The Meaning of This Year’s July 4th

Jesse Jackson | 7/9/2008, 7 p.m.
When Thomas Jefferson finished his draft of the Declaration of Independence 232 years ago, and his fellow revolutionaries risked their ...

When Thomas Jefferson finished his draft of the Declaration of Independence 232 years ago, and his fellow revolutionaries risked their lives to add their names to his eloquent document, they took a giant step toward freedom.

The United States of America was born, founded on an idea of liberty that required them to challenge the most powerful nation on earth. The Founding Fathers said no more King George; no more colonies on the Eastern Seaboard; no more taxation without representation.

It was a powerful idea, an inspiration to future generations, but it did not include everyone. Blacks were not within the Founders’ freedom circle. Women were left outside. Even whites who didn’t own land were unable to vote in the beginning. Five of the first seven presidents were slave owners.

The Liberty Tree was not fully grown yet. It would take years of struggle to embrace more of America, years of marching and protest to expand the vote and build a more perfect union.

Our union was still imperfect in 1852, when Frederick Douglass declined an invitation to speak in Rochester, N.Y., on the meaning of July 4. “What is your holiday to us?” he asked. After all, slavery still ruled in half the nation, and slaves had no rights that slave owners needed to respect.

July 4, 1863, marked huge steps towards a more perfect union -- on July 3, the Confederates were turned back at Gettysburg, and on the holiday itself word came that Grant had taken Vicksburg. The tide in the Civil War had turned, and slavery was doomed.

A few months later, President Lincoln’s immortal Gettysburg Address added meaning to “the last full measure of devotion” that the soldiers had given on the field of battle -- the idea that to build our more perfect union, they had given their lives “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Thus Lincoln injected “equality” more firmly into the definition of a more perfect union, adding profound value to Jefferson’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This July 4 in Independence, Mo., the presumptive Democratic Party nominee Barack Obama gave a speech on patriotism, expanding the definition of the concept to include dissent and reform and change, taking real patriotism far beyond the narrow fences that right-wing zealots have built around the word in recent years. It was a good speech, and Sen. Obama can be proud of it.

The truth is, though, that the real July 4 celebration in 2008 is Barack Obama’s nomination itself! After a fascinating, inspiring, and competitive primary, he was victorious over Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

The race was historic: The nomination of the oldest and largest political party in the world came down to a contest between an African-American and a woman -- and the voters responded. A nation founded on the original sin of slavery may be on the verge of electing an African-American to be our next president.

We have not reached the Promised Land yet. Our union is not perfect. But we the people have built a union more perfect than it was 232 years ago, when Jefferson’s words lit the torch of freedom. We now have “one person, one vote.” Women won their right to vote after long decades of struggle. All the colors of the American Rainbow have the right to register and vote -- and mostly, those votes are counted.

The nomination of Barack Obama is not just symbolic, because he is a smart, talented leader. I believe that if we register and vote in large numbers in November, he will help us climb out of the deep trench that the current administration has dug for us.

But we should not let this moment slide by without appropriate notice that Barack Obama’s nomination is deeply symbolic -- of a country that is changing and in many ways getting better. As Dr. King used to tell us, America is not always right, but the good thing our forefathers left us is the right to fight for the right.

Because of that right to fight for the right, change is possible. Change does come.

Where once was slavery and segregation, now we have civil rights on the books, and the vote. Where once mostly slave owners became presidents, now the son of a Kenyan and a Kansan is the Democratic Party’s nominee -- and in the lead.

America is maturing, growing, getting better. That’s the real meaning of this year’s July 4.

You can write to the Rev. Jesse Jackson care of this newspaper or by e-mail at jjackson@rainbowpush.org.