As a young lawyer, Wallace B. Jefferson appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court to argue a case. That evening, he visited the Lincoln Memorial to reflect on the enduring strength of the Constitution.
“Here I was, the descendant of a slave who was owned by a Texas judge, arguing before the nation’s highest court,” recalls Jefferson, now chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court.
Jefferson tells that story in an introduction to Oyez, Oyez, Oh Yay!, an interactive civics education project produced by the State Bar of Texas. His story remains relevant now as we observe Celebrate Freedom Week.
Years ago, the Texas Legislature passed a bill establishing a dedicated week for Texas public schools to focus on the intent, meaning, and importance of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, in their historical contexts. Local school districts generally observe Celebrate Freedom Week during the week in which Sept. 17, Constitution Day, falls.
Why? It’s simple. As Thomas Paine once said, those who hope to reap the blessings of freedom must “undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” Our country’s founders understood this truth well, and they established a system of government that is legitimate only through the consent of free people. And consent implies that the people will be informed of their rights and responsibilities as citizens of this country.
Freedom in this context is important to me and has been for as long as I can remember. One reason I became an attorney is because I realized that getting involved with the law was the best way to effect change, and the Constitution is the bedrock upon which all of our laws rest.
So the question becomes: What can we do to make sure each generation understands our founding documents and the freedoms they protect? How can we help them become informed and engaged citizens as they prepare to vote, serve on juries, and run for elected office?
The State Bar of Texas offers resources designed to help achieve these goals. As president of the bar and the daughter of educators, I’m proud to introduce I was the first. Vote for Me!, a new multimedia program that will teach elementary school students the important “firsts” in U.S. and Texas history that are included as part of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) standards.
The program features animated historical figures such as Susan B. Anthony, Benjamin Franklin, and Thurgood Marshall in animated segments online and in book form, along with supplemental materials for teacher and students. The program, which is available in both English and Spanish, allows for lessons in civics education, citizenship, reading, history, voting, and math. You can explore the program at texasbar.com/iwasthefirst.
I was the First. Vote for Me! is just one offering from the State Bar’s Law Related Education Department, which provides resources to help teachers engage students in entertaining and thought-provoking ways and prepare them for the TEKS standards. Another is Oyez, Oyez, Oh Yay!, which focuses on landmark court decisions that Texas students must know to prepare for assessments in U.S. government and history. Students and teachers can search case summaries, watch short films, and find other helpful resources at texasbar.com/civics.
In the past year, the LRE department has trained more than 7,000 teachers, and it continues to look for new ways to fulfill its mission of supporting law-related education programs that prepare students for responsible citizenship. Learn about these programs and more at TexasLRE.org.
Students’ success in society is the blessing we hope to reap from these educational efforts. This year, during Celebrate Freedom Week, take time to sow the educational seeds of our founding documents and the importance of being an informed citizen in our young people. The harvest will be an informed and engaged citizenry.
Lisa M. Tatum is president of the State Bar of Texas and the founder and owner of LM Tatum, PLLC (The Tatum Law Practice) in San Antonio with a practice that focuses on corporate, education, employment, and public finance law. She may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.