Prisoners' Page

The Constitution (And Other Illusions)

By Mumia Abu-Jamal

We are all taught, seemingly in the cradle, about the glorious Constitution, a document that lies at the very heart of America’s civil religion.

Schoolchildren used to be taught to memorize broad swaths of its provisions (although it’s extremely doubtful that this is done today, in the wake of the disastrous “No Child Left Behind” policy), along with the national mythology of the Founding Fathers as latter-day Olympians handing down freedom from the heavens.

Of all our myths, those inculcated in early childhood are those the hardest to shatter, because they are often the foundations of our understanding.

But all nations have founding myths. The Greeks, for centuries, believed in a pantheon of capricious and often malevolent gods, like Zeus, Athena, Hera, and Ares, to explain the uncertainties and travails of life, death, wisdom and war.

The “founding fathers,” as taught to U.S. kids, is a modern American myth, for how can slave owners be bringers of freedom, unless they free their slaves? And almost all of them—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson—even Patrick Henry (he of “Give me liberty, or give me death” fame)—owned slaves, even as he uttered these words, and then wrote them.

MOVE supporter, I. Abdul Jon used to say, “You only need to talk and write about freedom of speech, and freedom of religion and all other kinds of freedom if you ain’t got it; ‘cause if you got it, and ain’t got no problem with nobody else havin’ it—and it’s real, you ain’t gotta write about, and talk about protectin’ it, and whatnot....”

True enough.

In 1865, as the smoke was clearing from the U.S. Civil War, Congress passed the so-called Reconstruction Amendments, allegedly granting citizenship to millions of Black freemen, many of whom fought to preserve the Union. These constitutional amendments prohibited discrimination, and protected voting rights. On paper.

In fact, through white terrorism, racist courts and legislatures, those constitutional “rights” were ignored for 100 years, by both state and federal governments, until the rise of the modern civil rights movement at the middle of the 20th century.

And now, we have the rise of another myth—that of the freedoms brought by these movements, or granted by enlightened courts.

Truth is, new freedoms did emerge, for those who could afford them. By that I mean, a select class-freedom was granted to the Black middle class, who could access it. For the Black poor, the constitution has all of the relevance as that expressed by the writer, Anatole France, who quipped: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

Where is the constitutional right to an education, to a home, to a job—or to life?

As long as a piece of paper is worshipped, people will continue to suffer—as others celebrate., May 14, 2009