Ignite the Lamp of Liberty
“Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, cannot long retain it.”
– Abraham Lincoln
When I was in fourth grade, my teacher taught our class about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. I can still remember feeling the shock of hearing about the mistreatment and abuse of black Americans, and of being in awe of the courage and dignity of Dr. King. I also remember thinking, “why didn’t more people do something to stand up for the rights of those who were suffering?” My fourth grader’s mind couldn’t comprehend how one group of humans could treat another group of humans so poorly. Over thirty years later, I still can’t.
It makes we think: What will the fourth graders thirty years from now think of our actions today? What will I tell my son one day to explain how a society that cherishes freedom has systematically denied that freedom to countless people?
Imagine that we could somehow separate ourselves from being active participants in this day and time in our history, escaping from the current of fear and confusion that dominates our political and social discourse; that we could look with the detachment of an outsider in time and distance, as if the events of which we are a part are merely a paragraph in a child’s history book. How would we judge our own actions?
As a young boy, I also used to think, “if I lived in those times, I would have done something.”
Well, today, I have my chance to do something.
The times may have changed in many ways, but injustice remains. Racism may not be the snarling beast it was 50 years ago, but the beast is still lurking in the shadows of our social and political institutions, and fear-driven exclusion still dominates the headlines.
I believe with all my heart that we are neglecting the core values of America when we sit by silently and pretend that excluding anyone based on color or creed is acceptable. Right now, we have a powerful opportunity to stand up, once and for all, and earn this blessed democracy we were born into, to be the champions of justice and liberty that our greatest leaders through our history have inspired us to be. If one person is left out, then we have failed in our mission.
Courage through American Values
I often think of Abraham Lincoln and his great contributions to upholding our nation’s treasured values: liberty and justice for all. Lincoln’s life and particularly his presidency were marked by tremendous suffering, as he stood up for his ideals in a way very few of us could dream of emulating. He abhorred slavery and everything it stood for. He fought to preserve the Union at all costs, to ensure that the great dream of our founders would overcome the forces of injustice, and that these States would remain United in securing freedom for all who live here. He fought against impossible pressures and withering criticism from all sides, never wavering in his vision that all humans were created equal under God. And obviously he paid the ultimate price for his courage.
This is the kind of president, a true leader, that I would love to follow.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is another example of an American patriot, following in Lincoln’s footsteps to carry forward the vision of a society based in the the values espoused by the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. Yet again, this great leader fought merciless criticism and opposition from every angle, risking life, limb, and his own liberty so that he could defend the rights of all Americans to have the liberty guaranteed them by the Constitution. And yet again, another great leader taken by blind hatred and ignorance.
And another leader I would have followed without hesitation.
It’s hard to find many examples of selfless devotion to upholding American values today, immersed as we are in petty politics and self-serving partisanship at all sides.
While we face a very different evil than slavery, our institutions still favor the same group they have throughout Western history: rich, white males. “Equality” is reserved for those who can afford it, and that list is growing shorter every year. This is not the America I was taught as a young boy to be the beacon of light, a model of freedom that the world looked to for leadership.
When the Charters of Freedom laid the course for how our country was to be led, equality and justice for all ring as the loudest and truest of American values:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
– Declaration of Independence
We are not upholding these values when we disregard the rights of all Americans to live in a way that we ourselves would expect and demand – to be treated with dignity, to have our voices heard, and to have the opportunity to pursue happiness regardless of the beliefs we hold, the color of our skin, or the manner of our dress.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
– Amendment I of the U.S. Constitution
We walk a dangerous path today, one that threatens to erode these great foundations. When the highest office in the land creates national policies of exclusion, oppression, and fear, and undermines the integrity of the free press and the legitimacy of our democratic system of elections, we take massive strides away from our most important values, and towards the kind of tyrannical government our founders labored so ardently to ensure would never again occur on this soil.
However, guided by the courageous leadership of Lincoln, King, and many other great leaders in our past who fought and died for justice and liberty, I hold onto hope that we can one day guarantee that all human beings, whether black or white, Latinx or Asian, female or male, rich or poor, urban or rural, straight or gay or otherwise, can enjoy equal protection under the law to pursue their Constitutional right to a life of dignity, opportunity, and liberty.
In Pursuit of the Path to Justice for All
I don’t know how we’re going to get there as a society. I have no idea how we’re going to work together as a nation to uphold our American values and ensure that all people who live in this great country enjoy the same freedom and rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It won’t be an easy path.
But with those values and great examples of leadership, I do know some principles that I can follow as an individual that will make a contribution:
I will always treat others with respect and dignity, whoever they are and wherever they come from – because that’s how I’d like to be treated myself. I’ve met people from all walks of life, every shade in the rainbow, every manner of religious belief, and one thing is certain to me: we’re all made of the same stuff. We all smile, we all cry. We all want to be happy and not to suffer. We all have hopes and dreams, and we all make mistakes at times. None of this has to do with ancestry or belief. It’s just who we are. I will treat all humans as my brothers and sisters.
I will speak out when I see injustice and denounce any act of hatred. Any act, great or small, that denies our Constitutional rights to anyone, regardless of their religion or outward appearance, is an affront to all that America stands for. Thus, I will not stand for it.
I will seek to include people outside of my comfort group. Exclusion isn’t merely an act of intentionally excluding through force or cruelty. Exclusion also means not actively including. I’ve experienced in my own life what it feels like to be in a group of strangers, who standing in their safe circle, unknowingly have turned their backs to me, kept me out of the conversation. Unconscious or not, exclusion sucks. Wherever I go, I will be determined to invite people in, learn from them, and expand the conversation.
I will demand that my politicians govern with respect to all Americans, and above all else, uphold the Constitution. Living as I do in Washington, DC, my voice is limited in this regard. In the heart of our country, residents of the District experience taxation like all the rest of the country, but are not privy to representation. Nonetheless, that will not stop me from exercising my right to participate in peaceful protest (as an Unpaid Protester), petitioning the government for our collective grievances, or taking any other opportunity to voice my opposition to policy that threatens the liberty of any other American.
(For those of you living anywhere else in the United States, you have the power to pressure your congressmen and women. For some great tips about how to effectively communicate with your politicians, check out the Indivisible Guide)
“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
Is it not yet time for us to finally recognize that hatred and fear will not lead to happiness or security? Is it not yet time for us to collectively live up to those great standards laid out by our founding fathers, that all [humans] are created equal? If we are truly to deserve this great land, then we have an obligation to live up to all the precepts – not just the ones that are convenient to us or directly beneficial to our own “tribe.”
Hatred is not an American value. Neither is ignorance, nor exclusion.
Our country wasn’t founded by fear. To propose that we should jeopardize anyone’s freedom out of an irrational fear of the “other” is the most un-American of ideas. Violence is not the domain of immigrants or dark skinned foreigners. Crime doesn’t have a skin color.
Neither does greatness. Kindness, goodwill, intelligence, hard work – these are not the domains of any one group, race, color, or creed. Our country has benefited throughout our history from the contributions of Americans of all stripes. This country was built by the most diverse group of humans to ever come together. Advancements in science, business, arts, and culture have come from every walk of life. To ignore that is to deny our own history.
Our country benefits when we create the opportunities for all Americans to succeed. The actions of exclusion and oppression put a noose around the neck of our collective freedom and success as a nation. Strangle one, and we all choke together.
If we truly want this country to be great, we will always fall short – until all Americans have the equal rights guaranteed them by our Constitution.
Today, once and for all, I make my personal declaration of interdependence with all my brothers and sisters; I vow to walk the path of justice and liberty for all, until the end of my days.
“I leave you, hoping that the lamp of liberty will burn in your bosoms until there shall no longer be a doubt that all men are created free and equal.”
– Abraham Lincoln