long and uncharted journey to freedom and equality for all. Simultaneously, with equal amounts of zeal, millions of other Americans set out to destroy that which so many had died for, before it even got a chance to walk.
The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, guarantees citizenship and equal protection under the law for all persons born or naturalized in the United States. One might think that the first of the five sections in this amendment that addresses all this would be clear enough to understand and obey, but that was not the case. Newly freed men and women often found their lives to be far more complicated — and laws more restrictive — than they ever could have imagined.
Through the 10th Amendment, states were able to enact laws that made it almost impossible for former slaves and poor whites to escape easy arrest. After arrest, for being unemployed for example, some found themselves being leased back to the farm where they used to work.
The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was signed into law by President Grant. In 1883, the Supreme Court knocked it down, finding it in violation of the 14th Amendment. You can throw that on the pile of less-than-great decisions the SCOTUS has made.
In 1938, 100 years after Lincoln made his speech in Springfield, President Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act into law. This is a big one. It established a 40-hour work week, allowed for overtime and abolished child labor. Cool, right? He was roundly hated for it.
In 1957, four years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision abolished segregation in schools, Little Rock, Ark., seemingly didn't get the memo and sought to deny black students entry into Little Rock Central High School. The state's governor, Orval Faubus, went as far as enlisting the Arkansas National Guard to block the entry of nine black students into the school building. President Eisenhower, in an adroit use of executive power, ordered the 101st Airborne Division of the Army to go to Little Rock. He also federalized the Arkansas National Guard and ordered them to stand down. The students entered the school and now are known as the Little Rock Nine.
In 1964, carrying on the work started by President Kennedy, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, saying famously, “We have lost the South for a generation.” The Southern states, also known as the Southern Bloc, vehemently opposed the act. Richard Russell, then a senator from Georgia, said, “We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our (Southern) states.”
In 1965, President Johnson, in the commencement address he delivered at Howard University, said, in part, “We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability; not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”
Why would the president have to say such a thing? Weren't all the aforementioned constitutional amendments, laws, acts and decisions enough? If America is a nation of laws, very clear and easy to follow, why would he have to demand, albeit so eloquently, that which we have already been guaranteed?
Why do you keep telling the same person you love them? What, you think they didn't hear you the first time? Why do you need the Violence Against Women Act? Aren't the existing laws good enough? Aren't almost all crimes tinged with hate? Why do some get to be called a hate crime? Why are all these people getting so much special attention? It must be so easy to be a libertarian.
I think I ran through almost the whole damn playbook there.
So why the need for extra consideration? Because lobbyists, governors and activist judges relentlessly seek to erode your hard-won protections to further their own ends.
An example on the most fundamental level: The Fourth Amendment has taken such a beating over the last several decades that it now holds but a fraction of its intended power. Don't believe me? Mention it to the next cop who asks to search your car. I dare you. One of the strongest amendments in the Constitution and hardly anyone wants to roll the dice to use it. You can count me as one of them. There is no way I am getting into that discussion on the side of the 101 North.
Why have I mentioned all this? Because America would be a dark place without constant maintenance and improvement. Because when I hear Justice Scalia characterize section five of the Voting Rights Act as a “perpetuation of racial entitlement,” I think he is not only categorically wrong but incredibly offensive. I bet he knows better. Who is he shilling for? This man is in the wrong place at the wrong time.
If anything, the section should be kept and the Voting Rights Act expanded to all 50 states. Walk any way you want, but keep the big stick in plain sight. Are you kidding? Vigilance always. ALWAYS. Forward only. No backsliding.