The most ringing phrase in all of American history is Thomas Jefferson's bold statement in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal." Translating that aspiration into law has been a challenge. At the time the Constitution was adopted, most Americans did not have equal rights under the law. But over the course of 220 years, we have struggled, in fits and starts, to make that aspiration a reality.
America's most profound achievement in this quest was of course the abolition of African slavery, which was attained only after a bitter and bloody Civil War that cost the lives of more than 600,000 Americans. Another fundamental milestone was the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which for the first time guaranteed women the right to vote.
But despite these and other achievements, at the end of World War II the United States was still basically a white, male, Protestant society. Every president in American history had been a white male Protestant. Every justice of the Supreme Court had been a white male. The United States Senate in 1945 was made up of 98 white males. Only one woman (Frances Perkins) and no African-American, Hispanic-American or Asian-American had ever served in a president's cabinet.
In 1945, racial segregation was rampant, women were once again (after the War) relegated to the kitchen, Jews often felt the need to change their names (an early version of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell") in an effort to avoid religious discrimination, Japanese-Americans were struggling to put their devastated lives back together after finally being released from American internment camps, and gays were buried so deep in the closet that most people were certain they had never met one.
In the 65 years since the end of World War II, however, we have made significant strides. Here is an illustrative timeline of our progress:
1948: President Harry Truman orders the desegregation of the armed forces.
1954: The Supreme Court rules in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation is "inherently" unequal and therefore unconstitutional.
1959: Hiram Fong is elected as the nation's first Asian-American senator.
1960: John F. Kennedy is elected as the nation's first Catholic president.
1964: Congress enacts the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, religion or gender.
1966: Lyndon Johnson appoints Robert Weaver as the nation's first African-American cabinet secretary.
1967: The Supreme Court rules in Loving v. Virginia that laws prohibiting interracial marriage are unconstitutional.
1967: Lyndon Johnson appoints Thurgood Marshall as the nation's first African-American Supreme Court justice.
1968: Congress enacts the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which prohibits racial and religious discrimination in housing.
1970: The Supreme Court holds for the first time a law that discriminating against women violates the Equal Protection Clause.
1973: Richard Nixon appoints Henry Kissinger as the nation's first Jewish secretary of state.
1981: Ronald Reagan appoints Sandra Day O'Connor as the nation's first woman Supreme Court justice.
1982: Gerry Studds is elected the nation's first openly-gay member of Congress.
1984: The Democrats nominate Geraldine Ferraro as the nation's first woman vice-presidential candidate of a major political party.
1988: George H.W. Bush appoints Lauro F. Cavazos as the nation's first Hispanic-American cabinet member.
1990: Congress enacts the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability.
1993: The Hawaii Supreme Court rules that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.
1997: Bill Clinton appoints Madeline Albright as the nation's first woman secretary of state.
2000: Bill Clinton appoints Norman Mineta as the nation's first Asian-American cabinet member.
2000: The Democrats nominate Joseph Lieberman as the nation's first Jewish vice-presidential candidate of a major political party.
2001: George W. Bush appoints Colin Powell as the nation's first African-American secretary of state.
2003: The Supreme Court rules in Lawrence v. Texas that the government cannot constitutionally punish gays and lesbians for engaging in same-sex sex.
2007: Keith Ellison is elected as the nation's first Muslim member of Congress.
2008: Barack Obama is elected as the nation's first African-American president.
2009: Barack Obama appoints Sonia Sotomayor as the nation's first Hispanic-American Supreme Court justice.
2010: Congress enacts legislation allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces.
This is an admirable record of progress, and we should be proud as a nation of how far we have come. This is not to say, however, that there have not been setbacks. The defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment and the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act are notable examples. But despite the regressive forces of intolerance, ignorance, and bigotry, Americans have a way of returning to what Lincoln described as "the better angels of our nature."
None of this comes easy. Almost every step forward has been the result of a small but determined group of farsighted Americans who see injustice when others do not, and who then work tirelessly and often courageously to help others see the light. If we do not lose heart and continue to push forward despite the forces of "tradition," fear and prejudice, then we may someday see a woman president, an openly-gay Supreme Court justice, and a Muslim secretary of state. This is, after all, America's promise.