Independence Day commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776. Although the vote for independence took place on July 2nd, the Continental Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence two days later.
The tradition of setting off fireworks on the 4th of July began in Philadelphia on July 4, 1777, during the first organized celebration of Independence Day. In 1781, Massachusetts became the first state to make July 4th an official state holiday. In 1870, the U.S. Congress made July 4th a federal holiday; in 1941, the provision was expanded to grant a paid holiday to all federal employees.
Independence Day—July 4th—has largely become a day to focus on leisure activities and retail sales. This year, Independence Day can be more than a day to barbecue and drink, watch fireworks, and swim.
For many Americans, July 4th gives us a chance to reflect on the wonder and success of America as one of the longest-standing democratic republics on the planet, while simultaneously acknowledging our past failures. I suggest that this year we take a look at ourselves, take a look at our country, and celebrate it for what it can be while also recognizing where it has fallen short of the ideals in the Declaration of Independence.
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—That to secure theses 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 abolish it . . . .
This year’s Independence Day feels heavy for Black Americans. Just over a year ago, we watched George Floyd being murdered in the streets of Minneapolis as police officer Derek Chauvin jabbed his knee into his neck, stripping him of his dignity. For nearly nine minutes, Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck like a hunter standing over a trophy bear.
Today, people aren’t just out protesting the unjust deaths of Black people at the hands of police, they are protesting the many disparities Black communities face. Disparities in wages, the justice system, loans, housing, education and access to medical care all continue to plague Black communities. And this year, we watched a global pandemic ravage them all over the United States.
So, examining our country’s past, was there ever an Independence Day when Black Americans truly felt included or proud?
Were Black Americans expected to celebrate Independence Day in 1919, during the “Red Summer” when racist attacks were widespread and, in many places, initiated by White servicemen and centered on the 380,000 Black veterans of World War I? Because of their military service, black veterans were seen as a particular threat to Jim Crow and racial subordination according to the Equal Justice Initiative. Indeed, many Black American soldiers returned from the war only to face a near-constant barrage of brutality.
That same year, the Elaine Massacre in Arkansas led to the deaths of nearly 300 Black Americans, including World War I veteran Leroy Johnston. Johnston was critically wounded in France, only to come home and be shot to death alongside his brothers by a white mob. It took over 90 years for Johnston to receive his Purple Heart earned in service to a country that barely recognized his citizenship. Even as he fought under the flag we wave on Independence Day, Johnston was not afforded the basic right to life.
Were Black Americans expected to celebrate in 1896–1965, when the Jim Crow laws undermined their citizenship and voting rights?
Were Black Americans expected to celebrate Independence Day in 1921, a month after the Tulsa race massacre? White mobs murdered men, women and children, using land and air attacks that leveled the 35-block Greenwood district which, at the time, was the wealthiest Black community in the U.S., and left hundreds dead and 10,000 homeless. Estimates of property damage amounted to more than $1.5 million (equivalent to $32.65 million in 2020).
Were Black Americans expected to celebrate in 1965, when Jimmie Lee Jackson was gunned down by a white police officer during a non-violent voting rights protest in Selma?
Were Black Americans expected to celebrate in 1998 after three White men tied a Black man named James Byrd Jr. to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him for miles until his body tore into pieces? Were they to celebrate after news media showed the chalk circles on the roadway that investigators drew to identify the location of his head, torso, arms and legs?
We often fail to see the contradiction that is America. We tend to romanticize the ideals on which our country was founded, yet show a selective amnesia when it comes to moments that are dark and shameful.
It is important to remember that the American Colonies, as well as the nation we now know as the United States of America, did not originate nor expand on unoccupied lands. Before European settlers arrived, scholars estimate that between 2 and 18 million people already occupied the current continental United States. There is much to learn and know about our nation’s treatment of indigenous people (whom we usually call Native Americans). Unfortunately, that treatment includes exploitation and violence dating back to the earliest colonial settlements.
We should also learn and know about the treatment of African Americans, who, despite slavery and ongoing discrimination, have contributed in innumerable ways to the shared nation we now celebrate. A few of these ways are enumerated in my newsletters of December 13, 2020, December 20, 2020, February 14, 2021 and March 28, 2021.
In addition to these populations, America has always been a nation of immigrants. In fact, unless you are a Native American or a descendent of slaves, you or your ancestors are immigrants. Our nation’s nearly 250-year history with immigration ranges from hostility to openly welcoming immigrants under the mantle of our Statue of Liberty at Ellis Island.
While we as a nation take pride in our country’s heritage, we must honestly acknowledge the less-prideful parts of our history. We revere the Declaration of Independence’s aspiration that “all men are created equal . . . “ but we know this goal of equality is still a work in progress. Our history includes difficult truths of our society and laws being far less than equal to all citizens.
In reaction to the “Make America Great Again” campaign, many Blacks wonder, “When was America ever great?” But “great” doesn’t mean “perfect,” as noted in former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s judgment that our Constitution was “defective from the start.”
Our most significant guiding document, rather than the Constitution (which protects property rights), is the Declaration of Independence. Even though written by men who were racists and slave owners who did not believe that everyone should be included in the new nation’s mission statement, the idea on which America was founded is remarkable—that all men are created equal. If our rights are endowed by the Creator, neither Blacks nor any other minority can be excluded and their rights cannot be taken away by arbitrary people.
Too many of our citizens know little, and appreciate less, the history of our country and its context. Educational shortfalls are in part at fault. We learn that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution became the foundation for the greatest governing experiment in human history. But we remain at risk if this is the only view that Americans choose to treasure.
I hope that, on this Independence Day, we will all defend the tenets of the Declaration of Independence and stand up for its guiding principles.
As we go forward from this Fourth of July, I want to acknowledge some of the famous Independence Day speeches in our history.
Charles Sumner, one of the Senate’s most ardent opponents of slavery, spoke on July 4, 1845:
“Nothing resembles God more than that man among us who has arrived at the highest degree of justice. The true greatness of nations is in those qualities which constitute the greatness of the individual.”
Frederick Douglas, the former slave who became one of the nation’s strongest abolitionists and orators, spoke on July 5, 1852 in Rochester, New York:
What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. . . . I say with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! . . . . The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me . . . . The Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.
Charles Francis Adams, son of President John Quincy Adams and grandson of President John Adams, spoke on July 4, 1876:
“Let us labor continually to keep the advance in civilization as it becomes us to do after the struggles of the past, so that the rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which we have honorably secured, may be firmly entailed upon the ever enlarging generations of mankind.”
The human rights proclaimed in 1776 were put forth, not as abstract truths, but as the corner stone of our republic. That we have not lived up to these ideals in the horrors of the past are the choices of men and women of that time—not of the principles that underlie our republic.
We are used to white washing and sanitizing conversations around race and inequality in America. Since July 4, 1776, our country has been at its best when we openly discuss our diverse views, while working together to improve our shared future. We can discuss our joint national history, particularly our missteps as a society, as a means to build our collective will to further improve our nation and to make our society as equitable, honorable, welcoming, safe, and free as possible. Difficult conversations are a way to drive progress, and our national history is no exception. On this July 4th, consider inviting someone unlike you into a difficult conversation.