What a strange independence day. Unlike most of the bbq and firework and card game filled memories of previous July 4ths, this time America is under threat in a way it hasn’t been since 1918. Of course, in addition to the pandemic currently raging, we are in the midst of a societal reckoning around racism, slavery, and police power. Indeed, the most famous words from the Declaration of Independence has never been more relevant:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Indeed, though all men may be created equal, most (all?) of the signatories to this declaration either did not believe the words written here or did not believe those of African or Native extraction were men (all three of the “unalienable rights” enumerated here were regularly violated for native and African peoples). And, of course, they did not believe women were equally entitled to liberty or the pursuit of happiness if such were at odds with their male guardian’s desires. Nevertheless, the declaration of these rights (later formally acknowledged for African Americans, Native peoples, and women in the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th amendments to the constitution) serve as a projection of ideals against which America can measure itself. Often overlooked, however, are the following sentences that lay out the justification for rebellion against an oppressive state:
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Under the parameters laid out here, protest (even open rebellion!) against cities, counties, and States that continuously use their police powers to harass, oppress, imprison, and kill those not considered true heirs to the promises of the Declaration (equality of all and a respect for the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) is not only justified, but also celebrated! The most American thing about our current wave of protests against police power and unjust oppression is how closely it matches the self-perception of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence that fateful day 244 years ago. Indeed, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. explicitly makes this point in his “I have a Dream” speech. It is worth quoting his words at length:
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
King preached these words 57 years ago, and yet the sentiment (if not the exact circumstances) continue to ring true. While most of the overt, explicit racism typified by Jim Crow laws and by George Wallace’s four attempts at the presidency (1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976) have been eliminated, the systemic and structural oppression of African Americans remains with us. In many ways, this implicit and systemic racism is harder to combat because (by definition) it is the kind of thing white people can’t see because they do not experience it. That doesn’t change the effects on people of color, but it does tend to make people handle this topic in political rather than ethical terms. Take this quiz from Pew to find out exactly how different folks in America see race.
The question of whether the American project is, in itself, oppressive and racist or whether there exists in the American founding the resources to achieve a full flowering of freedom and equality is currently being addressed by two groups of scholars at the 1619 project and the 1776 project, respectively. I don’t really have a dog in this fight (I actually don’t think the American Revolution qualifies as a just war, so I am sure I would have been a loyalist), though I think the (by far) most effective strategy for change is to follow in the steps of King and Douglass and call America to adhere to its founding ideals. I want to end this brief reflection with the most famous words spoken by the greatest American president:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
May it be so. Amen.