Wednesday in the Louisiana House of Representatives, which is becoming a hothouse for material feeding this column (if you think the House is rough around here, you ought to see the Senate!), a comic outrage broke out when, during debate of a bill that would mandate the teaching of the Declaration of Independence to schoolchildren in the Bayou State, Democrat Barbara Norton assailed the document as racist and its dissemination to our youth as offensive.
I’m not joking. That really happened. See for yourself.
Norton took issue with the Declaration of Independence because, she babbled, black people were slaves in America in 1776. “All men are not created equal,” she said, inarticulately attempting to assail the Declaration because the ideals expressed in it were less-perfectly practiced than they should have been.
And when Valarie Hodges, the conservative Republican bringing the bill, countered Norton’s griping by noting that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose exploits as a leader of the 1960s civil rights movement aimed at addressing the deficiencies in American society present at the time of the Declaration and afterward were successful enough to make it possible for black citizens like Norton to achieve positions like she holds, based his advocacy on the very ideals expressed in the Declaration, she was having none of it.
“In 1776, Dr. King was not even born,” she declared. “African Americans were in slavery, so since they were in slavery and the Declaration of Independence say(s) we were… all created equal, we were not created equal.”
After a little more yammering, the punch line: “And to have our children to repeat again and again documents that was not even validated, I don’t think that’s fair.”
Obviously, this woman is of very meager intelligence and the concept of educating children in American civics is lost on her. But she wasn’t alone — one of her colleagues, Rep. Pat Smith (D-Baton Rouge), came along and offered similar sentiments.
And our readers have seen enough of the Black Lives Matter and slavery-reparations crowd to know that Barbara Norton isn’t a leader in articulating her position; she’s a follower. She’s repeating sentiments others created.
And those sentiments are dangerous to a successful society.
King knew this, and Frederick Douglass knew it before him. In King’s “I Have a Dream” address of Aug. 28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial, he explicitly used the Declaration and the promise of its ideals to make the argument for a colorblind society. King’s money quote…
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
The complaint was not that the ideals expressed by the founders of the nation were deficient; in fact, the ideals were the basis for which King sought agreement with the other side of the argument. He wanted America to make good on the Declaration.
And that followed a long tradition within the civil rights movement begun by Frederick Douglass even before the Civil War burned away the detritus of slavery. Douglass, who had been a slave but rose to the status of one of the nation’s premier intellectuals in his time, had this to say about the signers of the Declaration in an address given on July 5, 1862…
Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too — great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.
And for the Declaration itself Douglass had no less praise…
Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?
Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that, the dumb might eloquently speak, and the “lame man leap as an hart.”
Douglass was also an admirer of the Declaration and the deeds of its authors; his complaint was in the follow-through.
That a great intellectual tradition of more than a century, and an argument that led to two of the greater achievements of American society — the end of slavery and the end of segregation — should devolve into Norton’s nonsense on the floor of the Louisiana House within the space of a handful of decades is evidence of decline threatening not just the black community.
Because if the current vogue of black public repudiation not of the perceived failure to satisfy the ideals of the Declaration but the ideals themselves continues, our current Balkanization along racial, ethnic, and other lines could get much, much worse.
For example, there are lots of white people who see the current state of affairs in which it’s racist to question an affirmative action or to stand against removing historical monuments, where the career or life of a white person could be ruined for using a particular word ubiquitous in rap music, where economic and educational opportunities are constrained by affirmative action to redress past wrongs for which those whites are not guilty and where something called Critical Race Theory teaches that all white people are racist because they benefit from a racist system (a benefit lots of working-class whites don’t perceive), and they are learning to be aggrieved just like Norton thinks she is.
And as aggrieved parties, they will act and speak just as irresponsibly.
When they do, this will not be the country we wish to live in.