The Constitution In a Cereal Box?

How is America proceeding with plans to commemorate the 200th anniversary next year of the Constitution? According to recent news accounts, Bicentennial Commission Chairman Warren E. Burger, who resigned as chief justice to head up the celebration, seems hung up on the idea of papering the nation with pocket-size copies of the actual text. Burger convinced a big food company to put a copy of the Constitution into every box of its breakfast cereals, and he won’t rest until the Constitution is “on the checkout counter of every supermarket in the U.S.”

The Constitution deserves better than to be treated like detergent. We need to rescue its bicentennial before it becomes a meaningless pageant of national self-congratulation like July 4, 1976, and the recent Statue of Liberty centennial.

The bicentennial of the Constitution requires a different kind of celebration. To be sure, the document’s very endurance, as the oldest continuously functioning governmental charter, is worthy of celebration. But if that’s all we salute, we will squander a peerless opportunity to acquaint millions of Americans with what the Constitution is.

It is least of all a piece of paper, which is why the schemes to put it in cereal boxes, reprint it in telephone books and leave it in hotel rooms beside Gideon Bibles seem so unequal to the occasion.

It is, fundamentally, a set of relationships between the individual and government, forged 200 years ago by human beings on the basis of their own experiences with oppressive leaders — people smarting from such abuses of power as official state religions, midnight raids by the king’s agents and star chamber proceedings.

Those who drafted the Constitution wanted to prevent despotism, and they did so by diffusing power among different branches of government. Amid widespread criticism that even these structural balances did not afford sufficient protection against oppression, the First Congress added 10 amendments, every one of which limits the power of government over the individual.

The Constitution’s genius lies in the fact that these basic principles retain force and vitality in an America vastly changed from the agrarian society of the Framers. It is, in the words of Justice William O. Douglas, a living Constitution, which grows stronger when people use it to vindicate their rights against abusive sheriffs, censorious school boards and imperial presidents.

The stories of these people are the story of the Constitution. People such as Clarence Earl Gideon, the penniless prisoner who insisted on his Sixth Amendment right to be represented by an attorney, and Linda Brown, the black Topeka, Kan., schoolgirl who invoked the Fourteenth Amendment in seeking to attend the same school as white children.

And let’s not sanitize our constitutional history, as the commission came close to doing when it objected to a passage in a musical play that noted: “no women, no freed slaves and no poor men” took part in the drafting of the document.

Let’s celebrate those whose losses paved the way for Linda Brown’s victory — such people as Dred Scott and Homer Plessy, whose one-eighth black ancestry got him ejected in 1892 from a Louisiana railway car reserved for whites — and those who are even today struggling to be included in the constitutional vision.

In short, let’s celebrate the persistent strain of individual courage that translates words on a piece of parchment into advances for human liberty. You can’t put that into a cereal box, but you can shout it from the rooftops, and that’s what the Burger commission should be doing.

The writer is executive director of the Texas Civil Liberties Union.