An American question on the 4th of July

Thursday, July 3, 2008

One of the most famous and compelling Fourth of July speeches in American history was no flag-waving paean to the glories of Old Glory — it was instead a searing judgment on the nation’s failure to fulfill the promise of liberty and equality proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence.

“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” asked Frederick Douglass in 1852. “I answer; a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless … a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”

Not to spoil the picnic, but what Douglass asked then should be asked again in our own time and in every generation: How wide is the gap between what we say we believe and what we actually practice — and who falls through the cracks?

In this era of flag-pin patriotism, it may strike some as “un-American” to raise this painful question on the most American of holidays. But seen through the lens of our history, nothing could be more American — or more patriotic — than calling on the nation to live up to its ideals.

No one said this better (or lived it more fully) than Martin Luther King Jr. Speaking on the day before an assassin’s bullet silenced his voice, King defined true patriotism this way:

“In 1960, when students all over the South started sitting in at lunch counters … I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream … taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”

What, then, is the Fourth of July to the millions of Americans who await the fulfillment of the founding dream?

To those African-Americans still fighting to overcome the barriers of racism? To those Native Americans still asking for the First Amendment to protect their sacred sites and rituals? To those Muslim Americans, some with sons and daughters fighting for the nation abroad, facing growing discrimination at home? And to those dispossessed, impoverished, and voiceless citizens struggling to survive in the wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth? What, to them, is the Fourth of July?

My answer: A day for remembering that America is a work in progress, a nation continually reshaped by the efforts of Douglass, King and other people of conscience to extend the vision of the Declaration more fully and justly to greater numbers of Americans.

Even when denied the promise of freedom, Americans continue to be inspired by our founding ideals. In Linda Monk’s book Ordinary Americans, Mary Tsukamoto recalls a debate about how to mark the Fourth of July in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. People were divided and confused about what to do. But finally, Mary and many others decided to go ahead with the celebration.

“We had our Fourth of July program,” she writes. “We decided to recite the Gettysburg Address as a verse choir. We had an artist draw a big picture of Abraham Lincoln with an American flag behind him. Some people had tears in their eyes; some people shook their heads and said it was so ridiculous to have that kind of thing recited in a camp. It didn’t make sense, but it was our heart’s cry. We wanted so much to believe that this was a government by the people and for the people and that there was freedom and justice. We need to leave our legacy to America, from our tears, what we learned.”

Mary Tsukamoto is right. Even in our darkest hours, we need to celebrate our ideals. But we should celebrate with eyes wide open to the realities of the past and the challenges of the present. Most of all, we should celebrate by recommitting ourselves to the ongoing task of living up to our pledge of “liberty and justice for all.”

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: E-mail: