Robin D. G. Kelley is the Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at the University of California, Los Angeles. His books include the prizewinning Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (2009); Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression (1990); Race Rebels: Culture Politics and the Black Working Class (1994); Yo’ Mama’s DisFunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (1997), which was selected one of the top ten books of the year by the Village Voice; and Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (2002). He is a coauthor of Three Strikes: Miners, Musicians, Salesgirls, and the Fighting Spirit of Labor’s Last Century (2001) and a coeditor of Black, Brown, and Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora (2009), recipient of an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation; and To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans (2005). His most recent book is Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (2012).
I argue that the rise of American democracy took nearly 180 years, and the architects were decidedly not the founding fathers but working people, African Americans, immigrants, women, abolitionists, radicals, and the dispossessed. While the true genius of the drafters of the Constitution and Bill of Rights has been to limit government power so as to preclude the rise of an oligarchy, monarchy, or dictatorship, and to protect fundamental civil rights, they did not establish what we today think of as a democracy—that is popular, unfettered participation of the people in election-based, representative government. As a nation, we don’t achieve a semblance of this until the mid-1960s with the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the enfranchisement of African Americans. Yet, even after 1965, the democratization of the U.S. is still incomplete and, in fact, experiencing a roll back.