Online Discusssion


The Question

The work of Thurgood Marshall laid the legal foundation for the modern Civil Rights movement.  With this in mind, how do you respond to the following question (s)?         

Can we all say as Americans, the Constitution and its guarantees apply to all citizens? In the pursuit of equal rights of all citizens have we left anyone behind?

Please join the discussion by posting at the bottom of the page.


The Honorable Larry Eger

Public Defender

This seems a simple enough question. But then I find myself asking, “What is this document we call a constitution and what are its guarantees?”

I know that our Constitution, along with its Bill of Rights, established a set of principles to guide a new nation in one of mankind’s greatest social experiments. It set out a series of inalienable rights that shall not be abridged by our newly formed government—a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

But upon reflection, I see that our Constitution is only a piece of paper. Its guarantees come from the very people it is meant to protect. I like to think that as a criminal defense attorney, my life’s work has been in the protection and application of these rights.

But from this vantage point, I can also see who we have left behind. It can be argued that we do not want everyone to share in the same rights and guarantees. The authors of our Constitution did not feel it necessary to include women, or blacks, or even Native Americans. With time, this has changed. We now debate the equality of the LGBT population. And what about the mentally ill, convicted felons, even children, are they and should they be included?

I met a man last week who spends much of his legal career defending detainees in Guantanamo. Dostoyevsky argued, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Without question, these men have been denied almost every privilege guaranteed in our Constitution.

What our Constitution is and what it guarantees and who it applies to are and always will be a subject of debate, which is our nation’s greatest strength. Through this debate we can guarantee that our Constitution is not just a piece of paper, and that the guarantees contained inside it are not just words, but can become a reality.

Mark St. Germain


The Constitution’s promises should apply to all citizens or we haven’t accomplished the goal  they were established to achieve.  That’s not saying they always do, we’re dealing with human beings here. We quarrel about semantics, which can be as fruitless as trying to agree on the intent of a biblical passage, but that’s what we’re here for. Citizens who love their country and care if the right decision was made. Citizens who insist on interpreting our founding principals though criteria that are morally, not monetarily or politically based.

Have we left anyone behind? Of course we have. Progress has been made. And I hope I’ll live to see a time when I hear a man entering an office described as a “big guy”, not a big/black/indian/mexican guy. Unless they start adding, “white guy”.


Dr. Lisa Merritt

Executive Director of the Multicultural Health Institute Sarasota

In many ways, we still contend with modern versions of issues that challenged our society during the Civil Rights Movement.  An Institute of Medicine report (May 2002) determined that better outcomes in health care were thwarted by less aggressive or effective care for certain groups based solely on race and ethnicity resulting in significant health care disparities.

At the Multicultural Health Institute (MHI), we see such disparities as a continuing challenge to citizens’ ability to realize their full constitutional guarantees, including health care as a right.  Our mission assumes that it is difficult for people who suffer poor health and lack the ability to access adequate health care to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  We note the stubbornly persistent high rates of HIV/AIDS, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and infant mortality that affect various racial, ethnic, economically disadvantaged, and under-represented communities across the U.S. and seek to reduce the gap in diagnosis and treatment.

Americans must admit that poverty remains the veil that separates Americans from their Constitutional guarantees.  Poverty makes living such a challenge that poor citizens – no matter their personal determination and resiliency and commitment to community – lack the array of resources needed to participate fully in society.  We invite you to help continue our work to empower communities and resolve health inequities. We are reminded of the words of the great Nelson Mandela, whose commitment to truth and reconciliation helped unify post- Apartheid South Africa, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Howard Tevlowitz

Director of the Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee

While not perfect, and as it applies to American citizens, the Constitution and its guarantees apply to all citizens. However, the Constitution is not a stagnant document.  It is an evolving document.  Look no farther than issues of slavery, voting rights, women’s rights, rights of workers, rights of children, and now, gay rights. When this question is asked 10, 25, or 50 years from now, it will be interesting to see what answers time and perspective provide.

In regards to leaving anyone behind, Ben Stein has an interesting quote about this: “We are not supposed to be all equal. Let’s just forget that. We are supposed to have equal rights under law. If we do that, we have done enough.”

The Honorable Judge Charles E. Williams

A literal reading of the Constitution tells us that the Constitution and its guarantees applies to all its citizens.  However the Constitution is an evolving document. Certainly when it was written the world was a very different place, and the issues created by technology were not as challenging as they are today.  The question is not so much whether it applies to all citizens, clearly it does, but we still must decude who qualifies for a citizen under the Constitution.  The original document applied to mostly land owning white males.  A significant portion of the country was left out or marginalized for years.  Certainly an argument can be made that true citizenship to women, immigrants, and former slaves took hundreds of years after the original document was written.  It is still being defined today in terms of who can marry, when a person is considered a human for protection under the Constitution,  and whether businesses and corporations are also “citizens” entitled to Constitutional protections.  The beauty of the Constitution is its ability to adapt to an ever changing and diverse world.

As an analogy,  if the Constitution can be considered a train that picks up people at different destinations along its route, and as people board the train they become citizens of this country, then truly the train can be considered late coming for some, and a distant whistle for others.  The whistle analogy though is important, for is it a whistle in the distance being listened  by those who have been left at the station or a whistle of the train on its way to the station to pick up those final passengers in this document’s long and historic journey?

That is the answer we must strive to find.


12 thoughts on “Online Discusssion

  1. I lived through forced school busing in Detroit, my native city of 30 years. It was ordered by the US Court. It came about 1970’s just after Detroit’s 1967 civil disturbance, i.e. Riot.

    I believe protest and civil (nonviolent) resistance is still needed to obtain eventual racial and ethnic equality of individual human rights among all people.

    I agree with Justice Marshall, and Cab Calloway that “Justice for all” is still our societal goal. We ain’t there yet. It takes a lot of time to heal the centuries of bigotry and abuse on our fellow people of color. Lord, let diversity reign in the USA!

  2. Echoing some of what has been said above, I think that the mythology surrounding this document and its sister, the Declaration of Independence, idealizes both as generally egalitarian. However, the Constitution is built around a concept that is fundamentally exclusionary. By denying people full citizenship, or the rights associated with full citizenship (as has been/is the case with African Americans, women, the LGBT population, immigrants), a large number of social justice violations have been justified, and will continue to be justified, as long as this term continues to function as a rationale for exclusion.

    I suppose the counterargument would be that the word citizenship implies a kind of social compact—the idea that laws will protect you if you live by them, or that citizenship is something that has to be earned or can be lost. While in theory I am not opposed to this kind of social responsibility argument, the fact of the matter is, for most, citizenship is determined by birth. It is not a given, and this is, ultimately, exclusionary. For the document to be truly egalitarian citizenship would have to be earned by all or a given for all. We fail the Constitution when institutions and individuals fail to practice its egalitarian principles in their actions and policies. But the Constitution also fails us by containing a term which lays the conceptual groundwork for exclusion and the denial of certain rights.

  3. President of the Manatee/Sarasota Democratic Black Caucus of Florida
    We can all say with surety that the Constitution is framed to encompass the equal rights of all American citizens. Our implementations of its guarantees, however, are a moving target; and the importance of civic engagement is lost on too many people. If each citizen is permitted a voice, and, further, makes use of that voice, the moving target that is our election cycle becomes a means to ensure that no one is left behind. We’re not there yet.

  4. It should be apparent that many of our local and national problems of race and society can be solved through an understanding and application of the simple and clear words of the Constitution — words and phrases that hold attention immediately, as in the Preamble: “We the people” … to “promote the general welfare” … to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity” are clearly meant to apply without qualification to all citizens regardless of status, wealth or ethnic origin .
    But yes, today, contrary to the guaranties of the Constitution, many people are being left behind. And a corollary question should be asked: why is the question of civil rights for some Americans being raised again nearly 150 years after slavery was legally abolished?
    An answer to both questions perhaps lies in the thought of why we honor Thurgood Marshall, a genius who understood and came with ultimate success to apply the true meaning of the Constitution and its promise of secured civil rights for all. We honor him for his dogged and tireless pursuit of simple justice through the courts, many times against myriad legal obstacles and frequently in peril of his own life. In a sense, we – all Americans – can emulate Thurgood Marshall who has shown the way to what it means to be an American.

  5. Booker High School Assistant Principal
    As I pondered the question posed, I was curious what type of response I would get from our Booker High School students, so I brought it to our juniors in AICE U.S. History. Students wrote more passionately about this topic than I expected, and they were divided in their responses. Many students expressed their opinion that the Constitution has not created equality for everyone, citing examples from our American history with slaves, women, immigrants, Japanese Americans and Native Americans, all fighting for the protection the label “citizen” affords. Others referred to modern examples of people still struggling for equality: immigrants, the LGBT community, mental health patients, and the homeless.
    Of those contending that the Constitution has always provided equality, nearly all of them agreed the major question has not been about the Constitution providing for equality. It was there for the taking. Unfortunately, in order to achieve this status, groups had to organize themselves, fight for their rights, and wait- sometimes egregiously long periods of time for the “right” of equality alongside white, landowning males.
    One student said, “The Constitution treats everyone the same, but “people” don’t always treat everyone the same”. Another student alluded to the constant evolution of the Constitution when he wrote, “This question should be pondered from two time periods”. I agree with our students. The true beauty of this document is its flexibility to withstand the incredible changes in our society over the last 200 years.

  6. Executive Board member Manatee/Sarasota Democratic Black Caucus of Florida
    The question is timeless. The answer depends on where we are in time; and who is giving the answer. The actual words of the Constitution and all of its Amendments have been in existence for many decades. However, the interpretations of those same words have varied from generation to generation. I do not believe that “all citizens” can take comfort in knowing that their rights are guaranteed without any question.
    The reason for this uncertainty lies in the very form of our government that grants jurisdiction to the nine persons on the United States Supreme Court to have the final word in giving meaning to the words of the Constitution. Those words were the same in 1896 as they were in 1954. In 1896, the Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson upholding the constitutionality of laws requiring racial segregation. In 1954, those same words were interpreted differently by nine different jurists in the Brown v. Board of Education forbidding the separate but equal doctrine.
    The reason for some persons to have concern for their rights lies in the selection criteria for the U.S. Supreme Court. There have always been liberals and conservatives on the Court. However, in recent history, much emphasis has been placed on the philosophy of a person being considered for the Supreme Court. In 1967 Thurgood Marshall was nominated by President Johnson to serve on the Supreme Court. His nomination had to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, which had already confirmed him as qualified to serve as a Federal Appellate Court Judge and Solicitor General of the United States. During the hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator McClelland (Arkansas) did not doubt that Judge Marshall was qualified to be on the Supreme Court. However, he said: “I am concerned about your philosophy….I can no longer be silent and not inquire into the philosophy of those who are nominated to this high position. I want to know what their thinking is and their attitude is. Because I cannot otherwise protect what I believe is necessary to preserve in our society”.
    Because on the increased emphasis on one’s ideology, the Court has been stacked with the ideology of the person who happens to be President at the time an appointment is available. Several well qualified candidates have been turned away in favor of those less qualified to serve, but who share the right political philosophy. Thus, what may be a citizen’s right today may be diminished tomorrow because of the composition of the Court. (See e.g., recent abortion and voting rights changes).
    The question presented cannot be answered as if what is now will forever be.

  7. When you read the Constitution of the United States of America, one would take away it applies to all citizens. However, when you look at the issues we are dealing with in the 21st Century from the Voting Acts, lack of Health Care and Jobs in the minority communities, Stand Your Ground Laws, and Stop and Frisk Laws that devalue the race of some people. At the end of the day you can only ask yourself the question, does the Constitution really apply to all?
    The late President Nelson Mandela said “There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.”

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