Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Founders’ Intent

by Ngani Ndimbie, ACLU-PA community organizer 

I’m just going to come out and say it: As a young activist in my late teens, it was very hard for me to get behind any friend or representative of the American Civil Liberties Union who used  “founders’ intent” jargon when discussing the rights of all. Or talking about the morality and wisdom of the men who wrote the Bill of Rights.

My thought as a black American always was, “Um. It was also the founders’ intent to keep black Americans enslaved forever. Or at least that’s what they wrote into the Constitution and failed to correct in the first 12 Amendments. So let’s not pretend that these men were infallible geniuses...”

My relationship with the Constitution and the early history of this country is fraught with mixed emotions. I wish I could imagine time-traveling back to 1790 to chat with Ben Franklin about the Patriot Act, PA’s Wiretap Act, and pre-conviction DNA testing, knowing that he would be pissed as hell and commiserate. I wish I could imagine having a long and rewarding discussion.

But as a black person I know that I’d barely be given enough time to get out of the Back-to-the Future-Delorean before being whisked away into slavery with the other black Americans.

Today I work for the ACLU of Pennsylvania as a community organizer defending the Constitution every day. And I love it. I have come to terms with the fact that the founders did not have the whole picture--but they understood an important part of it. The founders also included freedom and justice in the Constitution. And that cannot be overlooked.

When talking to people who dislike the ACLU, our legal director, Vic Walczak, often references the “liberty and justice for all” part of the Pledge of Allegiance, saying that the ACLU exists to secure that promise. Vic then questions the ACLU detractor, asking, “Do you have a problem with liberty?” “No,” they say. “Justice?” is Vic’s follow up. “No. I don’t have a problem with justice...”

It’s the “for all” part. A portion of our country’s leaders and citizens have always had trouble with the “for all” part. It’s our fellow Pennsylvanians who have commented on the articles announcing our Davila lawsuit  with terrible, ugly, and misguided thoughts. They aren’t bad people. In fact, I’d like to think that they are much like the founders.I trust that they really do believe in liberty and justice, but they’re still wrestling over that “for all” business (and are now thankfully required to by the 14th Amendment).

So while they work that out for themselves, the ACLU of Pennsylvania will continue to remind them of what America’s values really are.

We’ll nudge them with a lawsuit here, a petition there. We’ll block bills written by lawmakers who have chosen to ignore the Constitution. We’ll educate communities about their rights and mobilize people to take action.  

So in the end, the founders’ shortcomings have given me purpose. I consider myself lucky be part of such a wonderful team of staff, board members, community members, volunteers, and supporters gladly, tirelessly working for all.

This post is part of a series honoring Black History Month.

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