The conquest for equal rights from 1774 to 1964

The Martin Luther King Jr Memorial located on the National Mall on the Tidal Basin in Washington D.C. - Shutterstock photo

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
– Martin Luther King
President Reagan once said: “There is something for everyone under the White House Christmas Tree.” On this day of remembering the onerous efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King and his desire to protect the natural and God-given rights of every American, it is only befitting to glance back into our history, to understand why his ambition was so challenging to consummate – and why it was so necessary.
"We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope."
– Dr. King
Over 200 years ago, when our founders set out to create a more perfect union of free men, they knew they could not reinvent the wheel but they could improve upon it. Gathering in the summer heat of Philadelphia Hall in 1787 to trade barbs and ideologies about what this union must or must not consist of, they prepared for a long contentious tirade. What came first, the egg or the chicken, or did it really matter that much?
“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”
– Ben Franklin
To accomplish this legislative genesis, they gathered the best and brightest of patriots with legal integrity to attend this revolutionary convocation. It was this motley crew with variegated mores and traditions that gathered to piece together the foundation necessary to forge this near-perfect nation. It was a country to amend past transgressions of colonial self-governing under its infamous English kingships.
“We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.”
– Ben Franklin
Ben Franklin, our elder founder, met each guest before they entered the hall and welcomed them for their participation in this assemblage of thinkers, scholars, political scientists and theorists. As Thomas Paine, the father of our Revolution and a powerful patriot, arrived at the door laden with a stack of books in arm, Franklin, his lifelong friend, informed him he would not be allowed a seat at the table. He placidly told him:
“Whatever is begun in anger ends in shame.”
– Ben Franklin
With his usual calm demeanor, Franklin ushered a visibly upset Paine outside, consoling him: “Tom, they will not allow you to enter the Convention because of your views on slavery, universal suffrage and representative government.” A stunned Paine, clutching a stack of Common Sense books with words scribed on its pages from patriots about government, vociferated: “How will the voices of the patriots be heard?” Franklin assured Paine he’d deliver the books to the round table and evaluate every word written by each patriot. A defeated Paine retreated to catch the next ship to France.
“It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”
– Ben Franklin
Every insightful issue that concerned Paine about our Constitution was to become a contentious admonition in the coming years. We can only wonder how different our county would be today if others beside Franklin had believed in him.
“Decisions made in haste lay to waste.”
– Ben Franklin
The day Paine arrived from across the pond in 1774, he witnessed the buying and selling of slaves in the marketplace. He was awestruck that men and women were chained and denied their natural and God-given rights of liberty and shackled like animals in cages. He assumed a position working for the Pennsylvania Magazine, and began a campaign to end slavery. This did not abide well with many in the colonies who either owned slaves or profited from buying and selling them.
“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.”
– Thomas Paine
As an enlightened thinker, Paine was concerned the colonies had no representation in the English Parliament, yet subjects to laws passed with no voice in legislating. He wrote many pamphlets and essays condemning this autocracy. One pamphlet enervated the start of the war for independence, "Common Sense." He decreed that every man and woman in the colonies had the natural and God-given right to vote on every law that they were governed by. This went over like a lead balloon until the English needed more money and forced the colonies to quarter British troops. It took Common Sense to wake up the slumbering pilgrims.
“Give me liberty, or give me death.”
– Patrick Henry
After the Revolution, America needed a definitive constitution. Rumors abounded as to what type of government would satisfy the independent colonies but unite and protect them. It wasn’t possible to form a direct democracy so our founders concluded we’d be served by a representative republic. But not one like the English’s parliament, which had abused so many colonial rights.
“Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”
– Thomas Paine
Reflecting back to that moment in time when Paine was denied access to the Convention, his clairvoyance was uncanny. It took decades for us to grant the right to vote to all women in our nation. Our form of representative democracy without the ability to issue a no-confidence vote for an incompetent legislative body has come back to haunt us since our founding when the very first Congress met in 1789.
“Better fare hard with good men than feast it with bad.”
– Thomas Paine
Paine told us, “The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind.” Although most founders admitted slavery violated American liberty, enough remained committed to property rights, and intersectional harmony to prevent them from making a morally right move to abolish it in the Constitution. We can only imagine how different things would have been if Paine was at the Convention? It would have prevented a bloody Civil War that killed and maimed thousands – a war that deeply divided states north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line as it fostered the era of segregation and rationed rights for many.
“Time makes more converts than reason.”
– Tom Paine
We are blessed to have heroes such as Thomas Paine and Dr. Martin Luther King, who stood up to guarantee equal access to liberty in our hallowed nation. As we honor the work of Dr. Martin Luther King for securing equal rights and opportunities for all men and women in America, it is befitting to share this tribute with one as passionate about protecting our natural and God-given rights, Tommy Paine. Paine started the civil rights movement in 1774 and Dr. King proudly ended it in 1964 with the signing of the Civil Rights Act. It took two patriots 200 years to deliver equal rights to all of us.
"A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus."
– Dr. Martin Luther King
Tom Paine and Dr. King were gifted collaborators. Both were talented wordsmiths and passionate speakers. Each expressed avid distain for the abridgment of human rights. Both worked under the banner of universal suffrage as ways for free men and women to instigate meaningful changes in government. And both met their demise at the hands of those too ignorant to appreciate the work they did for them. Paine died broken and disgraced because he criticized censoring free thought. Dr. King was murdered by an ingrate who was blind to reality that Dr. King had fought to protect his very own rights also.
"A man who won't die for something is not fit to live."
– Dr. Martin Luther King
If Paine and King were with us today, it's easy for us to speculate the words of wisdom they would bestow upon us:
“These are the times that try men's souls.”
– Thomas Paine
Therefore, “We must learn to live together like brothers or we will perish together like fools.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
William Haupt III is a retired professional journalist, author, and citizen legislator in California for over 40 years. He got his start working to approve California Proposition 13.
Photo: William Haupt III  (Fourth From Left)