Mark Kennedy

Mark Kennedy. (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

During a summer vacation to Washington, D.C., when I was a boy, my family and I visited the National Archives. I still recall the awe I felt in the cavernous hall built to house just three sheets of paper — America’s Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. This trio of parchments embodies the ideals – so audacious at the time they were written – we have never perfectly practiced but continue to strive to do so. Today, Sept. 17, Constitution Day, the Charters of Freedom still serve as the benchmark by which all segments of our society measure civil rights, testament to their enduring substance and timelessness.

The flaws of our nation’s founders do not diminish the boldness of their collective vision. Consider that our founding ideals were crafted while monarchs reigned in Europe, the czar ruled Russia, shoguns controlled Japan and the Manchu Dynasty governed China. The ideas that all are created equal and entitled to the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were radical for their age and they unleashed shock waves that reverberated through time and far beyond our borders.

Since the ratification of our Constitution in 1788, France has had five of its own, two empires and two monarchs. In contrast, we have never altered our ideals or the principles upon which our nation was founded but have instead sought to more authentically realize them. From abolishing slavery to extending the right to vote to expanding civil rights protections as recently as this summer, we continue to reference our founding documents in affirming our rights.

Undeniably, our nation’s discriminations have been numerous and overcome only through sustained effort. While the injustices inflicted on Irish Catholics cannot be equated with our shameful treatment of American Indians or Black people, the Irish were persecuted in the U.S. even as freedom of religion was guaranteed. They fought in our Civil War but were greeted with “no Irish need apply” signs when seeking civilian work. They faced the scourge of the Ku Klux Klan. Nearly two centuries passed before our nation looked beyond its prejudices to elect an Irish Catholic president.

John F. Kennedy’s path to the presidency – a breakthrough for Catholics – is instructive. On accepting his party’s nomination in 1960, Kennedy stated, “We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future.” As Winston Churchill said on taking office some 20 years ago: “If we open a quarrel between the present and the past, we shall be in danger of losing the future. Today, our concern must be with that future. For the world is changing. The old era is ending. The old ways will not do.” Kennedy’s focus on the future, his championing of civil rights as a moral cause to which all must contribute, and the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., propelled America to action when Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency following Kennedy’s death.

Recent months have harkened back to the civil unrest of the 1960s and the fight for racial justice. Sadly, more than 150 years after slavery was outlawed – a painfully protracted process that ultimately took a civil war to end – the struggle to remove barriers to equity continue. Recognizing this work is never done, we must also recognize that, in Churchill’s words, the old ways will not do. Our concern must be the future.

A fundamental step toward equality is ensuring all people – regardless of race, ethnic identity, beliefs or backgrounds – can pursue a higher education.

Countless studies show opportunity and improved social and economic outcomes are directly tied to obtaining a college degree. COVID-19 has again laid bare the sharp divide between those who have college degrees and those who do not. The pandemic has disproportionately hurt communities of color in large part because they do not proportionately benefit from higher education.

Lighting a candle for the future by treating higher education as a public good – and something increasingly essential for all in our rapidly changing world – will lift up those left behind and strengthen our nation, allowing it to live up to the boldness of its founding ideals. Everything we need to move forward collectively as a people can be found in those three sheets of paper. Equality. Life. Liberty. The pursuit of happiness. Through the centuries these ideals have advanced the United States and set the standard for the civil rights campaigns that have shaped our country. By looking to the future with these audacious ideas serving as our beacons, we will keep the American Dream alive and thriving.

Mark R. Kennedy is president of the University of Colorado and a former three-term U.S. congressman.

Mark R. Kennedy is president of the University of Colorado and a former three-term U.S. Congressman.