2006 Call To Commemoration


"Do not lose heart if victory does not come at once. Persevere to the end."
Charles Hamilton Houston

This year we gather to commemorate the continuing quest for equal justice under law. This quest is rooted in the letter, spirit and connectedness of the Reconstruction Amendments, Houstonian Jurisprudence and the Civil Rights Movement. We pause to salute the efforts of all persons who participated in constructing a bridge from slavery to freedom, as well as those still constructing a bridge from freedom to equality. Reconstruction after the Civil War was a bridge to inclusion in "We the people." Therefore, we salute the affirmative amendments to our living Constitution during the Reconstruction era. In post-Reconstruction America, we learned that inclusion in "We the people" did not mean that the journey to equality had been reached. Thus, we salute the new school of American Jurisprudence (Houstonian) which emerged from the sustained civil rights litigation of Charles Hamilton Houston seeking to secure equality and justice during the Jim Crow era. On this same journey to equality under "We the people," we salute those who demanded equality in public accommodation, in the workplace, in the governmental services and in academia. We salute the courageous protest marches, speeches, writings, litigation and judicial rulings during the entire span of post-Civil War America.

Our salute to the Reconstruction Congress and the Reconstruction Congress and the Reconstruction Amendments is done with full recognition that the Dred Scott case, and the long history of racial slavery in America, not only denied citizenship status to persons of African descent, but unfairly imprinted such persons with a badge of inferiority. The major achievement of Reconstruction is the recognition in the Constitution of the right to equal citizenship status for African-Americans. Accordingly, we salute the Reconstruction Amendments as the affirmative Bill of Rights for African-Americans. In the absence of the Reconstruction Amendments, the dormant Dred Scott decision would once again mandate that "blacks have no rights which whites are bound to respect." The Dred Scott decision, and the illusion of racial inferiority inherent in its reasoning, was never overturned by the Supreme Court.

The lengthening shadow of slavery, and its continuing perception in the minds of mis-educated Americans, is at the heart of the American dilemma. This badge of inferiority is a major social problem which we have not solved as a country. The compromises made with respect to this problem during the founding of our country gave us the Civil War. It was the further betrayal of the newly minted citizens of African descent in peculiar decisions from the Supreme Court in 1876 - and the ignominious compromise following the close Presidential election of 1876 - which brought the Reconstruction era to an end. These strange federal compromises led directly to "Jim Crow" segregation and the Plessy decision (1896). Under such circumstances, there arose a need for Houstonian Jurisprudence and the Civil Rights Movement. At its core, the essence of Houstonian Jurisprudence, the Reconstruction Amendments and the Civil Rights Movement is a rejection of the notion of the inferiority of black citizens and a rejection of the notion of the superiority of white citizens. The demand for equal justice under law is simply a demand for equality under law for all citizens.

Frederick Douglass posed the equal justice question, which is still relevant in 21st Century America, when he asked: "whether American justice, American liberty, American civilization, American law, and American Christianity could be made to include and protect alike and forever all American citizens in the rights which have been guaranteed to them by the organic and fundamental laws of the land." We salute the answer provided to this question by the lives and careers of Charles Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Hamilton Houston, and the cadre of lawyers, judges and others who have embraced a living Constitution. It was the negative answers to Frederick Douglass' burning question which have given us Constitutional stasis: the infamous Dred Scott case (1857) before the Civil War and the notorious Plessy decision (1896) after the Reconstruction era. A negative answer to Frederick Douglass' question is the American dilemma. We must persevere in the journey to equality until victory is won. The lives and careers of our honorees demonstrate a keen eye on the American reality, an uncompromising spirit in seeking equal justice, and a total commitment to the American promise of equality and the pursuit of happiness for all. We honor the true American ideal of equality by bestowing the Charles Hamilton Houston Medallion of Merit on two pilots in the quest for equality under the law - Dr. John Hope Franklin and Congressman John R. Lewis.

Robert L. Bell, Chairman of the Board, WBA
May 6, 2006