A biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.
The word “free” is defined in the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary as “having the legal and political rights of a citizen; enjoying civil and political liberty; not obstructed, restricted, or impeded.”
With this understanding of freedom, the United States is not the land of the free when the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments didn’t abolish slavery or simply expand citizenship. These two amendments actually made it constitutional to restrict citizens’ right to vote and even enslave them if they’re convicted of anything the government defines as criminal. Did you know Minnesota Statute 609.34 criminalizes fornication? Consider the ramifications.
Some say that the U.S. possesses the best criminal justice system in the world. This says little about the greatness of our system and much about the flawed criminal justice systems of the world. A justice system designed and operated by imperfect human beings is naturally a biased and broken system. A citizen’s right to vote is too fundamental to citizenship status to be obstructed, restricted or impeded by a criminal conviction resulting from such an imperfect justice system.
The greatness of our country is rooted in its citizenship, which has always been synonymous with the power of the vote. To be a citizen is to be a voter and nothing less.
The Declaration of Independence reads that “the right of representation is inestimable to the people and formidable to tyrants only.” A citizen’s power to vote should never be subjected to forfeiture for anything less than treason or total loss of citizenship status.
As United States citizens, we are expected to love and respect our country despite its many flaws, faults and destructive past actions. We are expected to see, acknowledge and appreciate the country’s growth and potential.
So I ask, when will this country love and respect all of its citizens, despite their past acts and failures? When will this country honor the potential of its convicted citizens?
I once read that the great enemy of community is exclusivity. Groups that exclude others are not communities; they are cliques — defensive bastions against community. How can the United States of America be “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” a community of citizens, if the country excludes millions of its citizens from voting because of their criminal records?
Until this country is all-inclusive in citizenship-based voting, we fail to live up to our national anthem, our constitution, our Declaration of Independence, and our Pledge of Allegiance. We fail to be the United States of America.
During U.S. slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries, some people stood on the sidelines, some fought to keep slavery, and others fought to make America great. During the U.S. 20th century women’s suffrage movement, some stood on the sidelines, some fought to continue oppressing women, and some fought to make America great.
What will history say about where you stood in the 21st century voting rights struggle to make America great?
Jeffery Young is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.