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“We the People” forum links voting rights legacy & public education

We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

On May 9-10th, over 100 people from 4 universities and 27 national and Mississippi organizations attended a “We the People” forum with the theme of “constitutional personhood” – the free citizenship guaranteed to all when slavery was abolished, and the most precious fruit of abolitionist struggle and Union victory in a devastating Civil War.

 

Every citizen should be able to think critically, to participate meaningfully in the political process, and enjoy the liberty to be harmoniously diverse.   This is why education for critical thought and opportunity for meaningful political participation are inalienable and positive human rights. Every child has an affirmative right to be educated in ways that facilitate critical thought, active citizenship, and responsible independence in life choices.  Every person has an affirmative right to a meaningful voice in the political process.

 

After the Civil War, the struggle against slavery became a movement to expand the meaning of “We the People” in a reconstructed nation. The antislavery movement became a civil rights movement. The “We the People” forum studied and honored accomplishments of the civil rights movement since the 1960s and discussed “where do we go from here?” in four sessions:

 

(1) documenting and honoring the stories of civil rights workers in Mississippi in the 1960s and the courageous people and families who housed them and built local movements; (2) addressing the federal government’s role in protecting civil rights and the right to vote, with John Doar, former First Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights; (3) examining the intersection of the labor movement and civil rights. Derrick Johnson of the Mississippi State Conference NAACP; Douglas Blackmon, author of “Slavery by Another Name”; Bob King, President of the United Auto-Workers; and Frank Smith of the African American Civil War Museum connected the convict labor system and contemporary union struggles. (4) charting a path forward in the quest for constitutional personhood, we established key principles to ground work in the future:

 

Education — for critical thought, civic participation, basic information and skills — is a fundamental human right to be recognized as implicit, or made explicit, in the U.S. Constitution and those of every state. This is a matter of life or death for the nation’s youth and a prerequisite for a healthy and economically just society.

 

College readiness should be a goal of K-12 schooling, and college should be publically provided or funded

 

Civics training and voter registration should be explicit components of K-12 schooling and of community-based education programs.

 

Voting restrictions based on histories of criminal conviction should be eased or removed, and “Zero Tolerance” practices that feed the school to prison pipeline should be curtailed or ended.  At the same time, educational opportunities in prisons and detention facilities should be enhanced.

 

Public school curricula should be culturally relevant to the populations they serve, engaging students in solving problems in their own lives and that of their communities.

 

Civic engagement is required at all levels to promote and refine these principles and to hold public officials accountable for counterproductive education and voter qualification practices.

 

The forum was co-sponsored by Princeton University, Tougaloo College, the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP, the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, the SNCC Legacy Project, the Young People’s Project (YPP), and the Algebra Project. It’s work will continue in upcoming 50th Anniversary Commemorations of civil rights accomplishments in the 1960s.


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