Bill of Rights Has Special Meaning for Minorities

December 22, 1991|By WILEY HALL | WILEY HALL,Wiley Hall is a columnist for The Evening Sun.

I suppose it is just romantic fantasy to look for defining moments in life -- those magical instants when bells chime and lightning flashes and understanding, like a Fourth of July fireworks display, explodes on the consciousness.

Understanding probably accumulates quietly, little step by little step, in increments so subtle that you don't even know they've occurred.

So, I don't know precisely when I gained a special, emotional appreciation for the importance and the immediacy of the Bill of Rights to my life.

I do know that it is probably tied to the growth process through which I stopped thinking of myself as a "minority" and an "outsider" and started thinking of myself as an American citizen.

For most of my life, the ideals embodied in America's great documents-- the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights -- seemed like a bitter mockery when compared to the reality of life for black Americans.

While some are born citizens and others acquire it when they raise their right hand and swear an oath of allegiance, black Americans have spent the past 200 years fighting for enfranchisement.

L. Douglas Wilder, governor of Virginia and presidential candidate, expressed something of that feeling during the debate with the other Democratic contenders last Sunday.

"When the founding fathers sat down and wrote that document" (the Bill of Rights), he said, "they weren't thinking about me."

Small wonder, then, that so many of us feel like outsiders.

Small wonder so many of us are left cold during the festivals of self-congratulation that accompanied the 200th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights.

But Gov. Wilder was wrong.

Although the authors of the Bill of Rights probably did not see it as an instrument of freedom for black slaves, they did fashion it specifically to protect the "outsiders", the "minorities" from the tyranny of majority rule.

No other ideal in American history has been so crucial to the ability of blacks and other minorities to move into the mainstream of society.

The Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments may have set blacks free. The first ten amendments defined that freedom, made it concrete and ultimately unassailable.

This is an understanding that probably has grown upon me over time.

But I am a romantic and so, I prefer to believe that this sense of citizenship exploded upon me one moment some years ago during an interview with Juanita Jackson Mitchell, one of the matriarchs of the modern Civil Rights movement.

Mrs. Mitchell was recalling the long and storied history of her family's involvement in the struggle.

Then, at one point, the 73-year-old woman threw her head back and began reciting from the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of happiness."

As she spoke she closed her eyes and threw back her head and her voice shook with almost religious fervor.

That was when the metaphorical explosion occurred.

I realized that I shared her fervor for those words and for the ideals behind them.

Even if the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights were written by privileged white men, we still were emotional kinsmen.

And if a nation is defined more by its ideals than its behavior -- and I believe it is -- then I am, in every sense of the word, an American.

At the moment I realized that, I stopped being an outsider and became a citizen.

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