By Ray Nothstine
Carolina Journal Opinion Editor
Slavery in the United States 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 revivals in America have strongly reinforced the idea that we are all made in the image of God, creating a culture ripe for fuller freedoms and emancipation.
Yet America has often struggled to put into practice this simple truth contained in our Declaration. The rise of the American civil rights movement has helped raise awareness to live up to our founding ideals. Civil rights leaders frequently borrowed founding words and documents because they possessed great recognition and authority with the public – especially given that they wanted to persuade white households. The “Let Liberty Ring” repetition of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is a clear reference to the Liberty Bell.
Fortunately, just as the civil rights movement drew inspiration from its founders, we can learn from one of most significant moral movements. The obvious lesson is equality before the law and human dignity, but the idea of autonomy or self-government follows directly from this. Our founding documents give us the principles and the dignity of self-government. Unfortunately, unlike any other era in our past, many Americans are struggling to fully embrace self-government.
The American Civil Rights Movement, often referred to as the Second American Revolution, faced entrenched prejudices and the idea that some were basically meant to be serfs.
African Americans demanded change, and many of those changes were to be fully integrated into the day-to-day practice of self-government, including the right to vote where previously prohibited in large pockets of the South, and to end segregation and discrimination based on race. .
It was highly divisive as the movement publicly challenged traditions and laws, but supported through peaceful protests and the art of nonviolence. One of the striking characteristics of the movement is raw courage. An anecdote from the Reverend Fred Shuttleworth, the hero of the Birmingham campaign, provides an excellent example. Reprinted in 2011 New York Times obituary are these words about Shuttlesworth:
In one instance, on Christmas Eve 1956, he survived an attack in which six sticks of dynamite exploded outside his parsonage bedroom as he lay in bed. “The wall and floor were blown away,” Ms. McWhorter wrote, “and the mattress was lifted into the air, supporting Shuttlesworth like a magic carpet.”
When he attempted 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 injuries marveled that he had not suffered a concussion, Mr Shuttlesworth famously replied: “Doctor, the Lord knew I lived in a tough city, so he gave me a hard head.”
The most important aspect of the civil rights movement is that it helped to awaken a deeper moral culture in America. The federal government could no longer ignore discrimination, especially during the Cold War era when the nation’s image and credibility came under increasing scrutiny. Yet ultimately, the change in racial discrimination had to come from the heart of the human person.
The ordained calls for justice and freedom – backed by the moral authority of foundation and scripture – are being met today with the mounting violence and chaos we see in the news too often centered on ideological objectives and not on first principles. If we are to improve our experience of self-government, these are the kinds 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 grounded in higher truths.
While America has faltered at many times due to racism and internal violence, we are still the greatest country on earth that has expanded freedom more than any other nation in history. Helping to reclaim these truths – including the Juneteenth Principles – can make us a nation where self-reliance not only endures but thrives.
Ray Nothstine is an editor of the Carolina Journal and a Second Amendment fellow at the John Locke Foundation.