What Does “all men are created equal” Mean?

Morgan Keith

Some have all too quickly used the term “post-racial” to describe America now that a black president has been elected and re-elected for a second term. It will take much more time than just eight years to reverse the wrongdoings of centuries past.


“All men are created equal” is a phrase that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. In one sense, it points to the inherited freedoms and liberties that all humans are granted when they are born. This was an essential component of the Founding Fathers’ dissent from the British crown. They thought that America’s treatment as colonies, formed purely to establish greater wealth for its ruler under mercantilism, was unjust. They decided that their claims must be put to pen and paper, and in doing so, the phrase was officially stamped into existence for the rest of history to observe and analyze.

During recent discussions regarding race, Thomas Jefferson, the very man who authored the Declaration of Independence, has come under scrutiny. This conversation was sparked after neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan violence overtook Charlottesville (Smith 2017), the same location of Jefferson’s Monticello mansion.

Not only did Jefferson own slaves, but he did not consider them, or women for that matter, to be included in the nonnegotiable rights he demanded for himself. This hypocrisy was present in his writings. In Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia, he asserts both the psychological and physiological superiority of the white race in comparison to their counterparts. Jefferson himself owned hundreds of slaves and only freed very few in his lifetime. He notes that despite the views that he holds, morality naturally opposes the institution of slavery. The contradiction presented by this Founding Father would fuel activists and black politicians and give them purpose in their fight for equality. Jefferson’s contradictory thoughts and practice gave them a solid platform and slogan to criticize pro-slavery and inequality arguments with air-tight evidence and humanity on their side.

In the age of fighting for civil rights, “all men are created equal” was reborn and expanded from its narrow former definition. Political and activist greats like Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois, and many more worked to wash away the tainted meaning created by their slave-owning predecessors. This dynamic change in the phrase over time demonstrated the ways in which it was possible for the Declaration to evolve and adapt to new circumstances. The message has evolved, and most Americans today agree, to include all persons under this clause of equality for all regardless of race or gender.

Over time, it has been observed that just because new laws have been written and signed, they have not necessarily been enforced. W.E.B. Du Bois, a black scholar and activist, was born only five years after Abraham Lincoln passed the Emancipation Proclamation. Unlike Booker T. Washington, Du Bois did not support gradualism as a solution to the tense racial climate during the civil rights movement. He advocated for both people of color and women’s civil liberties. For in his mind, “the cost of liberty is less than the price of repression” (Du Bois 1909, 383). Rallying others around him and his cause, Du Bois obtained a degree from Harvard and co-founded the NAACP in 1909 in response to mass lynchings. The organization continues his work to this day and hopes to achieve equality through democratic processes.

Although there is much more work to be done regarding racism, the NAACP has helped accomplish several milestones since its creation. Perhaps most notably, the organization helped overturn Plessy v. Ferguson, lobbied to pass both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and has led the modern day fight against racial profiling, gun violence, and unlawful incarceration in the courts. Despite the racial tensions in America that hardened Du Bois and eventually caused him to move to Ghana, the NAACP is still in existence, arguably as persistent and alert as ever before.

Du Bois passed the torch and heavily influenced one of the most important people in NAACP history: Martin Luther King Jr. During one of the times King was arrested, he had a letter transcribed and addressed to Du Bois from his cell in Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, asking him for help (King Jr., Oct. 20, 1960). King served as a role model to all those involved in the civil rights movement. His positions on nonviolent resistance and memorable speeches motivated African Americans, especially those residing in the South, to persevere and demand that the non-discrimination legislation signed by Lyndon B. Johnson be honored. His ultimate goal was to enforce that all men be equal in a political sense and guaranteed that their vote counts just as much as any other. Unfortunately, King would never see the Civil Rights Act of 1968, his influence on South Africa’s civil rights movement, and our first black president.

Some have all too quickly used the term “post-racial” to describe America now that a black president has been elected and re-elected for a second term. While President Barack Obama did seek restorative justice for African Americans, it will take much more time than just eight years to reverse the wrongdoings of centuries past. He aimed to elevate legislation to a new level, stating, “An emphasis on universal, as opposed to race-specific, programs isn’t just good policy; it’s also good politics” (Obama 2006, 293). Obama carried the theme that “all men are created equal” throughout his time in this position, citing it in his inaugural address, writings, and farewell address.

It is a common fear that the concept “all men are created equal” could take a back seat in politics during the Trump presidency. In June 2017, a white nationalist rally was organized in Charlottesville, Virginia, and encountered  Black Lives Matter supporters participating in a counter-protest. Violence ensued, with people on both sides being wounded. The second day of protest in Charlottesville, a man drove his car into a crowd killing Heather Heyer, a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. When President Trump came to address these events, he concluded that there were “very bad people” (Merica 2017) on both sides, placing blame on both the white nationalists and Black Lives Matter organizers.

The black community waits in anticipation for what’s next, a type of fear that is rarely, if ever, experienced by their white counterparts. Even if legislation is passed that harms certain class members that are white, history shows that the consequences for black people are magnified. Despite recent setbacks, the NAACP, Black Lives Matter, and other organizations rise up in resistance, reaching to reclaim “all men are created equal” so that they may finally experience it as truth.


Morgan Keith is a junior studying investigative reporting at the University of Missouri. She currently works as a beat reporter at the Columbia Missourian.

Works Cited


Du Bois, W.E.B. 1909. John Brown. Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs & Company.

King, Martin Luther King Jr. 1960. Letter to W.E.B. W.E.B. Du Bois Papers. UMass Amherst, n.d. http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/pageturn/mums312-b151-i179/#page/1/mode/1up

Merica, Dan. 2017. “Trump says both sides to blame amid Charlottesville backlash.” CNN.com. http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/15/politics/trump-charlottesville-delay/index.html

Obama, Barak. 2006. The Audacity of Hope. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Smith, David. 2017. “To understand the US’s complex history with slavery, look to Thomas Jefferson.” The Guardian, August 18, 2017.

What Does “all men…

by Morgan Keith time to read: 6 min