30 Things about America's History and Future

Ten Things You Should Know about African-American History

There were free African Americans in the United States before there were slaves.

Rosa Parks wasn’t tired when she sat in the whites’ only section of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. She was a determined activist who was exercising her rights as a citizen.

Ella Baker was as important to the Civil Rights Movement as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Along with her work for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Baker was widely heralded as the “midwife” for the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, which organized freedom rides and voter registration.

To ask African Americans to “get over” slavery is akin to asking ethnic Americans to forego their migration story.

African Americans didn’t gain the vote through the 1965 Voting Rights Act. African-American men gained it through the 1870 ratification of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; African-American women gained it in 1920 through the 19th Amendment.

The U.S. government, as well as several states, provided funding to the American Colonization Society (ACS), whose goal was to send blacks to a colony in Africa, namely Liberia. The ACS was in existence until the mid-1960s and ultimately sent more than 10,000 black Americans to Liberia.

David Walker’s An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829) is as forceful a piece of writing as you will ever encounter. An African-American abolitionist, Walker challenged blacks to use whatever means and weapons necessary to overthrow slavery and racism. Walker’s weapon, which he foretold would cause his death, was his pen.

Sojourner Truth, a former slave, was as much an advocate for women’s rights as she was for African-American rights. The charismatic speaker helped to recruit blacks to the Union cause in the Civil War.

African Americans failed to benefit fully from the social and economic benefits of the New Deal. The Social Security Act of 1935 excluded from coverage approximately half the workers in the U.S. economy. This included agricultural and domestic workers, a large percentage of whom were African Americans.

Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court case that ended all race-based legal restrictions against marriage, was more an example of upholding white male rights than representative of the realization of a goal put forward by African Americans.

Richard Pierce is the John Cardinal O’Hara, CSC, Associate Professor of History.

The 10 Biggest Challenges Facing America Today

The nation’s educational system (is failing the future)

The widening gap between rich and poor (though not perceived as a problem by everyone)

Climate change (yes, it’s real, and its dire effects won’t be measured by thermometers only)

Health care (still needs a cure — and some Christian compassion)

The rancorous divides (whether racial, political, us or them)

Our addictions (drugs, sex, fossil fuels, power, wealth, celebrity, fame, fast food, violence as entertainment, crap as culture)

Immigration (too many people? too few like me? threatening the common good?)

The national debt (any family knows you can’t spend more than you bring in without an eventual collapse)

Made in America (from the unemployed to infrastructure, from democracy to broken households, we suffer from lots of things that aren’t working like they should)

Self-esteem (it’s hard to feel good about ourselves with so many problems, so many self-inflicted wounds, and so many loud-mouth critics ripping up and tearing down)

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.

Ten Actions that Shaped America’s Commitment to Religious Freedom

Virginia Declaration of Rights, Article XVI (1776)
Adopted a few weeks before the Declaration of Independence, this declaration recognized “that religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.”

Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786)
Bill adopted by Virginia to safeguard the “natural right” of religious freedom. The legislative debates surrounding it led James Madison to draft his “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” his philosophical defense of religious freedom that is frequently cited by the Supreme Court.

George Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island (1790)
“All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship,” Washington said in perhaps the most beautiful presidential letter ever written. He continued: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (1865)
“The Almighty has His own purposes.” Lincoln’s meditation on the Civil War retains its power to explain the underlying causes of our national catastrophe. It also reminds us of the legitimate and proper role of religion in American public life.

Everson v. Board of Education (1947)
The Supreme Court case that interpreted the First Amendment to erect a “wall of separation” between church and state. We have been fighting about church-state matters ever since.

Sherbert v. Verner (1963)
First Supreme Court case to recognize that religious individuals have a constitutional right to exemptions from some burdensome laws. It is largely forgotten that special accommodations for religious individuals and institutions was a staple of liberal jurisprudence and that Sherbert was written by the liberal icon William Brennan.

Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith (1990)
Free Exercise case that, for the most part, overturned Sherbert. The issue at hand was drug laws that made certain Native American rituals illegal. The Court held that generally applicable laws which in practice burden religious exercise do not violate the First Amendment. Authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, the Court’s majority decision still leaves many religious conservatives scratching their heads.

Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993)
Federal legislation designed to reverse the effects of the Smith decision. It was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. A reminder of a time when our politics were far less polarized.

Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002)
School choice Supreme Court case in which a narrow majority found taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers constitutional. A landmark victory for the least fortunate, who gained increased access to Catholic education. Also notable for Justice Clarence Thomas’ daring concurring opinion, which contended that the original meaning of the Establishment Clause — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . .” — related to federalism and did not erect a “wall of separation” between church and state. Thomas continues to challenge the entire edifice of Establishment Clause jurisprudence dating to Everson.

Notre Dame v. Sebelius (and similar ongoing cases)
Perhaps a bit of inflation for the home team, but the outcome of the University’s legal challenge to the HHS Contraception Mandate will affect the ability of ND to fully realize its mission and Catholic identity, and for other religious institutions to witness their religious character in the public square.

Vincent Phillip Muñoz, an associate professor of political science, is the director of Notre Dame’s Interdisciplinary Minor in Constitutional Studies and the Tocqueville Program for Inquiry into Religion and American Public Life.