The timing could not have been better. In the days leading up to the Fourth of July, when we celebrate the founding of this country, we were given reminders of just what it means to be an American.
The Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision last week that said persons of the same sex can marry and receive the same federal benefits that are extended to traditional married couples.
Just two days after that historic decision, the U.S. Senate passed and sent to the House of Representatives a comprehensive immigration reform bill. If that measure is signed into law, then millions of undocumented immigrants residing in this country will be allowed to pursue a lengthy administrative path to eventual citizenship.
Those actions are the latest developments in the long story of a nation that slowly but surely extends to all of its citizens the civil rights that originally were limited to a privileged few.
There was a time not long ago when several states, including Georgia, would not allow men and women of different races to marry. The Supreme Court struck that down in a 1967 ruling. Last week’s gay marriage decision is another step in that march to equal rights.
Nearly 10 years ago, Georgia voters overwhelmingly passed a state constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriages. That amendment has largely been made irrelevant by the Supreme Court, and you can bet that Georgia’s gay marriage prohibition will one day be erased from the books.
One of the most important rights Americans hold is the ability to cast a ballot on election day. When the Constitution was ratified more than 220 years ago, however, only white males who owned property were allowed to vote.
Over the years, the right to vote has slowly been granted to all citizens regardless of race or gender. By 1856, the vote had been expanded to all white males. In 1868, former slaves who were males were allowed to vote. In 1920, the 19th Amendment extended suffrage to all women.
By 1947, the legal barriers that prevented Native Americans from voting were removed. In 1952, all people of Asian ancestry were granted the right to become citizens. In 1971, 18-year-olds were given the right to vote.
There have been setbacks along the way, including last week’s Supreme Court ruling that struck down an important provision of the Voting Rights Act, but we continue to live in a country where rights are usually expanded, not restricted.
Despite the concerns often voiced about the movement of immigrants into the U.S., this is a country whose entire history has seen our population bolstered by successive waves of people who came to these shores and, in time, became citizens.
The historian Page Smith wrote: “Each new generation of immigrants, each one ‘worse’ than the one before, at least in the eyes of the originals, brought with them a check drawn on the Declaration of Independence and demanded that it be honored by the descendants of those who had first articulated its unsettling sentiments.”
To use Smith’s metaphor, that check is presented by each new wave of immigrants and eventually is marked “paid.” It has been that way ever since the first immigrants from Europe touched shore at Jamestown, Va., in 1607.
State legislators such as Matt Ramsey and Chip Rogers have sponsored bills in recent years that were intended to make hundreds of thousands of immigrants disappear from Georgia and go back to their countries of origin.
Those measures will fail. The immigrants who have come here over the last two decades to provide a source of labor for our businesses and developers will eventually be allowed to take their place as American citizens with the full rights enjoyed by all. History has taught us that lesson many times.
“America was always promises,” said the poet Archibald MacLeish. “From the first voyage and the first ship there were promises.”
America’s promise was this: we would find a place for everyone who came here and we would find a way, sometimes after horrendous struggle, to ensure that those who are here will have the same rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
That is a promise to remember on this Fourth of July.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that reports on government and politics in Georgia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.