Submitted by Marvin Miller
In other years I have written about human rights for the December newsletter, in recognition of the anniversaries of the Bill of Rights, Dec. 15, 1791, and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Dec. 10, 1948. But January is also an appropriate month to remember human rights: it includes the birthday anniversaries of Franklin Roosevelt, Jan. 30, 1882, and Martin Luther King Jr., Jan. 15, 1929.
Dr. King’s struggle for equal civil and political rights for African-Americans is well known. In his ‘I have a dream” speech, he said that his dream was deeply rooted in the American dream, that all men are created equal. (In our day we would say all people are born equal.) Less well known is his struggle for economic rights and his opposition to the war in Vietnam, which he regarded as unjust. His last public appearance was in support of the sanitation workers of Memphis, who were on strike for decent treatment. The signs they carried said, “I am a man.” One of Dr. King’s memorable lines is “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
In his 1944 State of the Union message President Roosevelt said “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made . . . We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights . . .” including the right to a useful and remunerative job, adequate food, clothing, recreation, medical care, a good education, and a decent home. These economic rights were included in the UN’s Declaration.
The UN Declaration isn’t binding law: it’s a declaration of rights. As it says in its Preamble, it’s a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations” toward the universal observance of which we all ought to strive.The Bill of Rights is part of the US Constitution, which is supposed to be the supreme law of the land.
Laws don’t implement themselves. Those responsible for implementing them often find them inconvenient and ignore or violate them. The First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” but Congress has done so by inserting “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God we Trust” onto the currency. The Fourth Amendment says “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated,” but now we are subject to constant surveillance by both government and private institutions in our on-line communications and elsewhere. The Fifth Amendment says “No person shall . . . be deprived of life . . . without due process of law,” but we have seen many occasions when this has occurred. The Sixth Amendment says “In all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial,” but almost none of the prisoners now held have had trials. They have been induced to plea-bargain by the threat of loss of the major part of their lives to imprisonment. The Eighth Amendment says excessive fines shall not be imposed, but we read of unaffordable fines for minor traffic violations that ruin people economically or subject them to jail.
A look at today’s economy shows that President Roosevelt was over-optimistic in saying that we have accepted an economic bill of rights. Increasing economic and political inequality have eroded some of the rights we thought we had then. For the foreseeable future, we can expect a continuing struggle to retain the rights — civil, political, and economic — that we still have.