Independence Day has the most meaning if, when the celebrating is over, the revolution continues. Americans have spent the past 238 years wrestling with each other over the meaning at the core of the Declaration of Independence. We’ve come a long way in deepening and broadening that meaning, but some of those gains are at risk today.
Our specific struggles change over time, but they are all animated by these words: “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.”
Look back at how we’ve fought to bring life to those words.
One hundred and fifty years ago, the country was torn by a war that changed the meaning of United States and forced an overdue expansion of what was meant by “all men.” And yet, all the blood spilled in the Civil War didn’t completely make those words reality. There was more work to do.
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That war was preceded by a question: whether new Western territories would be slave or free. The U.S. had purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803,then in the 1840s the United States took by force the northern half of its neighbor, Mexico.
Later, the technology and unity forged in the Civil War helped the United States defeat and subjugate the last free Native American nations in the new territory.
The country’s leaders still had a limited view of whom those founding words should apply to.
At the start of the Civil War, the U.S. Census reported white people were 85.8 percent of the country’s population and black people 14.2 percent. That’s 100 percent. (Native Americans were dealt with separately.) The diversity we see today wouldn’t happen until a different kind of battle was won.
This past Independence Day weekend also marked the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an act that grew out of a long struggle to create a more free and humane nation.
The law made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. It opened workplace doors to women, especially white women, and it was followed by changes in immigration policy that literally changed the face of America.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 eliminated the national-origins policy that favored Northern Europe and severely restricted immigration from Asia, Africa and elsewhere.
Today, the Census Bureau is trying to figure out how to count Hispanics, people who aren’t really a single group, and Arab Americans, some of whom are saying they don’t want to be counted as white. Pacific Islanders continue to wonder why they are counted with Asians.
And how can Asian American cover the breadth of cultures and countries of origin and varying lengths of citizenship that one box is supposed to capture? Recent African immigrants add another layer of complexity.
This is no country for outdated classifications, and yet we still can’t quite get past the ills created by our past.
Incarceration rates, joblessness and health problems follow established patterns. Segregation is not the law, but it is still, too often, a fact. Subtle and institutional racism and sexism make improvement hard and require continuing effort if we are going to get to where we want to be.
The successes in our history tell us what can be accomplished. A week before Independence Day, some people were celebrating the Stonewall riots, which sparked the gay-liberation movement. Today, Seattle has a mayor who is gay and married.
We have a president who is black (actually black and white, but it’s still a one-drop-rule country, can’t be white unless you can claim to be 100 percent white).
And we may soon have a president who is a woman.
That’s all part of our progress, but it is not an indication that there’s no work left to do.
In some states, voting rights are being eroded. One of our two major political parties is working to move the country backward on a range of issues from immigration to voting rights to women’s rights. Some businesses are winning the right to restrict their services to match their religion or their politics in an echo of Jim Crow practices. We seem to have forgotten that honest labor should be rewarded. We are not done yet.
In American, the revolution is never done.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org