Chris Burns, a resident from Tollgate Lane and member of the Montgomery Diversity and Inclusion Committee, gave the following speech during a recent Committee meeting.
Chris is a historian specializing in President Ulysses S. Grant. He regularly speaks about President Grant’s commitment to equality and how he dealt with African Americans, Native Americans, and the Jewish population during the Civil War and Reconstruction. He also speaks about Civil Rights and the 1960s.
Next Thursday, many of us will be watching or participating in the Montgomery Independence Day parade, celebrating the very document that was signed by our country’s founders 243 years ago. That single document, the Declaration of Independence, gave each one of us the freedom to live in this great city and actively participate in the committee.
Over two centuries later, Independence Day remains a high point in this community where hundreds of residents of all nationalities, religions, and backgrounds, will join in a peaceful celebration.
John Adams captured the critical moment at the beginning in 1776, as he wrote, “This day ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade from one end of this continent to the other, from this day forward, forever more.”
But that important document was only the beginning. James Madison, a president and an owner of enslaved people, understood a significant issue that was left undecided. He had a different take on what was at stake for the 13 colonies. “The real difference of interests,” Madison noted, “lay not between large and small states but between the Northern and Southern states. The institution of slavery and its consequences formed a line of discrimination.”
Somehow, the document that liberated us from the hand of a foreign nation has not yet united us all as one. Slavery was a major issue, but in the final draft of the Constitution, it was neither sanctioned or opposed. It was left for future generations to decide.
Even the former slave Frederick Douglass, for one, believed that the government created by the Constitution “was never, in its essence, anything but an anti-slavery government.” “Abolish slavery tomorrow, and not a sentence or syllable of the Constitution need be altered.”
Freedom came with a cost in 1776, but the mortgage came due in 1865 after upwards of 750,000 Americans and immigrants of many races and backgrounds, lost their lives to ensure this nation would continue and finally ensure freedom for the enslaved race.
Lincoln emancipated those in bondage in the states that defected beginning in 1863. That November at Gettysburg, he reminded the nation that, “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.”
By 1865 the Civil War ended slavery forever. Lincoln hoped it would also end discrimination as he stated in his second inaugural address. “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
On June 19 of that year, Union General Gordon told a group of African-Americans in Texas that they were finally free. And it is that date which they continue to celebrate in their declaration to freedom as they call Juneteenth. Free from bondage, they hoped and prayed that finally, they would celebrate those ideals promised in the original Declaration of Independence. For a time, in the 1870s with Ulysses Grant at the helm, they did experience some of those ideals as free men and women, who held high political and social offices. But it was not to last.
So, our journey moves to New York in 1886, with the dedication of the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France. The inscription found on the tablet in lady liberty’s left hand, states simply JULY 4, 1776.
To help raise money for the pedestal upon which the Statue of Liberty now sits, Emma Lazarus wrote a sonnet, titled New Colossus.
The last few lines invite immigrants to:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
That is exactly how the millions of immigrants after the Civil War felt. By the 1880s, hundreds of Independence Day celebrations were organized by ethnic groups in cities across the country. This was partly because many of their home countries were going through their own fights for freedom and independence. They featured all sorts of entertainment from Polish gymnastics, Highland dancing, Irish republican oratory, and Bohemian folk songs celebrating their own countries heritage.
The Jewish Courier published an editorial in 1914 that celebrated immigrants who came to the U.S. “because they coveted a land where all men would be equal.” It claimed the holiday was by then “chiefly a holiday for immigrants, who still believe in those ideals and are ready to fight for them.” And for the next few years during WWI, they fought and died by the millions.
They too had experienced, as our declaration states “a long train of abuses and usurpations, to reduce them under absolute Despotism.” So, they migrated here passed Lady Liberty with the hope of gaining their freedom from persecution.
The journey then leads us to Washington DC 56 years ago this summer, when hundreds of thousands of African Americans and many whites, marched to finally force the country to come to grips with the fact that freedom was still not universal.
As part of his speech, now known as the “I have a dream” speech, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. began with a celebration of the 100 anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, but he quickly ventured back to the beginning.
He said, “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. Many of our white brothers have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. When we allow freedom to ring, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men, and white men, Jews, and Gentiles, Protestants, and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
But the journey did not end in 1963. Still, another Declaration of Independence passed on July 26, 1990, with the passage of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). Activists fought for these rights for more than 80 years before Congress approved the measure. The blind and deaf Miracle Worker Helen Keller was among those that fought long and hard for the inclusion of people with disabilities.
The ADA has had a positive impact as we now see Braille signs on elevator and restroom doors and her audio announcements on public transportation, which offers them more independence and freedom.
American Muslims also celebrate the holiday with the understanding that despite the current threats to their rights and liberties as Americans, those threats too may be conquered if our nation will rededicate its commitment to ensuring liberty and justice for all.
Our journey from 1776 has come full circle. As we cheer the colorful floats, listen to the patriotic bands and celebrate the diverse groups marching by, we will remember that in this time of extreme political divisions, we are united with the task that links us inextricably with the courage of the founding fathers, Lincoln, King, Keller and even Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on the bus in Alabama over 60 years ago.
Rosa said Aptly, “I would like to be known as a person who is concerned about freedom and equality and justice and prosperity for all people. Racism is still with us. But it is up to us to prepare our children for what they will have to meet, and, hopefully, we shall overcome.”