Owning Our Successes, and Our Failures

The past few weeks have seen a number of positive steps toward righting the wrongs of the Jim Crow era. The Senate formally apologized for rejecting decades of pleas to make lynching a federal crime. Justice was finally served to Edgar Ray Killen, who murdered three civil rights workers in 1964. And new evidence (revealed in Keith A. Beauchamp’s film The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till) has sparked a new investigation into the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till.

Still many are asking, “Why bother?” Some — including Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) — ask why we should apologize for the actions (or inactions) of senators long past. Others wonder why, after 50 years, the FBI has decided to reopen the Emmett Till case. Why not just leave the past — and the truth — buried?

The answer, I think, is found in the preamble of our Constitution, which contains the words “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and to our posterity.” The Founders were speaking for all Americans — past, present, and future. Surely no one alive today had any part in writing the Constitution or Declaration of Independence, but Americans proudly claim these documents as their own. But when the topics of slavery and crimes against Native Americans come up, no one wants to claim responsibility. President Kennedy was right: failure is an orphan.

America’s past failings belong to all Americans just as much as the Founders’ ideals and successes do. And so, rather than ask what the crimes of 50 years ago have to do with us, we should be asking our government to do more to right the wrongs. It’s time for us to confront our nation’s past of racial injustice head-on and do our best to make amends so we can more fully realize our Constitutional and democratic calling.


— Michael Thompson, CampusProgress