Celebrate Juneteenth by Remembering the Importance of Knowing Your Rights

COMMENTARY Civil Society

Celebrate Juneteenth by Remembering the Importance of Knowing Your Rights

Jun 22nd, 2020 3 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Angela Sailor

Vice President, The Feulner Institute

Angela serves as Vice President of The Feulner Institute at The Heritage Foundation.
A man kneels and raises his fist in the air during a march and protest to mark the Juneteenth holiday at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial June 19, 2020 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla / Staff / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

In addition to commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, it should serve as a reminder that freedom benefits only those who know their rights.

A survey conducted on behalf of the American Bar Association reveals that far too many people lack knowledge of our laws and our form of government.

Let us work to make sure everyone knows those ideas and knows their rights. In that way, we can continue to move forward toward the American ideal.

In all the world, nothing matters more than freedom. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, but only those who were aware of the law could claim their freedom. And the good news was a long time coming to many Americans laboring in the bonds of slavery.

On June 19, 1865, Gen. Gordon Granger arrived with Union soldiers in Galveston, Texas, and delivered the message of emancipation and liberation to those enslaved. For two and a half years, African Americans in Texas had remained enslaved, unaware of their liberty.

Today, Juneteenth is celebrated nationally. In addition to commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, it should serve as a reminder that freedom benefits only those who know their rights and the law. 

It should also lead us to consider the question: How can we ensure that freedom is passed to the next generation?

President Ronald Reagan said it best:

"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States where men were free." 

A survey conducted on behalf of the American Bar Association reveals that far too many people lack knowledge of our laws and our form of government. Perhaps most critical of all, too many lack an understanding of a constitutional principle critical to maintaining individual freedom: the balance and separation of powers. According to the survey, “more than 1 in 7 adults in the U.S. incorrectly believed the executive branch of the U.S. government is more powerful than either the legislative and judicial branches, while slightly fewer than 1 in 8 believed the judiciary is superior to the other two.” 

Understanding the balance and separation of power among the three branches of government is our first defense against the creep of oppression. James Madison, the father of the Constitution, warned, "The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands … may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny." We must guard against cultivating a generation who lacks knowledge of the Constitution's fundamental principles.

"Our Underachieving Civics Curriculum," a paper by Tom Lindsay, a distinguished senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, reaffirms the powerful link between knowledge and freedom. "The cultivation of free minds simultaneously transcends and depends on the political Freedom enshrined in the American Constitution," he observes.

People are becoming more aware that social justice education, civic action, and civic engagement are vehicles for influencing students in K-12 and higher education. Too often, however, these efforts indoctrinate students with only “progressive” perspectives. They work to “debunk” the founding principles, creating political platforms for the Left at the expense of viewpoint diversity.

Mary Grabar, a resident fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, has written an entire book on this phenomenon — Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation against America. Graber cautions that Zinn's Marxist reinterpretation of U.S. history now dominates education. Abandoning any pretense of historical balance, Zinn’s acolytes present a skewed view of the American experiment, often relying on myths or outright deceit to bolster a negative view of the U.S.

It’s having an effect. A 2018 Gallup survey found only a third of Americans aged 18 to 29 said they were extremely proud to be an American. It was by far the lowest proportion of any age group. 

The Bill of Rights Institute, the Ashbrook Center, and The Woodson Center are committed to providing civics curricula and resources that enhance students' knowledge of the basic principles of our democracy, beginning with the Founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and The Federalist Papers.

As we celebrate Juneteenth, let us also remember that the march to freedom began much earlier — on the original Independence Day, when representatives of 13 small colonies signed the Declaration of Independence. 

America is unique in that it was founded on a set of ideas: that all of us are created equal, that all are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” and that government exists, not to rule over us, but to secure those God-given rights for each of us. 

Let us work to make sure everyone knows those ideas and knows their rights. In that way, we can continue to move forward toward the American ideal, secure in the knowledge that we are truly free.

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Examiner