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Black people, more than any other American group, were responsible for broadening the interpretation of the Constitution to protect individual rights, Harvard Law Professor Derrick A. Bell said Tuesday at the Cambridge Public Library.
Participating in the City of Cambridge's week-long celebration of the Constitution, Bell argued that the Constitution was used primarily to protect property until the fight against slavery and the civil rights movement.
"The major implementation of individual rights for all Americans has come through the efforts by Blacks and their supporters to use the law to eliminate first slavery and then racial discrimination," Bell said in a speech entitled "Victims As Heroes: A Minority Perspective on Constitutional Law."
Although Black challenges to discriminatory laws prompted the change Constitutional interpretation, other groups have also benefited, Bell said.
"The injustices that so dramatically diminish the rights of Blacks because of race also point up serious disadvantage suffered by many whites who lack money and power," he said. "Discrimination based on race provides a dramatic focus that reveals more subtle though hardly less pernicious disadvantage suffered by many whites."
Bell also read several excerpts from his new book, And We Are Not Saved, which includes the Chronicles of Geneva Crenshaw, an imaginary Black civil rights lawyer.
During the course of the book, due to be released today--the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution--Crenshaw begins to doubt that Blacks can use the law to help gain social, economic, and political equality.
Bell illustrated his belief in the changing nature of Constitutional interpretation with an excerpt from his book where Crenshaw visits the Constitutional Convention.
The imaginary lawyer tries unsucessfully to keep slavery out of the Constitution. But the framers are more concerned with protecting the property rights of slave owners than with protecting the individual rights of the slaves.
The city's celebration of the Constitution will continue all this week with a series of programs entitled "Reading the Constitution," which are co-sponsored by the Cambridge Public Library.
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