The Cold Hard Truth

The Cold Hard Truth

By J.L. Chestnut, Jr.

Vol. 9, No. 5, 1987, p. 40

This is the 200th year of the U.S. Constitution, but that document remains shrouded in fiction, misunderstanding and ignorance. Millions of Americans know so little about the Constitution, it is a miracle we have been able to hold on to it.

Speakers and writers, who should know better, continue to pay homage to the Founding Fathers for the “Bill of Rights”–the first ten amendments to the Constitution. The original constitution drafted at Philadelphia in 1787 did not include the “Bill of Rights.” Those amendments came later during the ratification process. That is why they are amendments.

Indeed, the fifty-five affluent white males who met in Philadelphia had no authority to write a constitution. They were only legally empowered to revise the old Articles of Confederation. They drafted a constitution anyway. The legal problems they created in doing so were probably resolved by the subsequent ratification of their unauthorized constitution.

In 1787, slaves were hardly considered people. The Founding Fathers reached a compromise at Philadelphia and upgraded each black to three-fifths of a person. Women were ignored. The new constitution reflected the culture. It also set certain forces into motion which finally led to The Civil War and the end of slavery as an institution.

The Civil War and emancipation of blacks had no effect on disfranchised white females. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments were added to the Constitution. These amendments, with the exception of the Fourteenth, were all pegged to color or “previous condition of servitude.” Gender or sex proscriptions were conspicuous by their loud absence.

Nevertheless, another century after the Civil War, the civil rights movement using those amendments spawned a whole new era regarding the status and rights of women. What had happened? Is the mere passage of time a sufficient explanation or is there something more?

I heard an interesting explanation at a women’s conference in Birmingham last week. Approximately half the 200 women present were white. One of the great loves of my life, sixty-two year old Shirley Chisholm, was keynote speaker. But the words of a white female friend, Ann Braden, really jarred my thinking.

Ann and I served as panelists during a workshop on racism and coalition-building. Years ago, Ann was a young reporter in Anniston and covered Bull Connor’s Birmingham. She later wrote an interesting, frank and truthful book and many in the South will never forgive her. She is unlikely to forgive them and now as a senior citizen remains outspoken and a self-described “unabashed radical.”

For the women delegates, Ann described racism as the “indefensible assumption that white males, by right, should rule all things and everything was created for their benefit.” She said that is why native Americans (Indians) were wiped out by the settlers without the slightest guilt or remorse. She also said that is why our foreign policy is so dangerous in a world three-fourths non-white.

Ann’s definition of racism reduces sexism to a component of racism. If her definition is correct, and I think it is, American history begins to make sense for the first time.

How else can one explain why intelligent, learned men would deny their own mothers, wives and daughters certain fundamental rights these men risked their lives to secure for themselves?

Ordinarily, one would not consider that racism, but it obviously was the exaltation of white males by white males at the expense of people they love and were closest to.

Women’s rights did not move to the front after the Civil War and black emancipation because these developments were aimed at the institution of slavery and not racism. Racism remained in vogue; only slavery was outlawed.

A century later, the civil rights movement aimed its attack directly at racism and the women’s movement caught fire.

The proof is in the pudding.


J. L. Chestnut Jr. is an Alabama trial lawyer and writer.