Constitution Day, observed every year on Sept. 17, marks the historic moment when the U.S. Constitution was signed by the Founding Fathers and became the highest law of the land. It established the framework of our government — a system of checks and balances to safeguard against tyranny — and made a promise of justice, equality and freedom for all.

Yet, time and time again, America has failed to uphold this promise.

In 1896, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation did not necessarily violate the 14th Amendment, making “separate but equal” a legal doctrine in America’s constitutional law.

In the 1927 case Buck v. Bell, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the Virginia statute authorizing sterilization of “feebleminded” citizens did not violate the Constitution. “Three generations of imbeciles,” wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “are enough.”

And in 2018, the highest court of the land gave police the green light to “shoot first and think later,” ruling in favor of the police officer who shot Amy Hughes four times and killed her. This decision makes it more difficult to hold police officers accountable for abusing their authority and unreasonably gunning down black people and children.

We also celebrate the people who took that document seriously, who put their lives and freedoms on the line to fight for the constitutional rights of all Americans and expand its protections to those left out.

We must acknowledge that the Constitution, written and signed by 39 white men 232 years ago, was not intended to “secure the blessings of Liberty” for all Americans. People have fought, marched, protested, been beaten, and died — sacrificing everything to stand up against the tyranny of government and demand that their rights, freedoms and humanity be recognized in the Constitution.

In recognition of Constitution Day, we honor Virginians who, through their bravery, resilience and leadership, helped make the promise of America a reality for all of us.

One such Virginian was Barbara Johns, who led a student walkout at R.R. Moton High School in Farmville when she was only 16 years old and paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education and desegregation of public schools.

Then came Mildred and Richard Loving, whose courage and love for each other changed America forever and left a lasting legacy that can still be felt today. Generation after generation of interracial families were made possible. America became a tapestry of different races and cultures, where our differences weave together to make us stronger.

Many landmark civil rights cases originated in Virginia, largely thanks to the tireless work of attorneys like Oliver Hill and Samuel Tucker. These civil rights lawyers were on the front lines in the many legal battles against racial discrimination. Together, they helped end the doctrine of “separate but equal” by representing Barbara Johns in Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward. Then, in response to Virginia’s Massive Resistance movement against racial integration, they brought Green v. County School Board of New Kent County all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to expand access to school buses. Their contributions to the civil rights movement leave a profound impact and help make real the promises of the Constitution.

The long struggle for freedom cannot be fought in the courts alone. Tens of thousands of Virginians, from the Richmond 34 in 1960 to Black Lives Matter activists today, have participated in peaceful sit-ins, boycotts and marches to demand justice and equality for their communities. Our legal victories would not have as great of an impact without changes in the laws. By showing up, speaking out, and refusing to live in the shadow, these brave Virginians did the hard work of changing people’s hearts and minds.

So when we celebrate our Constitution, we celebrate not only the historic document drafted 232 years ago at the Philadelphia Convention, and not just the white men who penned rights onto parchment but deemed some of us unworthy of being American.

We also celebrate the people who took that document seriously, who put their lives and freedoms on the line to fight for the constitutional rights of all Americans and expand its protections to those left out.

 

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