Where were you 50 years ago? I was an 18 year-old sitting in my sister’s living room in El Paso, Texas watching the March on Washington on her big black and white TV. Two other sisters were in Washington at the March and we were hoping to see them in the crowd. We could feel the electricity in the air, even though we were far away and remotely connected.
Recently, during a three-hour flight from Dallas to Washington, I happened to notice that I had downloaded the Project Guttenberg version of the US Constitution on my iPad. Although I am a lawyer, I don’t think I’ve read any part of the Constitution since law school (University of Texas, Class of 1970). What caught my attention was the preamble; it states:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
“To establish Justice”: What an audacious objective! And it is stated in an active voice: establish justice as opposed to seek justice or even the biblical pursue justice. Seeking and pursuing assume you never get there.
And please note, after forming a “more perfect Union,” the goal of establishing justice came first, even before insuring domestic Tranquility, the common defense, general welfare or the blessings of liberty. Perhaps they knew that without justice there is no tranquility.
I am reminded of the power of that statement as I think about the plea by Dr. Martin Luther King 50 years ago for this Government and “United States” to live up to its powerful purposes. Not asking us to be seekers, but demanding of us that we establish justice for all our people.
I wonder how it is today that we have moved so far from this vision in our views and understanding of the role of Government. I would guess that if a poll were taken today of Americans and they were asked, “Do you support efforts by the US Government to establish justice?" most people would say no.
Yet, the Constitution, as opposed to the Declaration of Independence, is the document that articulates the terms under which the American people ultimately chose to live with one another. What is more important in a civil society than “Justice?” And not just within the context of “equal justice under the law,” but read in juxtaposition to the other goals in the Constitution, the concept of Justice becomes a core element of a civil society. I believe that is also what Dr. Martin Luther King believed and dreamed!
The urgent need to “establish Justice” continues. While the courts have generally held that the Preamble doesn’t have legal significance in interpreting specific provisions of the Constitution in litigation, it is important in the civil and political discourse of our culture and our vision for America. One of the explicit purposes of Government is to create a just society: the dignity of a living wage, the ability to access health care and the ready availability and affordability of education.
As we recall that day 50 years ago, I hope we remember and are called again to the goal and purposes of our social compact and that we renew our own commitment to “establish justice” in our communities, our States and the United States of America.