Two years ago, I attended a talk at Washington D.C.’s National Museum of African American History and Culture delivered by my friend Connie Rice, the respected Los Angeles Civil Rights attorney, in which she called Martin Luther King, Jr. and his contemporaries in the civil rights movement the Second Founders of the United States. She was arguing that the civil rights movement leaders were carrying through on the principles of equality expressed in the country’s founding documents.
Pulitzer Prize winning historian Eric Foner had another set of people in mind as the country’s Second Founders. He labeled the Seconding Founding, the title of his most recent book, the era that produced the amendments during the Reconstruction period: the 13th Amendment ending slavery; the 14th Amendment establishing equal protection under the law, and the 15th Amendment declaring the right to vote for all men regardless of color.
Foner wrote that the Reconstruction era amendments changed the founders’ early emphasis on restricting Congress to enabling Congress under the amendments. The first words in the Bill of Rights he notes are, “Congress shall make no law…” while the Reconstruction era amendments declared that “Congress shall have the power” to enforce each article.
Yet, he also went into detail about how those rights established by the amendments were undermined over time, particularly by United States Supreme Court decisions, which emphasized state’s rights under the standards of federalism.
“It is worth noting that no significant change in the Constitution took place during the civil rights era,” Foner wrote of the 1950s and 1960s. “The movement did not need a new Constitution; it needed the existing one enforced.”
Which leads to Connie Rice’s assertion that it was Martin Luther King and his allies who breathed life back into the founding promises. In doing so, they revived the efforts of the Reconstruction era.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper,’” referring to the founding declaration and amended Constitution.
On this Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday it’s appropriate to remember those who demanded that the country live up to its core principle.
Over the long pull of history there are really no second or third founders but there are those dogged advocates who struggled to move the United States toward what King called the promised land presented by the original founders that “all men are created equal.”