On the Fourth of July, as on all national holidays, we are encouraged to think about the men and women who have fought and died for our freedoms; the likes of Washington, Lincoln and all the soldiers who have fought in our wars. This standard roster of heroes is venerable, but it is far from complete.
It is not just the Founding Fathers, a few great presidents and those in the military who have established and maintained our liberties. It is also outsiders and dissenters who demanded that America live up to the promises in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – the abolitionists, the suffragettes, the labor organizers, the muckraking journalists, the crusading lawyers, the advocates for women’s rights and more. It is they who challenged slavery, who won the right to vote for women, who fought for fair wages and humane working hours, who used the law to expand the scope of free thought and action, who turned promises into reality.
For the last few years, our country has been marking a series of 50th anniversaries of the great triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement, so it is especially timely to appreciate how the push to establish equality for black Americans made all of us more free. Some look back to mid-century America with fond nostalgia, but racism and discrimination were pervasive and entrenched in those days and change happened only because a few largely unsung heroes were willing to put their lives on the line for liberty.
For blacks, the American South at that time was as cruelly oppressive as apartheid-ruled South Africa. Those whose skin was the wrong color were denied the right to travel freely and safely, to vote for their government officials, to run businesses without unfair interference, to live where they chose, to go to the best schools, to marry outside their racial group, to walk, sit, sleep or eat in the same places as white citizens. The justice system was rigged against them and they had no protection from vigilantes who raped, robbed and lynched them. Whites, for their part, were expected to conform to the racist order, and if they bucked the system, they were made to suffer, as well.
This was the reality in the land of the free and the home of the brave and generations of political leaders did nothing but ignore it.
Then, in 1955, a weary black woman refused to give up the seat she had taken in the white section of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. In 1957, one lone black girl walked into Little Rock’s Central High School amid the jeers of a furious mob. In 1958, a few young blacks sat down at the whites-only counter at the Dockum Drug Store in Wichita, Kan., and refused to leave. In 1961, black and white students boarded buses and rode through the Deep South, risking their lives to enter all-white bus terminal lobbies and use restrooms and water fountains that were off-limits to blacks. In 1964, 1,000 white college students went south to teach in “freedom schools” and register blacks to vote. In 1965, 600 peaceful protesters walked across a bridge in Selma, Ala., and were met by a phalanx of cops ready to stop them by any means.
Throughout those years, employing boycotts, sit-ins, marches and countless individual acts of courage, citizens used nonviolent tactics to affirm their “unalienable rights.” In all instances, these people were met with resistance. Angry crowds surrounded them, spit at them, beat them. Police refused to defend them and, in many cases, came at them with clubs, whips, cattle prods, attack dogs, tear gas and fire hoses. Black churches, buses and homes were burned. Civil rights activists were murdered. But they would not relent. Eventually, shamed into action, the federal government backed them up with the force of law.
Rosa Parks, John Lewis, James Meredith, Fannie Lou Hamer, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, Medgar Evers and so many others showed bravery as great as that of any soldier. They stood firm, sacrificed and, in many cases, died for our freedom.
This Independence Day, think of them and stand in awe.