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Reflections on Organic Act Day

June 12, 2005 — On this Flag Day, a special way to honor our nation's flag may be to reflect on the constitutional documents spawned by that flag for the Virgin Islands. The spawnings have led to a commemorative day known as Organic Act Day. To most Virgin Islanders knowledgeable of our history, Organic Act Day generally refers to June 22nd, the day in 1936 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Organic Act of the Virgin Islands of the United States. 'Organic Act' is the traditional term in the United States for an act of the Congress that organizes and grants power to the government of a territory. Eighteen years and one month later –– on July 22, 1954, the Revised Organic Act of the Virgin Islands became the territory's second Congressionally-enacted constitution, this time signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Revised Organic Act, with amendments added over the last 50 years, remains today the constitution of the territory. As such, it has been the subject of a year-long fiftieth anniversary commemoration, collaboratively observed by the Virgin Islands Humanities Council and the University of the Virgin Islands. In a way, 'Organic Act Day' has evolved to refer to both the original and the revised Organic Acts since, as the name reminds us, the second was meant to be a needed revision of the first. Accordingly, the reflections in this article deal with both. It is very fitting that the first Organic Act should always be celebrated because, other than the proclamation ending slavery, no single action in Danish/USVI history has been more democratic and revolutionary than the 1936 Organic Act. It was the long-overdue authentication of the 1848 emancipation by finally guaranteeing political freedoms such as speech and press and granting local political power to the majority of the people. In 1935, due to the continuation of Danish laws even after 18 years of U.S. rule, only 1200 of 23,000 Virgin Islanders had been eligible to vote. The Organic Act's removal of economic qualifications gave domestic workers, manual laborers, and masses of others who had previously been unable to vote, the same power on election day as the high-income and propertied persons who had long enjoyed the exclusive right of voting. Eighteen years later, revisions of the Revised Organic Act of 1954 broadened the suffrage even more by removing the English literacy requirement of the older Act, and added provisions, such as the return of U.S. internal revenue taxes on territorially-produced goods, to afford greater economic support for the local government. The 1954 Act's best known revision, however, totally changed the almost-century-old legislative structure of the USVI by establishing one joint Legislature of the Virgin Islands, headquartered in the capital city, replacing the separate Municipal Councils each district had maintained. The legislative revision produced some noteworthy achievements. There is greater unity and cooperation in the form of territory-wide political parties and agencies, resulting in more territorial group and personal relationships. There is less duplication of governmental institutions and services, even though the geographical separateness of the islands and traditional rivalries serve mightily to frustrate such undertakings. However, the relatively reduced autonomy that St. Croix has experienced during the last fifty years continues to be a political sore in need of sympathetic and sensitive remediation. The Revised Organic Act of 1954 was a great disappointment in the executive and federal areas, continuing a presidentially-appointed governor, a lack of Congressional representation, and no authorization for constitutions other than those passed by the Congress. Subsequent legislation met those conspicuous needs, in 1968, 1972, and 1976 respectively. As a result, many of the issues now confronting us may seem to some to be smaller in magnitude, and are more locally-focused and thus more emotional. As we prepare to create a new constitution, our third attempt since receiving such authorization in 1976, it may be wise to remember that successful constitution writing often requires compromise. No group or constituency usually gets all it wants, but each usually gets something it needs. Remember, for example, the compromises that enabled the creation of the United States Constitution. The best known was the Great Compromise, which allowed all states equality in the Senate, but granted the more populous states greater representation in the House of Representatives. Another, a horrible example of infamy known as the Three-fifths Compromise, allowed slave states a reduction of their taxes in return for a similar reduction of their population representation by counting only three-fifths of their slaves. Thankfully, this latter compromise was invalidated by the 13th and 14th Amendments. We have issues that will require similar trades. For example, there are persons in St. Croix who seem taken with the idea of transferring the capital there. St. Thomians may well wish to remain firm in thinking that Charlotte Amalie has been the capital of the Danish/USVI for a total of 217 years; why should it yield to Christiansted, which was the capital for only 116 years? On the other hand, there are those in St. Thomas who seem bent on having every single institution of the territorial government on St. Thomas. Crucians may justifiably ask why should the proposed Supreme Court of the VI not be located on St. Croix? Does every substantial institution of our territorial government have to be in the capital? As we reflect on Organic Act Day and the political power, it first bestowed, may we aim to be equal to the task of exercising that power wisely in the political undertakings we now face.

Editor's note: Dr. Krigger is a Professor Emerita of History. This commentary was submitted on behalf of the UVI Ad Hoc Committee for the Revised Organic Act of 1954, of which she is a member.
Editors note:We welcome and encourage readers to keep the dialogue going by responding to Source commentary. Letters should be e-mailed with name and place of residence to source@viaccess.net.

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