Too often we forget that America has not always enjoyed its position as a human rights watchdog. Only a few generations ago, Americans were legally segregated with women and African-Americans barred from the voting booth. And looking back a few more generations, America was engaged in one of the most devastating slave trades the world has ever known.
As a nation, we have come a long way since then. But that is no excuse for forgetting our history. Remembrance for that arduous journey and reverence for the great men and women who led the way is in order.
The year 2014 gives us a unique opportunity to reflect on the long road to freedom that Americans have endured.
One hundred fifty years ago, the city of Atlanta was ravaged in one of the final battles of the Civil War. The Battle of Atlanta sealed the fate for the war-torn South, and it paved the way for the important, yet only marginally successful Civil Rights Amendments: the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. Combined, those amendments to the U.S. Constitution made slavery illegal, guaranteed equal rights for all and made it unconstitutional to deny a voter on the basis of color.
Sixty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separate did not mean equal. The ruling deemed segregation of schooling facilities to be unconstitutional.
The basis for the ruling was the 14th amendment, which was added to the Constitution nearly a decade prior to the decision. Progress for the human rights movement in America was by no means swift.
This month also marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, these laws were able to finally instantiate the ideals set forth in the 14th amendment.
But that was not the end for the human rights movement in America. True equality remains an elusive dream for the two aforementioned groups: women and African-Americans.
According to a 2012 Associated Press Poll, the majority of Americans — 51 percent — “now express explicit anti-black attitudes.”
Likewise, studies show that women earn somewhere between 77 and 84 percent of what their male counterparts earn.
Despite the great strides that we have made in the human rights movement, there is still much work to be done if we are to realize the full equality guaranteed to us by the First Amendment.
Even still, the progress that has yet to be made in America pales in comparison to the dismal condition of human rights globally.
Given our relative success in realizing human rights, and given our dominance on the global scale, America stands in a unique position where we can sacrifice a portion of our time and money to rectify human rights violations around the world.
If a superpower like the U.S. had existed in the midst of our earlier struggles, a helping hand would have dramatically expedited our social development process.
Human rights are being advanced around the world, but at a relatively sluggish rate. America stands in a position to help move that process along, both with our bountiful resources and our invaluable knowledge of how to successfully lead a human rights movement.
We learned from the American human rights movement that progress takes time. It takes a monumental struggle. It requires trial and error. And more than anything else, it takes sacrifice.
– Sam Hillestad