Independence Day, July 4, will be celebrated soon. There’ll be parades lined with politicians seeking your support. Families will gather to watch fireworks. The U.S flag will be on display. Little attention will be given to the reason for the displays.
Francis Scott Key gave voice to the fight for freedom with writing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It became our national anthem. How many of us know the second verse? It is filled with images of death and destruction. The lines, “Their blood has wash’d out their foul footsteps’ pollution. No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,” are a disturbing commentary on perceived American greatness.
History records the violence that gave birth to the nation. The United States was built on the labor of African slaves, the annihilation of Native Americans and the cheap labor of immigrants. Even today it attempts to police other nations in the name of democracy. In its conquest of new land, people were treated as disposable commodities.
As youths educated in segregated schools in the South, we pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. Our textbooks detailed wars fought to give freedom to citizens. People of color died or were maimed as they fought to maintain freedom. But when the survivors returned home, they were relegated to substandard living conditions. They were citizens but weren’t treated like it. Unfortunately, this continues.
Fredrick Douglass, speaking July 5, 1852, to a large assembly composed mostly of white people in Rochester, N.Y., asked a pivotal question: “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?”
Within 10 years, the brutal Civil War was fought, and slaves were freed. Independence Day became a celebration of African-American freedom until Reconstruction was overturned and Jim Crow laws went into effect.
Douglass’ question still speaks to all people experiencing injustice and oppression today. Slavery, in various forms, is still part of our mentality.
The Declaration of Independence says all people are created equal. Those who have been denied the freedom that July 4th represents realize that the freedom won has been reserved for a few.
There are those who say we should love our country or leave it. Leaving is not the answer. We can be grateful for our country while working to reverse its failure to grant freedom equally. Upholding the values of a just and free society is the solution. Every person deserves access to an abundant life.
Fireworks were displayed on Christmas in my community after the emancipation of enslaved people. This tradition was rooted in slavery, when black folks were told fireworks displays were celebrating the birth of Jesus and the freedom he brings. Though the intent was to deflect the truth, slaves understood Jesus demonstrated that all people are sisters and brothers. That insight became part of their independence celebration.
As people of faith, we hold a higher allegiance to Christ, who breaks down societal barriers. Our Creator doesn’t have stepchildren. God desires that everyone have an opportunity to pursue a sustainable life.
Let this Independence Day be a reminder of who our Creator calls us to be.
John Powell, of Ypsilanti, Mich., has worked as a pastor, preacher and teacher in Mennonite churches and institutions.