Why We Read the Declaration of Independence in Front of the Courthouse
The Harris County, Criminal Lawyers Association, reads the Declaration of Independence in front of the criminal courthouse every year. I started this tradition in 2010. Since then, we have promoted the reading of the Declaration around the state. In 2016, we organized defense bar readings of the Declaration in all 254 counties in Texas.
Some of my colleagues elect not to participate in the readings. I understand and respect their decision. While The Declaration was key to our nation’s founding, it is important to recognize that the Declaration is far from perfect. It was written by white men for white men and no one else. Not one slave was freed by the Declaration. The primary author of the Declaration was a slave owner. Native Americans are referred to as “savages” in the Declaration. No one should labor under the misconception that the Declaration was without serious problems.
Nevertheless, the Declaration is key to our history. The Declaration is part of the continuum in our nation’s struggle for liberty and justice for all. The Declaration was followed by the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment, the Women’s Suffragette movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the Gay Rights Movement, and, more recently, the Black Lives Matter Movement. All these events and movements have advanced the cause of liberty. Still, we are not yet a country where we have liberty and justice for all. So, we strive to make a more perfect union.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s words have greatly influenced my opinion about the Declaration’s significance. Specifically, in his “I Have a Dream Speech,” Dr. King referred to the Declaration. He compared the Declaration to a promissory note. He said that the United States had defaulted on that promissory note.
Dr. King said in part, “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men — yes, Black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note as far as her citizens of color is concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked as insufficient funds. But we refuse to believe that the Bank of Justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
In reading the Declaration, I hope we are annually reminding ourselves and others of the still unfulfilled promises of the Declaration and “the fierce urgency of now.” In this era where rights are being stripped from our fellow citizens daily, we would do well to remember the promises of the Declaration and our obligation as Americans to honor those promises.