Civil rights are much discussed lately, primarily because Progressives with bully-pulpits are furious that Glenn Beck held a rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous civil rights rally at that same location. To hear them tell it, in the wake of the “Civil Rights Movement,” civil rights are entirely a black thing, and whites who parade around in the civil rights mantel are manifestly racists.
It says much about the Orwellian twists the Progressive mind takes that its spokespeople can, with a straight face, confine civil rights to a single race. The whole Progressive concept is oxymoronic, because civil rights, by definition, extend to all citizens within the civitas, not just citizens of a specified color. (And isn’t that the point King was trying to make?) The idiocy emanating from the Left might be merely amusing, but for the fact that the Left is working out to ensure that this definition applies to all future generations. After all, it was Arne Duncan, Obama’s Education Secretary, who appeared at Al Sharpton’s poorly-attended counter rally to announce that education is “the civil rights issue of our generation.”
All of this points to the fact that, in the years since Martin Luther King’s pivotal moment in the sun, the Left has redefined civil rights into a concept that would be utterly alien to Martin Luther King — and that is alien to most people who aren’t Progressives or self-styled “liberals.” It’s therefore time, in Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ memorable words, for some “reeducation.”
To me, and perhaps to you, “civil rights” are those inherent rights that automatically extend to all citizens in a free country. Thomas Jefferson articulated the broadest outlines of these rights in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Jefferson stated unambiguously that these unalienable rights — the ultimate civil liberties, if you will — do not come from government. They exist independent of government. Government’s job is not to create those rights, but to safeguard them. Government cannot hand them out, not can it take them away. They just are. And if government fails to provide the proper safeguards or, worse, itself threatens these unalienable rights, it is not the rights that are illegitimate, it is the government.
Very soon after the American Revolution ended, our Founders recognized that the federal government needed some guidance if it was to maintain its legitimacy and provide a stable structure for its citizens without destroying their rights. To that end, in 1791, the Founders enacted the Bill of Rights (i.e., the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution). They are short and sweet, and are notable for the way in which, rather than extending government power, they severely restrict its power over citizens:
Amendment 1 – Freedom of Religion, Press, Expression.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Amendment 2 – Right to Bear Arms.
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
Amendment 3 – Quartering of Soldiers.
No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
Amendment 4 – Search and Seizure.
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Amendment 5 – Trial and Punishment, Compensation for Takings.
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
Amendment 6 – Right to Speedy Trial, Confrontation of Witnesses.
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
Amendment 7 – Trial by Jury in Civil Cases.
In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Amendment 8 – Cruel and Unusual Punishment.
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
Amendment 9 – Construction of Constitution.
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
Amendment 10 – Powers of the States and People.
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
To summarize in modern English, our “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness,” “unalienable rights” that come from “the Creator,” are preserved only if we have a federal government that, as to the citizens within its borders:
- has “no desire to make windows into men’s souls” (1st Amendment);
- allows them to speak freely, whether the government likes that speech or not(1st Amendment);
- allows a press unconstrained by government threats or requirements(1st Amendment);
- let’s them to rally together (1st Amendment);
- listens to their concerns (1st Amendment);
- lets them arm themselves (2nd Amendment);
- protects them from the reach of the government’s own military and police (3rd and 4th Amendments);
- makes the home inviolate, with the burden on the government to prove a pressing need to breach that privacy (4th Amendment);
- ensures that a citizen suspected of a crime is held only subject to a clearly stated charge, is prosecuted only once, is brought swiftly to trial, has a fair trial, may have the facts of his case judged by his peers, and cannot be bullied to convict himself out of his own mouth (5th, 6th and 7th Amendments);
- establishes that, in any case, not just a civil one, the citizen may have a jury of his peers and may not lose his life, liberty or property without a full, fair trial (7th Amendment);
- prevents the government from stealing private property (5th Amendment); and
- never inflicts cruel or unusual punishment on any citizen (although the reference to capital crimes in the 5th Amendment indicates that execution does not fall within those parameters) (8th Amendment).
All of the above are the explicitly stated limitations the Founders placed upon the federal government. It took eight amendments to drive those points home. But to reiterate just how severely constrained the United States’ federal governments’ power is vis a vis the citizens within its borders, the Founders made two further points: While the amendments are to be understood to control the federal government, they cannot be read to mean that American citizens have only those rights enumerated in the first eight amendments (9th Amendment). Instead, those ostensibly stated affirmative “rights” are actually limitations on the government. All else remains to a free people.
And if that isn’t clear enough, the 10th amendment says that, unless the Constitution specifically reserves an affirmative right for the federal government, or prohibits it to a state, all other rights — the universe of rights, whether or not articulated — belong to the states or the people within those states.
This is small government writ large. Civil rights mean small government, with the government limited primarily (although not entirely) to protecting citizens from itself.
Martin Luther King understood this. The Civil Rights movement was a stand against overt government encroachment on the rights of black people. The Southern States, ignoring the Declaration’s acknowledgment that all men inherently possessed civil rights, used the government as a weapon against the black people within its borders. The real problem blacks faced wasn’t that their fellow white citizens behaved hostilely, and even murderously, towards them. Had the government fulfilled its policing responsibilities and stepped forward to protect those citizens, Jim Crow would have been a short-lived phenomenon. The real problem was that Southern government itself encroached on citizens’ freedom.
It was Southern government that legislatively segregated schools, segregated housing, segregated business establishments, segregated marriages and enacted barriers between blacks and ballots. It was Southern government that was a “Form of Government [that had become] destructive of these ends [life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for black people],” making it the civil “Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
In the sixty years since the Civil Rights movement, the Left has entirely perverted the whole notion of civil rights. Civil Rights as the Founders intended meant the right of all citizens, regardless of race, color, religion, sexual, gender, etc., to be free of government constraints (although the government’s police powers certainly required the government to protect citizens when others amongst them worked to injure them or constrain their basic freedoms). Civil Rights as the Left demands it has become an all powerful government that is responsible for redistribution wealth, property, access to government and even happiness, from whites to blacks.
Cross-posted at Right Wing News