We Need an Iconic Video of the Adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 2020

A modified version of this story appeared on Michael Smerconish’s website at https://www.smerconish.com/news/2020/6/12/we-need-the-adoption-of-the-civil-rights-act-ofnbsp2020

Fifty-six years ago, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and presented the pen to Martin Luther King, Jr., who sounded the clarion call. It had taken a civil war and another century for us to confront fundamental contradictions between the principle that we are all created equal and the institutions that had disavowed that principle. But countless smart phone cameras and now George Floyd’s murder have exposed endemic flaws in our progress since 1964.

Yet we are not without hope. Our predecessors laid the groundwork for action. Civil War reconstruction granted Congress powerful constitutional weapons that remain fully available. Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees due process and equal protection under the law. Section 5 gives Congress the “power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.” The Commerce Clause and Taxing and Spending Clause round out sweeping authority. We face national imperatives, not just local matters. Congress must adopt preemptive “appropriate legislation.”

First, we need public reconsecration of the maxim “to protect and to serve.” Certainly there are myriad honorable peace officers, but structures have enabled extreme wrongdoers to have persistently asymmetrical impact. We need: (i) a national standard on the use of deadly force; (ii) even more always-on cameras, for every stop, arrest, and questioning, as anything short of ubiquitous video is untenable today; (iii) enhanced de-escalation tactics; (iv) measures to overcome codes-of-silence; (v) comprehensive annual training and supervision programs; (vi) reporting of any sidearm unholstering; (vii) abrogation of impeding labor terms; (viii) compliance tracking; and (ix) robust and swift enforcement.

Second, we need to guarantee access to the ballot box. Fraud and manipulation are preventable, while anticipatory arguments against voting-by-mail are unacceptably ironic in a pandemic. It is 2020, not 1920 or 1820. Even if added legwork were required to maintain voting integrity, we should choose to tackle the hard things.

Third, we need long-term structural foundations to build civic bonds. We should create an independent agency with cabinet-level strength. Our last mobilizing threat generated the Department of Homeland Security. Now we need a full-scale Federal Civil Rights Agency, bearing constitutional imprimatur and with greater power than the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, the Commission on Civil Rights, or any such initiative ever contemplated. It should have enforcement and educative functions in commanding measure. It should investigate and pursue staunch remedies for violations of the legislation’s substance, including equitable relief against those in official capacities and criminal referrals to a vigorously revitalized Justice Department. Non-compliance should trigger immediate intervention. The Agency must have a deep, talented, and empowered staff. It should also be responsible for designing and promoting a well-funded civics curriculum to engage students annually from kindergarten through high school.

The educative mission deserves special mention. So many of us travel well into adulthood with misunderstandings of the social contexts in which our nation developed. The greatness of America remains in its ideals and hopes and principles, expressed in groundbreaking documents captured at moments in history that drive towards futures and dreams not yet fully realized. Those principles reflect the best of humanity. But we have rampant crises of conscience when other aspects of our behavior push against canons of equality that do not yield. Watersheds come in the form of the Reconstruction and Nineteenth Amendments, Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Lawrence v. Texas, and more. The purpose of annual educative engagement would be to cement historical and sociological foundations for the iterative conversation needed to remedy the uniquely pervasive wrongs, irreconcilable with our tenets, that have inflamed our streets today.

National emergencies open temporary windows. Exigencies inspire vital changes. President Bush signed the Patriot Act 45 days after September 11. This is a project for right now. As President Kennedy said, the United States “will not be fully free until all of its citizens are free.” Social media needs something iconic but positive this year — and determinative. Whether in the Oval Office or in the context of a veto override, we should end the summer with an uplifting video of the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 2020.

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John J. Hamill

Husband, father, lawyer. Harvard Law School JD 1993, Notre Dame BA 1990 (economics, public service). Strong believer in what America can and should be.