Long ago and not so far away, I celebrated the Fourth of July religiously each year. I was a wholehearted patriot, deeply convinced that my country was committed to liberty and justice for all. Even after the news intruded, with realities of segregation and racism and war, I wanted to believe that the real United States was the country of Martin Luther King, Jr., and not the country of Strom Thurmond. I believed that we would win the struggles for civil rights and for fair pay for workers and farmers and farmworkers and for an end to wars.
Decades later, I know we have not won, though we have moved forward. Decades later, I also know the length and depth and cost of the continuing struggles for justice, for freedom, for peace.
As an adult, I cannot fly the flag with the happy patriotism I enjoyed as a child. Adult patriotism demands a different kind of commitment.
“My country, right or wrong” is a quotation with double meaning, like so much of our history. U.S. naval commander and war hero Stephen Decatur’s toast gives one version:
“Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!”
I much prefer the version of German revolutionary, U.S. immigrant, and then-U.S Senator Carl Schurz, speaking on the Senate floor in 1872:
“The Senator from Wisconsin cannot frighten me by exclaiming, ‘My country, right or wrong.’ In one sense I say so too. My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”
In the spirit of Carl Schurz, we can celebrate the Civil Rights Act of 1964 at the same time that we recognize the still-far-from-completed journey toward equality and justice. We can celebrate the promise and the very real achievements of the 1965 Voting Rights Act as we work to reinstate the voting rights protections so recently stripped by the Supreme Court and many state legislatures. We can celebrate the promise of haven for refugees as we work to reform our outdated, punitive and entirely inadequate immigration system.
Fifty years after Freedom Summer, sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, cost of the struggles includes a roll call of martyrs: Medgar Evers, Herbert Lee, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jimmy Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Reverend James Reeb, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, and many more whose names do not come so immediately to mind.
Other lives were given to the struggle, some continuing to this day: John Lewis, Barbara Johns, Ruby Bridges, James Meredith, Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin, Diane Nash, James Bevel, Bob Moses, Ella Baker, Myrlie Evers, Coretta Scott King, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Septima Clark, Fannie Lou Hamer, Marian Wright Edelman, Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm, Julian Bond … again, the list goes on and on beyond these few names.
On the Fourth of July, I honor and remember those who died, and stand in solidarity with the living: la lucha sigue, the struggle continues.