My great-great grandmother, Margarita “Peggy” Best, lived through Reconstruction. Born into slavery, she acquired 150 acres of land that was once part of the plantation in South Carolina that she had lived and worked on as a slave for most of her 22 years of life before she was emancipated. The land proved to be a source of sustenance for Peggy as she worked to provide for her eight children, seven of whom were fathered by her former master. Her desire to obtain an education for her children was so great that she purchased a mule and buggy so that they would be able to attend a school 29 miles away. She is but one example of the many former slaves who, through their determination to make a better life for themselves and their families, helped to establish what historian Eric Foner referred to as “…the social and political agenda of Reconstruction.”
Despite lifetimes spent under the hateful glare of the often brutal masters and their overseers, the freedmen and women enthusiastically embraced freedom, providing models for what it can mean to be engaged citizens; as Foner explains, they exercised their right to vote, ran for elected office, fought to strengthen their families, and labored to uplift their communities. The former slaves created many of the religious, educational, and political institutions that helped to pave the way for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s all while facing tremendous hostility from the Ku Klux Klan and the other terrorist organizations, which ran rampant during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era.
As a result of the Reconstruction amendments which includes the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the 19th Amendment (granting women the right to vote), and the freedmen’s struggle to gain civil and political rights, all people born in this country today are entitled to all of the rights and privileges associated with being a citizen simply by virtue of being born on American soil. There are no other requirements at the time of birth, and there is nothing more required in the future, with the exception of obeying the law and paying taxes.
My life experiences have led me to believe that being a proactive citizen is a personal responsibility and obligation. As a child, I was captivated by stories of black people’s struggle for equality in this country. I loved learning about the extraordinary efforts of my lesser known relatives as well as people like Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. In college, I was an active member of our Black Students’ Union. I participated in the protests in support of divestment from South Africa and in meetings and smaller protests related to other issues of concern to students on our campus and on other college campuses in the area. I believed my voice could make a difference.
After graduating from college, I settled into life as a disengaged citizen for more years than I care to admit. I didn’t vote for seven years. Looking back on that time, I realize that I disconnected from the power I have as a citizen to make a difference—power that we all have as citizens. The power exemplified in the stories that inspired me as a child. I whined about how my vote wouldn’t make a difference. In some way, I was right. By itself, voting wasn’t enough. I don’t recall what the seminal moment was for me, but I somehow realized I had no right to continue to sit on the sidelines and complain. I knew I had to put up or shut up. Committed citizenship involves taking action in our everyday lives to improve our communities and our nation. Voting is an integral part of being active, but showing up to vote once every two or four years is the very least that any citizen can do.
The founding principles of this country are awe-inspiring. Several months ago, I visited the National Constitution Center. The museum had been on my list of places to visit since its opening in 2003. During “Freedom Rising,” the theatrical performance which is a part of the museum’s core exhibit, my eyes filled with tears as the actor recounted the role the Constitution played in black people’s struggle for equality. I literally get chills when I think about the promise of this country. When I remember the efforts of the freedmen and women, I am reminded of our capacity as citizens to make right the country’s wrongs; the responsibility and obligation of engaged citizenship becomes an even more precious gift.
We the People…