Dallas — We have a crisis in civic education in the United States of America.
“Only one-third of Americans can name all three branches of the government, and one-third can name none of them,” says Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
His mission is to help change that.
The National Constitution Center is a nonpartisan institution chartered by Congress to educate Americans about this crucial document. And, as education extends well beyond the classroom, Rosen will be in Dallas on Wednesday, Oct. 10 collaborating with hip-hop theater artist and former Dallas resident Will Power; DJ Reborn; designer Kate Ducey; and the Cry Havoc Theater Company, in “What Makes a Citizen?” a creative, experimental, multi-disciplinary program of music, theater, and poetry and the history of the Fourteenth Amendment. The event is presented by the Dallas Institute and Ignite/Arts Dallas.
The Fourteenth Amendment, which protects citizens’ rights and establishes equal protection for all under the law, is a particularly salient topic in these complicated, politically charged times.
“The Fourteenth Amendment is at the center of all of the most contested questions in our constitutional debates: immigration, affirmative action, marriage equality, abortion choice,” says Rosen, who is also a contributing editor to The Atlantic magazine and a professor at George Washington University. “It’s urgently important for citizens to understand this history, to listen to arguments on all sides of the constitutional questions and make up their own minds.”
Rosen wants people to understand that while the Civil War may technically have freed enslaved people, Lincoln’s vision for the equality of all men wasn’t secured with Union victory. “People should know how hard President [Andrew] Johnson tried to prevent civil rights,” Rosen says.
It took the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, to codify Lincoln’s ideals when it granted all people who were born or naturalized in the United States citizenship, and all people on American soil equal protections under the law.
And even then, people pushed back. “I’ll talk about the history of the Supreme Court’s efforts to eviscerate the amendment,” says Rosen. “When Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, the Supreme Court struck it down, saying that Congress had no power to pass it.”
The pressure on the amendment has continued. In 1896, Plessy vs. Ferguson upheld segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine that wasn’t overturned until 1954, with Brown vs. Board of Education. And it took a yet another civil rights movement before discrimination was ostensibly officially ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
And we’re still squabbling over this amendment. For example, while the equal protection clause applies to all individuals on American soil, citizens or not, this is being tested in the current battle over treatment of undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers.
The Constitution is difficult to change but it can be challenged, as it has been throughout history by grassroots movement and protest. “All the greatest moments of constitutional change have begun at the grassroots level,” says Rosen. “The achievements of the post-Civil War amendments, the activism of abolitionists, the Civil Rights movement, all began on the ground.” The Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, sat quietly ignored until modern gun-rights advocates started agitating. “The protection for the right to bear arms also began at the state level in the 1980s and ‘90s and was recognized by the Supreme Court.”
In other words, he says, “The constitution does not belong to the courts at all. Its meaning is ultimately defined by ‘we the people,’ and that’s why education at the local level is so important.”
The public seems to be waking up to this. Since the National Constitution Center launched its interactive website in 2015, it has had 19 million hits, making it one of the top museum sites in the country. The center also produces a podcast, We the People.
And now, Rosen and his collaborators are trying out another, unconventional way of teaching history; it will be a freewheeling artistic expression. “What Makes A Citizen?” will be rehearsed once, then the group will wing it.
Will Power is the hip-hop theater artist who was previously on the faculty at Southern Methodist University Meadows School of the Arts and playwright-in-residence at Dallas Theater Center, which premiered his musical Stagger Lee in 2012; in December, DTC will stage his play Fetch Clay, Make Man, which is loosely inspired by the real life friendship of Muhammed Ali and Stepin Fetchit. Cry Havoc Theater Company is the group that has, for five years, produced award-winning devised and verbatim theater created by an ensemble of high school students from around North Texas. They most recently presented Babel, which dealt with gun violence, in the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project. DJ Reborn is an NYC-based DJ; and Kate Ducey is a scenice designer who created projection design for Cara Mía Theatre Company’s Where Earth Meets the Sky.
“This is a remarkable creative team and we’re trying something new and experimental,” says Rosen. “It’s meant to be improvisational, engaging, and, we hope, a way of really exciting the audience about learning about these things. I’m really excited about what should be a meaningful experience.”