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"Stock" images of the American, State of Delaware, and University of Delaware flags taken in the week leading up to the 4th of July.
The University of Delaware will hold a Constitution Day panel on Thursday, Sept. 17, in which academics and other experts will discuss how the Reconstruction amendments have evolved with various legislative advances. The Constitution was first ratified in Delaware, whose state flag is pictured here along with the flags of the U.S. and UD.

Constitution Day Celebration

Photos by Evan Krape and courtesy of Justin Richards

Academics, historians, policy makers and lawyers gather for a panel discussion

“If you’re not paying attention to your constitutional rights, chances are they’re being violated somehow.”

— Mike Brickner, executive director of the ACLU of Delaware 

A self-described professional rabble-rouser, Mike Brickner is executive director of the ACLU of Delaware. He is among the experts scheduled to participate in a virtual panel hosted by the University of Delaware on Thursday, Sept. 17. Organized by the History Club at UD, this second-annual event will feature a group of Delaware policy makers, lawyers and academics (some Blue Hens, some not) discussing Constitutional history and how that history continues to shape the everyday lives of U.S. citizens.

The timing is intentional — Sept. 17 is Constitution Day. This nationwide observance commemorates the 1787 signing of the most influential document in American history, first ratified in Delaware. The longest surviving (but shortest written) government charter in the world, the United States Constitution is the supreme law of the land, guaranteeing the civil rights and liberties of the American people.

Justin Richards, a senior history and political science major and the president of the History Club at UD, conceived of the Constitution Day panel.

Liberties — according to experts — that we sometimes take for granted.

“It is a privilege for many of us to walk through our lives and not have to think about our constitutional rights every single day, because there are people for whom these rights are unfortunately being taken away,” Brickner said, noting issues of disenfranchisement and a mass incarceration system that disproportionately affects Black and brown Americans. “And we are at a place where that is becoming more common in our country. Violations are hitting scary numbers.”

So what can we do about it?

UD senior and History Club president Justin Richards, who conceived of the panel discussion, noted this is largely the point of the Constitution Day event — to educate people on their rights so they can hold on to them in the future. It's an effort supported by UD’s Departments of History, Political Science and International Relations, Africana Studies, the Biden Institute and the Career Center.

“It is important to understand how current events, like criminal justice reform, relate to the Constitution,” he said. “In order to move forward, I’m a firm believer we need to remember where we came from. We need to learn from the past.”

“We need to know what our rights are so we can defend them,” said UD Department of History Chair Alison Parker. “And also so we can think about ways to expand the rights already enshrined in the Constitution.”

Take the 14th Amendment, one of three Reconstruction-era changes to the Constitution which panelists will explore. This amendment ensured the citizenship of formerly enslaved individuals, but since that time, because it affirms equal protection under the law, “it has allowed for a huge number of different kinds of people to come forward with other kinds of claims far beyond this,” said Alison Parker, panelist and chair of the Department of History at UD. “It is now the basis for the protection of gays to marry and the notion that you could have a right to privacy that might gain you access to birth control and/or abortion — that all comes from an expanded sense of what life and liberty is, under the 14th Amendment.”

The Reconstruction Amendments, which were also responsible for abolishing slavery and guaranteeing the right to vote regardless of race, represent a racially charged period in time that “in many ways replicates our own,” said Dael Norwood, panel moderator and assistant professor of history at UD. In this sense, studying the Constitution should give us a sense of the danger — and also the promise — of the present moment.

“I hope people leave the event with knowledge they can apply to decisions they’re making as political actors, whether that be in the voting booth or in the streets,” said Dael Norwood, assistant professor of history.

“These pieces of legislation represent the promise of multracial democracy and tighter national unity founded around a greater expansion of individual rights as promised by the federal government,” Norwood said. “So that’s a really hopeful vision of the future. It didn’t really work out that way for a variety of reasons we’ll cover at the panel, I’m sure, but that kind of Reconstruction moment is a moment of hope and imagining something new — which is a valuable place to get our heads back into when we’re feeling beset from all sides.”

Additional panelists will include John Martin, assistant professor of political science and philosophy at UD; Wayne Batchis, associate professor of political science and Director of the Legal Studies Program at UD; Theodore Davis, professor of political science and international relations at UD; Judith Ritter, Distinguished Professor of Law and Director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at Widener University’s Delaware campus; and John Hardin Young, lawyer and expert in election law. To register for the two-hour event, which will take place in two parts beginning at 5 p.m., visit forms.gle/uAXj4SmJi4jWVcaRA.

According to organizers, you can expect to walk away with a better understanding of how history is playing out in the present day and, perhaps, a better understanding of the importance of studying and appreciating one’s rights all year round, not just on Sept. 17.

“In darkness is where corruption and violations happen,” Brickner said. “That is why it is important to shine a light on these injustices. That is why it is important to pay attention to the Constitution — each and every day.” 

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