I believe in the public morality. The public morality is not a set of rules derived from someone’s notion of private morality nor any individual or groups understanding of biblical text, but that, which is found in the wells of hope and possibility that were dug deep by the Founding Fathers.
The public morality permeates Jefferson’s declaration and Madison’s preamble. For me, the essence of the public morality was first articulated by the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan during the Watergate hearings.
Through her commanding oratory Ms. Jordan stated: “On the seventeenth of September in 1787, I was not included in that We, the people. I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision I have finally been included in We, the people.”
As an African American growing up in the late 1960’s, I was caught in the midst of a social vortex. The ebb tide of the Civil Rights Movement receded as the surging waves of Black Power and Vietnam pounded the shores of democracy with the force of a tsunami.
I viewed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as merely self-serving documents of hypocrisy. Given that a number of its artisans held legal title to the lives of my ancestors, it seemed rather nonsensical to take “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as something inclusive.
But through Barbara Jordan’s eloquence I understood better why Rosa Parks sat down and Martin Luther King stood up. She gave me a better appreciation for why Susan B. Anthony marched and Paul Robeson sang.
It is no accident that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and King’s “I Have a Dream speech find their legitimacy in Jefferson’s inspiring argument for self-determination.
Barbara Jordon taught me that it would be tragic indeed to reduce the country’s two most cherished documents down to the level of the flawed, but inspired hands that created them.
The public morality leaves the door of inclusivity open regardless of our private moral beliefs, our economic status, our gender, our sexual orientation, or the percentage of melanin in our skin. And it continues, undaunted by time or crisis, to courageously reexamine the definition of the “we” in We the people.
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