September 12, 2012

Milwaukee Courier

Constitutions and Roadmaps

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

The United States Constitution was ratified on September 17, 1789.  It is the oldest written Constitution in the world.  Though it has gone through changes and Twenty-Seven Amendments, it remains a roadmap for our political life.  American history is one long journey to fully realize the values found in Constitution.

The First Amendment established free speech, maybe the most important national freedom.  The First may be the most important amendment.  Free speech allows everyone a voice, even if their ideas are unpopular. 

Over a century ago, the freedom of speech helped abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Fredrick Douglass write about ending slavery.  I’ve always enjoyed a quote by William Lloyd Garrison that says, “I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice.  On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation… I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – AND I WILL BE HEARD.”    

Garrison’s ideas seemed radical at the time, but they were right and moral.  Do we allow our modern protesters the same rights?  In the last few weeks, Capitol Police Chief David Erwin cracked down on protesters in Madison. While I respect Capitol rules, I do not think they should be used to suppress speech just because it is unpopular. Before the Civil War, anti-slavery writing was banned in the South. 

When protestors give unpopular speech, we should try to protect that speech. Southern States banned anti-slavery writing because they were afraid. Was it moral to ban The Liberator or The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass?  It was not moral then, and it would not be moral today. I respect Chief Erwin’s need to do his job, but I believe we can do more to protect free speech in the people’s house.    

The Fifteenth Amendment extended the right to vote to people of every “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”  As we know, the Fifteenth was disrespected and ignored for a century.  The Jim Crow-era is one of the most shameful in American history.  For one hundred years, disenfranchisement and discrimination was disguised by the dishonest legalism of “separate but equal.” 

After the Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, American people began to respect the true spirit of the Fifteenth Amendment. African Americans have been on a long and difficult road to recovery ever since. Though black people have made major advances in business and politics, there is a lot of work to be done.

Now, African Americans face the most dangerous challenge to their rights since the end of Jim Crow. Voter ID laws have been passed all over the country. More than ten states (including Wisconsin) have laws that limit voting rights. Already disenfranchised communities have lower turnouts because of Voter ID laws. 

Unlike renting a movie or flying in an airplane, voting is a constitutional right. Scott Walker and the Republicans in Wisconsin are treating it like a privilege for a few. To me, Voter ID sounds very familiar. After all, Jim Crow tried to hide racial discrimination with seemingly harmless “poll taxes.”

The Twenty-Fourth Amendment outlawed poll taxes. Voter ID laws are exactly like a poll taxes, presenting only a small nuisance to some voting groups while making voting much more difficult for the poor, minorities, students and the elderly. 

In the Gospels, Jesus shames the Pharisees for respecting the letter of Moses’ Law, but not the spirit.  Sometimes, Americans have done the Constitution the same wrong. Poll taxes and banning abolitionist books may have been “legal”, but these laws were never in harmony with our higher values, like freedom and equality.  We may not have arrived, but believe we are on the way to fulfilling those values.  For this reason, I believe the Constitution is still our national roadmap.  We just have to make sure we’re following it in the right direction.