In a recent editorial printed in the Rochester, New York Democrat and Chronicle, CRCDS President Dr. Marvin McMickle wrote:
Two important events occurred in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1787. The framers of the United State Constitution waxed eloquent with the words “We the people of the United States.” They went on in that preamble to talk about our “common defense”, to “promote our general welfare”, and “to ensure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” In that same year of 1787, a group of African Americans went to a Sunday morning worship service at St. George Methodist Episcopal Church. Upon entering they heard the worship leader say, “Let us pray.” In good Episcopal fashion, they knelt where they were for the prayer. Within seconds they were approached by several white ushers who told them they could not pray in that section of the church which was reserved for “whites only.” The group assured the ushers that they would go to the “colored section” of the church as soon as the prayer ended. However, the ushers would not relent and those African American worshipers were pulled up from the knees.
That incident led to the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Similar events in other parts of the country would result in the creation of other African American Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal denominations. How strange that the first test of who was included in “We the people” would occur in the same year and in the same city where those words had been written. The African American church did not emerge out of a desire on our part to segregate ourselves from our white brothers and sisters. The earliest African American churches emerged because those persons resented and rejected being segregated inside the largely white churches they had been attending.
“We the people” did not initially include all the people living in the United States. It would take multiple amendments to the Constitution over a period of 175 years before the rights of all the people were protected. The Constitution initially protected slavery in Article 1 section 2 paragraph 3, in Article 1 section 9, and in Article 4 section 2. It would take the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 to end slavery, and the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 to guarantee the right to vote for black males. Women were not given the right to vote until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. The Constitution clearly excluded “Indians” from any citizenship rights in Article 1 section 2 paragraph 3, and again in section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment. Full voting rights for Native Americans were not secured until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“We the people” did not include all the people of the United States. In the minds of some people in this country that remains true to this day. But as Langston Hughes so powerfully declared, “America was never America to me, and yet I swear this oath – America will be.”