By Ray Nothstine
Carolina Journal Opinion Editor
Slavery in the U.S. ended in practice at the end of the Civil War. We can find the ideals of equality in our Declaration of Independence, which says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, they are endowed by their Creator…” Indeed, Christian influence and awakenings in America heavily reinforced the idea that we are all made in the image of God, creating a culture ripe for fuller freedoms and emancipation.
Yet, America frequently struggled to practice this simple truth found in our Declaration. The rise of the American civil rights movement helped awaken the conscience to living up to our founding ideals. Civil rights leaders frequently borrowed from founding words and documents because they possessed great recognition and authority with the public – particularly given they wanted to persuade white households. The “let freedom ring” repetition of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech clearly references the Liberty Bell.
Thankfully, just like the civil rights movement drew from the founders, we can learn from one of America’s most significant moral movements. The obvious lesson is equality under the law and human dignity, but the idea of self-rule or self-government flows directly out from that. Our founding documents bestow upon us the principles and dignity of self-government. Unfortunately, unlike any other time in our past, many Americans struggle to embrace self-government fully.
The American civil rights movement often called the second American Revolution, confronted ingrained prejudices and the idea that some are essentially destined to be serfs.
African Americans demanded changes, and many of those changes consisted of being fully incorporated into the daily practice of self-government, including the right to vote where it used to be barred in large pockets of the South, and ending race-based segregation and discrimination.
It was highly confrontational as the movement publicly challenged traditions and laws but buoyed by peaceful protests and the art of non-violence. One of the striking characteristics of the movement is raw courage. An anecdote from Rev. Fred Shuttleworth, the hero of the Birmingham campaign, provides an excellent example. Reprinted in New York Times obituary in 2011 are these words about Shuttlesworth:
In one instance, on Christmas night 1956, he survived an attack in which six sticks of dynamite were detonated outside his parsonage bedroom as he lay in bed. “The wall and the floor were blown out,” Ms. McWhorter wrote, “and the mattress heaved into the air, supporting Shuttlesworth like a magic carpet.”
When he tried to enroll his children in an all-white school in 1957, Klansmen attacked him with bicycle chains and brass knuckles. When a doctor treating his head wounds marveled that he had not suffered a concussion, Mr. Shuttlesworth famously replied, “Doctor, the Lord knew I lived in a hard town, so he gave me a hard head.”
The most important aspect of the civil rights movement is it helped awaken a more profound moral culture in America. The federal government could no longer ignore discrimination, particularly during the Cold War era, when the nation’s image and credibility were under increasing scrutiny. Yet, ultimately, change to racial discrimination had to come from the heart of the human person.
Ordered appeals for justice and liberty – backed by the moral authority of the founding and Scripture — clash today with the rising violence and chaos we see on the news that is too often focused on ideological goals and not first principles. If we are to improve upon our experiment in self-government, these are the type of ideals we must embrace: virtue, order, respect for the rule of law, and a peaceful transition of power. Like the civil rights movement, we must be anchored to higher truths.
While America has faltered at many points because of racism and internal violence, we are still the greatest country on earth that has expanded liberty more than any other nation in history. Helping to recover these truths –including the principles of Juneteenth – can make us a nation where self-rule not only continues but thrives.
Ray Nothstine is Carolina Journal opinion editor and Second Amendment research fellow at the John Locke Foundation.