The American dream reminds us—and we should think about it anew on this Independence Day—that every man is an heir of the legacy of dignity and worth.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
July 4th Sermon, 1965
It was 1976 when all the fifth graders in the Thompson School District came together for a gigantic Bi-Centennial music program. Our music teachers organized it, we rehearsed for months and we performed it in the Loveland High Gymnasium for parents and the Loveland community.
I loved that program—a montage of pop and patriotic songs ending with Let There be Peace on Earth, and Let it Begin with Me. Parents were crying, teachers were beaming, and every child was singing.
I remember one particular song, Freedom Isn’t Free. I remember the lesson of the song: That we live in the land of the free and home of the brave because people have given their lives in war to keep our country free. I was happy. I was proud to be an American and a Lovelander. I was glad for our shared Independence story and the music of the moment.
The years have flown by, and every time I celebrate our independence on July 4th, I have those same feelings. Gratitude, safety, joy and a bond with my family, friends and neighbors. I am grateful for whatever measure of peace and tranquility does exist in America and for those who lay down their lives to preserve this American life we love.
But over the years my way of understanding the gift of American freedom has changed. As I’ve grown up, I’ve become aware that not all Americans are safe and free—and that we cannot be a free country until everyone is free. In the past decade I’ve learned about mass incarceration of black men as a means of modern-day slavery, stand your ground laws in white neighborhoods as means of modern-day lynching and racial inequality as our American brand of a caste system.
Today we stand in the current of a new racial justice movement, and my growing awareness is in full bloom. My curiosity about the depths of racism and the urgency of this moment is on fire. I can’t stop thinking about this moment.
And so, this July 4th is different for me—a mix of sadness and hope.
Andrea Young, the A.C.L.U. director is the daughter of Andrew Young, Atlanta Mayor, UN ambassador and civil rights giant. When asked if there is reason to hope that this moment could accomplish what the Civil Rights Movement could not, she said, “Nobody has believed more in the promise and mythology of America than blacks. We have believed all people were created equal and fought over generations for the truth of the statement. The fact I am here means I am descended from people who, even enslaved, did not give up hope. To do so now would be a betrayal.”
Andrea Young’s statement reminds me of Rev. MLK Jr.’s sermon, The American Dream. (This is not his I Have a Dream Speech.) This is a sermon King delivered on Sunday July 4, 1965 to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Read it this weekend and notice the brilliance.
King has left us with much inspiration, and it is never easy to choose a favorite passage, so allow me to share a sampling.
He begins by reciting the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by God, Creator, with certain inalienable rights, that among these are the life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is a DREAM. It’s a great DREAM.
King continues: The first saying we notice in this dream is an amazing universalism. It doesn’t say, ‘some men’; it says ‘all men.’ It doesn’t say ‘all white men’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes black men. It does not say ‘all Gentiles’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes Jews. It doesn’t say ‘all Protestants’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes Catholics. It doesn’t even say ‘all theists and believers’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes humanists and agnostics.
He continues: Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality. The American dream reminds us—and we should think about it anew on this Independence Day—that every man is an heir of the legacy of dignity and worth.
The point of Rev. King’s sermon is that the dream is brilliant, but we are trashing our own dream by oppressing and excluding God’s black children.
He explains the way out of our nightmare and into the light: And so if the American dream is to be a reality, we must work to make it a reality and realize the urgency of the moment. And we must say now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to get rid of segregation and discrimination. Now is the time to make Georgia a better state. Now is the time to make the United States a better nation. (Yes) We must live with that, and we must believe that.
And to close the sermon he addresses his enemies: One day we will win our freedom, but we will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process. And our victory will be a double victory. Oh yes, love is the way. (Yes) Love is the only absolute.
And so for me, Saturday, July 4, 2020 will not be the Independence Day of my youth. It will be a New Independence Day—a day to adopt a beginner’s mind and celebrate the long road to freedom America has yet to choose.
Be safe and happy. Pray for the real American Dream to be true for all God’s children, and don’t forget to bring your mask and wash your hands!