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Monday, March 17, 2014
We the People: The Civil Rights Revolution—A Book by Professor Bruce Ackerman ’67
In 1991, Professor Bruce Ackerman ’67 offered a sweeping reinterpretation of our nation's constitutional experience and its promise for the future with his book We the People: Foundations. In 2000, with We the People: Transformations, Ackerman revealed how America's "dualist democracy" provides for populist upheavals that amend the Constitution, often without formalities. Now with the newly released We the People: The Civil Rights Revolution, Ackerman continues his examination of the U.S. Constitution with an eye toward the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Second Reconstruction, and Brown v. Board of Education.
“The sun is setting on the civil rights revolution. The struggle was an unforgettable experience for the generation that lived through it,” Ackerman writes. “All this is ancient history for the rising generation. They may celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but the civil rights revolution will never have the same living resonances. We are fast reaching a critical moment in the dialogue between the generations…What the rising generation chooses to remember—and what it chooses to forget—will shape the way it understands America’s constitutional choices for the twenty-first century.”
Ackerman challenges conventional legal analysis of the Civil Rights movement; it was not through judicial activism or Article V amendments that this revolution transformed the Constitution. The breakthrough, he argues, was the passage of laws that ended the institutionalized humiliations of Jim Crow and ensured equal rights at work, in schools, and in the voting booth. This legislation gained congressional approval only because of the mobilized support of the American people.
Ackerman describes the complex interactions among branches of government—and also between government and the ordinary people who participated in the struggle. He also showcases leaders such as Everett Dirksen, Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and Richard Nixon who insisted on real change, not just formal equality, for blacks and other minorities.