Thus it is fitting that the evolution of Constitution Day has been a struggle to commemorate the formation and signing of the Constitution of the United States itself. Though the “official” signing of the Constitution (still a matter of historic discussion) was September 17, 1787, it was not until 217 years later, in 2004, that the U.S. Congress actually established September 17 as Constitution Day. In fact, Congress framed the date, not as a day to honor the signers, but as an occasion to “recognize all who, by coming of age or by naturalization, have become US citizens.”
And herein lies the tale of the evolution of Constitution Day – and Week. In the late 1930’s William Randolph Hearst, who bought ink by the barrel, advocated a day to celebrate US citizenship. In 1940 the Congress created “I Am an American Day” to be celebrated on the third Sunday in May. On February 29, 1952, President Harry Truman signed into law “Citizenship Day” which was a replacement for “I am an American Day.” A few years later, on August 2, 1956, Congress requested that the President proclaim the week beginning September 17 and ending September 23 as “Constitution Week.” And thus, in 2004 the day morphed into “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day”, passed by the U.S. Congress as what has become the incontrovertible legacy of Senator Robert C Byrd (D-WV).
The context in which Senator Byrd led the fight in Congress sets the stage. The nation was still reeling from 9/11 and the ensuing military action in the Middle East when Senator Byrd took to the Senate floor to propose a policy amendment to a hefty spending bill – a practice deemed highly inappropriate by his Senate colleagues. Byrd’s push for establishment of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day rose from deep conviction, as seen and heard in this clip: (http://blogs.rollcall.com/wgdb/constitution-day-a-byrd-legacy-video)
To ensure that his policy would be implemented Byrd included the provision that educational institutions that receive federal funding be required to teach about the Constitution or to conduct Constitution-related programs each year on September 17.
Over the past decade federal agencies, including the Library of Congress, the National Archives and Records Administration, the National Constitution Center among others have created some excellent online resources based on their unique collections and expertise
- http://www.constitutionfacts.com/us-constitution-kids/ – graded activities, activities for adults, and a call number to order a pocket Constitution onlinePublic interest in the issues and a commitment to provide high quality, integrated programming has led three Minnesota institutions – the Minnesota Supreme Court Historical Society, Learning Law and Democracy and the Minnesota Historical Society – to collaborate on sponsorship of what has evolved into Constitution Week, a commemoration to be celebrated September 14-18, 2015.
Focus of the Minnesota institutions’ Constitution Week programming is on students and teachers and on access to free online resources about the Constitution and the “long struggle to extend the liberties established in our Constitution to everyone in America.” Updated information can be found on the Constitution Week Twitter feed, #MNCONSTWEEK.
Constitution Week is also a good chance to check out “Today in Civil Liberties History,” (http://todayinclh.com ). Launched just last year by scholar, writer and civil libertarian Sam Walker (http://samuelwalker.net/bio/, this web-based calendar features civil liberties events for each day of the year. Entries range from free speech to reproductive rights to national security, racial justice, gender equity and more. The site also offers links to related resources, including relevant readings, videos, descriptions of historic sites and events
Today in Civil Liberties History affirms and confirms Molly Ivins’ comment. This post is intended to reach readers in time enough to put Constitution Day 2015 on the calendar for the classroom, the book club, the place of worship or other gathering place of those “who, by coming of age or by naturalization, have become US citizens” – and of those who struggle mightily to achieve that goal.