America’s constitutional history is not stored only in the pages of law books, in the deep stacks in the Supreme Court’s ornate library. It can be found in many places and scenes – from the nation’s early days to today. A few examples: a schoolhouse in Kansas, an election polling booth in Florida, a military college in Virginia, an execution chamber in Georgia, a document storage room at the Pentagon, an abortion clinic in Texas, a national bank in Maryland, a bridge over a river in Alabama. And, more recently, the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
Near the end of this month, the Stonewall Inn will mark the 45th anniversary of a series of spontaneous riots at that Greenwich Village bar, a gathering place for gays and lesbians in New York City. Fed up with police harassment, the bar’s patrons fought back – and launched what has become the latest civil rights cause, the movement for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans (the LGBT community).
So far, that community has only one of its historic sites officially marked as a “national historic landmark.” That is the Stonewall Inn. That designation, according to the National Park Service, means that a site has “extraordinary significance in American history.”
Late last month, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell went to the Stonewall Inn site to announce what she called a “theme study” that will explore other locales that will be recognized for the part they played in the gay rights revolution.
“We know,” she said, “that there are other sites, like Stonewall Inn, that have played important roles in our nation’s ongoing struggle for civil rights. The contributions of men, minorities and members of the LGBT community have been historically underrepresented in the National Park Service, and the LGBT theme study will help ensure that we understand, commemorate and share these key chapters in our nation’s complex and diverse history.”
Americans are a people who treasure their collected memories, and flock to places where those memories are stored. How much more meaningful the Civil War becomes if one walks along the ridges at Gettysburg, or stands before Wilmer McLean’s farmhouse at Appomattox, where that war ended. How stirring is the thought of a momentous summer in Philadelphia when one gazes at the green felt-draped desks at the State House, where the Constitution was written.
Whether one thinks of the Constitution as a document that speaks to a nation only in the meanings it had in 1787 or dares to speak in a more modern idiom, it actually is – to borrow a phrase from Oliver Wendell Holmes – “the skin of a living thought,” enclosing the story of a maturing nation. That is not a legal abstraction, but a catalog of scenes of striving toward ideals of freedom and equality.
One of the missions of the National Park Service is to pick out those scenes, and turn them into historic shrines. The Park Service’s director, Jonathan B. Jarvis, has said that his agency is “America’s storyteller and protector of the places where America’s history can be found.” In two years, the Park Service will mark its one-hundredth birthday, and Jarvis has vowed that the agency will approach that anniversary by committing itself anew “to sharing more diverse stories of our nation’s history, particularly the struggle for civil rights.”
The new study of the places where gay rights history has been made is part of that effort, and maybe not entirely as a coincidence, it will get started just as the nation debates anew whether that version of a civil rights revolution has gone far enough, or too far too fast. Whatever the near-term prospects for that revolution, the new plan to designate its landmarks is an effort at imagining constitutional development as something more than words on parchment, and thus turns Interior Secretary Sally Jewell into today’s Constitution-maker.
Lyle Denniston is the National Constitution Center’s adviser on constitutional literacy. He has reported on the Supreme Court for 56 years, currently covering it for SCOTUSblog, an online clearinghouse of information about the Supreme Court’s work.
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