Constitution Day, Citizenship Day

This past Sunday, was Constitution Day and Citizenship Day to commemorate the signing of the Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787, and to “recognize all who, by coming of age or by naturalization, have become citizens.”

It was in 1940 that Congress passed a joint resolution authorizing the President to issue a proclamation setting aside the third Sunday in May for public recognition of all who had attained the status of American citizenship.

The designation for this day was “I Am An American Day.”

A few years later (1952), Congress repealed this joint resolution and passed a new law moving the date to Sept. 17 to coincide with the signing on Sept. 17, 1787, of the United States Constitution. The day was still designated as “Citizenship Day.”

West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd in 2004 urged the Congress to change the designation to “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day.” Following the Senator’s recommendation, two new requirements were added in the commemoration of this special day.

The first is that the head of every federal agency provide each employee with educational and training materials concerning the Constitution on Sept. 17. The second is that each educational institution which receives Federal funds should hold a program for students each year on that date (or on the day following if the seventeenth was on a Sunday.)

After Senator Byrd’s proposal became law, I had the opportunity to participate in the annual programs presented for students at Limestone College in South Carolina. Students, faculty, and staff were actively involved. The benefits of this experience were passed on to the broader community through newspaper, radio, and television publicity.

Before that when I was living in Winter Park, Florida, I had the unique opportunity to speak to approximately 75 new United States citizens. I was invited by the Chairman of the Immigration and Naturalization Committee of the Orange County Bar Association. He was a friend and a naturalized citizen who had grown up in Australia.

The setting was a courtroom in the U. S. Courthouse and Federal Building with Patricia C. Fawsett, U.S. District Judge, presiding. The challenge of speaking to this new group of U.S. citizens was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The ceremony involved clergy, a representative of the Department of Justice, the local bar association, Boy Scouts, and numerous patriotic groups.

My remarks were brief and likely briefly remembered. More important, one can hope that when those 75 citizens see the American flag flying in the breeze or join others in the Pledge of Allegiance, they will remember that day in Orlando in December, 1989, as the first time they could proudly proclaim “I am an American!”