My Fellow Citizens,
It’s broken. You might imagine that this phrase refers to one of a hundred possible things. I might be talking about…
Voter suppression. Prison reform. Corporate personhood. Gerrymandered districts. Family separation at the U.S. Border.
Instead I want to share an image that dominated my thinking as I read Will Harris’s writing on Constitutional Resurrection and the Unrepetant Redeemed. It could represent any one of those things listed above and maybe all of them.
The image is an obelisk. It is broken and inverted.
Cast in steel, Barnett Newman’s “Broken Obelisk” now sits outside the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. Local art collectors had attempted to place the sculpture outside City Hall in 1969, dedicating it to Dr. Martin Luther King’s memory. The imagery proved to be a powerful and discomforting proposition. City decision-makers said no.
Now located in the city's arts district, Newman’s “Broken Obelisk” still stands as a “potent emotional way to see America after King’s death: the promise denied, the hope shattered, the republic’s very rationality snapped in two.”
This status of being “snapped in two” might also be the best way to understand the promise of the 14th Amendment and its application to legal questions today.
In his presentation at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, Will suggested the 14th Amendment marks a moment of true innovation. It introduced citizenship on equal standing regardless of race, ethnicity or birthplace. This idea of citizenship had never been seen anywhere else in the world.
Will’s diagram shows the 14th Amendment looking up while the 13th Amendment looks back and the 15th Amendment looks forward. [Watch Will’s presentation on YouTube]
The 14th Amendment looks up like an obelisk that pierces the sky and dares to lay claim to the realm of the gods. An obelisk is a statement of timelessness and the principles of the 14th Amendment are no less bold. Our history, however, is a story of limiting the reach of those principles, constraining and inverting them.
Our conversation this week created an opportunity to recall the power the 14th Amendment works to make possible. It even felt like we could be part of a future that concerned itself with mending what is broken.
If you were a part of it, thanks for joining us. If you missed it, clear some time on your calendar for thinking and follow these links.
Let's think together soon,