CommentaryOne of my relatives told me he did not feel like decorating his house for Independence Day. He isn’t feeling proud to be an American this year.
Being a citizen of a democracy isn’t all watermelon and fireworks.
It’s understandable that July 4, 2020, comes with mixed feelings as nationwide protests illuminate our democracy’s deeply entrenched shadow side. For evidence, one need look no further than the eloquent political document the holiday is named for, the Declaration of Independence.
The U.S. Second Continental Congress declared its freedom from Great Britain on July 2, 1776. The declaration explained their reasoning for doing so to the world and was authored mainly by Thomas Jefferson and approved July 4. Its position forms the foundation of our country: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that governments are instituted to secure these rights and when any form of government becomes destructive to these ends it is the people’s right to alter or abolish it.
That “all men,” means all of humanity is something Americans are still trying to reconcile.
“The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me,” said abolitionist Frederick Douglass in his speech “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” delivered July 4, 1852.
More than 160 years later, Black Lives Matter protesters are delivering the same message, louder than ever.
On June 14, a group of protesters in Portland toppled a statue of Jefferson that stood outside Jefferson High School in a historically Black neighborhood. The community had discussed removing the statue and renaming the school in the past, according to the Willamette Week newspaper. Jefferson was a slave owner, and many felt it was inappropriate to have a monument of him in the neighborhood. A few days later, protesters set fire to a statue of another slave owner, George Washington, then pulled it off its pedestal. The community is divided over whether these are acts of vandalism or long overdue actions, which one commenter explained in this way: “Pulling down a statue of a slaveholder so that African American kids don’t have to look at it every day and be reminded of their status in this country is not hate.”
We might not have many statues of the founding fathers in our region, but our white majority population has its own racist issues to contend with. One example: Calls have come up over and over again to change the “Braves” mascot at Sacajawea Junior High School in Lewiston and the “Indians” mascot at Nezperce High School. Native American names and mascots perpetuate racist stereotypes, and in 2014 both school districts discussed changing their names and mascots after receiving a request from the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee. Other tribes in the state have requested the Idaho State Board of Education ban these types of names and mascots. While both school districts have moved away from using imagery depicting their mascots, they didn’t change them.
Native Americans didn’t get much respect from the Declaration of Independence either. In it, they’re collectively referred to as “merciless Indian Savages” working at the behest of King George III.
The declaration ends by asking the world to join the United States in its heroic quest for liberty and freedom, a quest we continue centuries later with a greater understanding of humanity. This week’s cover by illustrator Riley Helal, a raised hand of many colors against the background of an American flag, honors all the people of our country united by the ideals of democracy.
In 1826, Jefferson was gravely ill and wrote to Roger C. Weightman to decline an invitation to come to Washington, D.C., to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the declaration. It was the last letter he ever wrote. In it he said: “All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. … For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”
Our eyes continue to open, and our devotion takes resolve.