Opponents to President Barack Obama’s executive action to reduce gun violence cite their Second Amendment right to own firearms.
But executive orders, federal regulations and laws have been built around other constitutional guarantees to provide clarity, ensure the peace, unity and to make our democracy function better. Hard fought civil rights laws stand out as good examples.
The 13th Amendment passed by Congress on June 13, 1866, and ratified by the states on July 9, 1868, after the bloody Civil War abolished the etched in the Constitution right to own slaves. The 14th Amendment followed, guaranteeing the right to citizenship for all persons born or naturalized in the U.S., and then the 15th Amendment ratified in 1870, giving citizens of the U.S. the right to vote.
It wouldn’t be until the 19th Amendment passed by Congress on June 4, 1919, and ratified by the states on Aug. 18, 1920, that women as citizens of the U.S. received the right to vote even though many worked diligently in the abolition movement for blacks to be freed as slaves.
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Like Obama’s executive action on guns Tuesday, the opposition to extend the civil rights and voting rights was fierce.
Native Americans weren’t considered citizens until Congress on June 2, 1924, passed the Indian Citizenship Act. Until 1957 some states continued to deny American Indians the right to vote.
Threatened with an embarrassing march on Washington by blacks led by A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 in June 1941. The U.S. would enter World War II just a few months later after the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Roosevelt’s order to show U.S. unity to Germany and Japan went against the long, Jim Crow, post-slavery accepted practice of discrimination. Blacks under the order were to be accepted into job training programs at defense plants, and defense contractors were prohibited from discrimination.
During World War II, millions of jobs were being created, helping to propel the U.S. and its allies to victory. Those jobs helped end the Great Depression, and blacks did not want to be left out. Executive Order 8802 also established a Fair Employment Practices Commission.
Obama may need such an oversight body and more federal workers to put teeth in his executive order, insisting that anyone “in the business of selling firearms” be licensed and conduct background checks of potential buyers. More scrutiny to ensure accountability also is needed in beefing up the enforcement of existing laws, pushing for more gun safety technology and making background checks more efficient and faster.
Obama’s directive to get people more access to treatment for mental illness will take more money. Anything less is just a lot of hot air. Obama with his executive order and no hope of congressional support, needs to borrow a page from the forthright stand of President Harry S. Truman.
Missouri’s only president did the unthinkable on July 26, 1948, with his Executive Order 9981, integrating the U.S. military. It stated, “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.” Truman’s action was courageous because it went against segregation being the law of the land established by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision. Along with Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and executive order, it helped pull blacks permanently away from the GOP as the party of President Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator.
But the change in the military took years to complete. The gun control that Obama is seeking, enabling all 320 million Americans to enjoy the Declaration of Independence’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” without fear of being shot will take years to be accepted, too.
The political fallout that will hit the 2016 elections will be intense just as Truman’s action was in 1948.
Truman’s executive order and his strong civil rights platform ahead of the 1948 presidential election splintered the Democratic Party, resulting in the Dixiecrats. As a third party, it ran South Carolina's governor and later longtime U.S. senator, Strom Thurmond, for president and Fielding L. Wright, governor of Mississippi, for vice president. Fortunately, Truman won, defeating Thurmond and Republican presidential nominee Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York.
The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education decision in 1954 ended legal segregation as the law of the land. Randolph’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom did occur on Aug. 28, 1963, to help force more U.S. civil rights action. What followed were the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and numerous other policies, rules, regulations and laws in the ongoing struggle for everyone to enjoy equality and all U.S. constitutional guarantees.
Civil rights and voting rights have suffered years of political and judicial reversals. Gun laws nationwide also have been liberalized instead of tightened.
On each front, the work to make America safer and more egalitarian is far from over. But Obama’s executive action is a step in the right direction.