July celebrations kickoff with the Independence Day holiday. In this Age of Coronavirus and social distancing, we rabbits might not be at a company or church sponsored picnic, and we might not seek out a crowded beach for a vacation since Florida and Texas are currently experiencing peaks from this new disease. I’m still hanging close to home, choosing to enjoy a variety of foods, and starting some sewing projects in addition to my art and writing interests. Due to a past brush with heat exhaustion, I don’t tempt these hot temperatures with my presence. “Stay cool and stay hydrated” is my motto for the next few months. Rabbits and humans both have the same need for water, fresh fruits and veggies, plus lots of shade in this heat. An ice bottle might be a treat for them on a hot day too. I find myself craving frozen fruit for a snack.
While I staycation, which is what I actually do all year long, except for my occasional road trips to visit museums or the grandchildren, I’ve had time to reflect on my past life and the events of today. I began writing this in June, near Fathers Day and after the weeks of protests over the deaths of black men at the hands of the police. One of my family members mentioned, “Your daddy would be rolling over in his grave at all of this mess.” I answered, “If he’s with God, God has cleansed him of all his old prejudices and now he’s rejoicing people are asking for justice and equality.” We got into it after a bit, so we had to take a break for a while. Arguing might not change people’s minds, but I don’t have to affirm antebellum thinking. There’s a reason it’s called a “Lost Cause.” Denying the equality of human beings in the sight of God is to deny God’s love for all God’s people. Not being able to walk in another’s shoes is to deny injustice persists for many people.
The life in God is based in change. If we aren’t able to change our attitudes, we can’t change our behaviors. If we can’t see we were wrong, we can’t turn toward the right. If we turn from God, we also have to be able to return to God. Our love may fail, but God’s love never fails. Some folks think people never change, perhaps because they have no intention of changing. Change is difficult, but necessary. We’re changing from the moment we’re conceived to the moment we leave this world.
We call change in the spiritual life sanctification, or holiness. It’s a process, which is led by the spirit and made evident by good works. We can’t do good works to earn sanctification, but our faith is deepened both by the spirit and by our experience in doing the works. If we’re still imperfect when we pass from this world, God’s mercy completes the work of sanctification to make us fit for life in God’s presence. If God is abounding in love for all and we love because God first loved us, God will refine us into the same love for all to fit us for the eternal life with God.
In my state, some folks called the Black Lives Matter events a riot, while others called them a demonstration. I imagine the British of 1773 had an alternative view of the events of the Boston Tea Party from those who tossed the imported monopoly tea into the harbor. Two hundred and fifty years later, the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry reads about the same as the History Channel’s entry on the internet. I call this event to mind so we Americans don’t forget our country was born in demonstrations, riots, and rebellion, not in picnics and parades.
The years of dusty history tend to cloud our memories and we weave a narrative to suit our own modern purposes. Pull up a glass of iced tea and find some shade. We have a whole pandemic ahead of us to get reacquainted with the moldering moments of our nation’s nascence.
Even before the Boston Tea Party, a violent incident escalated out of hand on March 5, 1770. Private Hugh White, a British soldier, heightened a verbal altercation to a physical one. White used his bayonet against a patriot at the Custom House on King Street. Then the angry mob countered with a volley of snowballs, rocks, oyster shells, and ice. Bells rang signaling a disturbance, and loyalists and patriots entered the street to see the commotion. As the riot ensued, the British fired their muskets, killing five colonists in what is today known as the Boston Massacre. Today we’d call this “police brutality.” The representatives of the Crown claimed a right to defend the King’s treasury.
The British soldiers, brought to trial and defended by Samuel Adams, had been in jail for seven months. The captain of the guard was found not guilty, six soldiers were also not guilty, and two were guilty of manslaughter. These last individuals escaped punishment by claiming “benefit of the clergy,” a holdover from early English law. This provision held secular courts had no jurisdiction over clergymen and had become a loop-hole for first-time offenders. After “praying the clergy,” the soldiers were branded on the right hand where the thumb meets the palm with the letter “M” for manslaughter. This insured they could only receive the commutation once, and the mark would be clearly visible during a handshake or while raising their palm on any future oath. This was the 18th century’s “get out of jail free card.”
Undue force is always unjust. Escalating a verbal situation into a brawl and then to a massacre is the worst sort of police brutality. Unfortunately, bringing bayonets and rifles to the location was their first mistake. But “hind sight is always 20/20,” as my daddy used to say. “I hope you learn from this experience, young lady.” I’ve always found the school of hard knocks to be an expensive degree.
When the Tea Act was passed in 1773, it required the colonists to purchase only British East India Tea Company products, whereas they preferred to buy from Holland, since it wouldn’t profit the King. When their smuggling routes shut down, the Americans produced their own herbal teas, rather than purchase the Crown Tea. By December, the colonists were fed up with paying taxes without representation in parliament. They gathered in costume, armed with hatchets, and boarded the boats loaded with British Tea. Tossing it all into the sea, with a whoop and a holler, they had to jump down into the water to hack up the bales so they would sink. Our forefathers forgot to check the tides. At low tide they could waded out to the ships.
Most likely the British of the era thought the colonists engaged in a destructive riot, whereas the patriotic participants were hailed as heroes at home. Things bubbled and simmered along for three more years until the writing of the Declaration of Independence. The top portion of the original draft document was written by Thomas Jefferson, with additions and deletions by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson presented the finished Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, July 4, 1776, at which time the Declaration was signed. Then copies of the text were transported to key cities, such as New York and Boston, to be read aloud.
The initial sentence speaks to the heart of every freedom loving person:
“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.” The Declaration of Independence contains noble and aspirational thoughts. Yet these words were written by a group of men, all white, all free, and all educated as far as their privilege and status had brought them to that day. Women weren’t included in this equality and neither were the slaves the signers owned, since they were mere “property.” In this case “All” didn’t mean ALL PERSONS.
Thomas Jefferson included a passage attacking slavery in his draft of the Declaration of Independence. The delegates gathered at Philadelphia in the spring and early summer of 1776 debated its inclusion with fervor. Jefferson’s passage on slavery was the most important section removed from the final document. It was replaced with a more ambiguous passage about King George’s incitement of “domestic insurrections among us.” His original language is below:
“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.”
Not until 1870 and the passage of the 15th Amendment did African Americans get the right to vote. Women got the right to vote in 1920, Asian Americans got citizenship and voting rights in 1952, and even though Native Americans have had citizenship and voting rights since 1924, many states still disenfranchise them. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to remove the barriers keeping persons of color from exercising their tight to vote, yet disenfranchisement still happens in subtle and not so subtle ways.
The Voting Rights Act came 189 years after the grand words of “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.” On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first two people to walk on the surface of the moon They set an American flag on the surface in recognition of our country’s achievement. While we might be amazed we as a nation could come together in this great challenge, nevertheless we might wonder why the majority population has yet to fully appreciate the minority as an equal partner in this land.
Perhaps it’s as Frederick Douglas once said, “There is no negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own constitution.” (From the speech, “The Race Problem In America, 1890.”)
When we search for images of Patriotism or Independence Day, almost all of these are white, for America has been to date a majority white nation. After 2045, however, non-Hispanic whites will likely make up less than half of all Americans. Already whites under age 18 are in the minority. Among all the young people now in the U.S., there are more minority young people than there are white young people. This is a sea change. The attitudes of our youth are different from our older generations.
Among old people age 65 and over, whites are still in the majority. Indeed white old people, compared to minority old people, will continue to be in the majority until some years after 2060. What does this mean for our country, for our world, and for our future? How can we as a people live up to the aspirations of “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?”
First we need to agree “Truths can be self-evident.” Not just my truth is true, and your opposite truth is also true for you, so whatever works is cool, as some would say, but certain known absolute true facts are real and sure. For the 18th century mind, truth could be known, and a new and better truth could be discovered in time to replace it through wisdom and knowledge, but “alternative facts” or “fantasy figments of our delusions” aren’t truth, but lies we tell ourselves. (As an aside, if the love of your life ever asks, “Honey, does this outfit make me look fat?” your answer should be “No.” and kiss her before she can ask anymore questions. Life will be happier for you.)
Back in the stone ages, “all men” was read as an all inclusive group, but I questioned that understanding back in the 1960’s in high school.
“Why don’t we just say ALL or EVERYONE instead?”
“That’s not how people wrote back then,” my teacher would reply.
“Maybe because they thought it meant ALL MEN and not EVERYBODY?”
Then I would get the LOOK from my teacher, by which I knew I’d pushed the limit and it was time to ask no more questions, even though I had more.
After the Civil War, Northern Reconstructionists attempted to educate whites and blacks equally, but ran into resistance from the Lost Cause proponents. When school institutes were formed to continue teacher education, the summer school term was twenty days long until 1906 when one of the Baton Rouge schools started a thirty-six-day summer school program. In 1909, the length of the summer school program was lengthened to fifty-four days for white teachers and thirty-six days for Negro teachers. Someone with two years at the State Normal teacher’s school could teach in the black schools, but to teach in a white school required a four year degree. This is an example of systemic injustice in the educational community.
What does it mean to be created EQUAL, but not be given equal access to an equal education, housing, food, or medical care? Where I grew up, the white schools got new textbooks. When these were worn out, they were passed down to the black schools. It wasn’t right, but this was the way it was. My state had a practice of historic and systemic racism.
My high school was integrated in 1965 with one young black person. He ate his lunch alone the entire year. He struggled because his schools weren’t on the same level as ours, but he persisted. Equal access is all he wanted. Arthur Burton is a hero in my hometown and my high school now has a scholarship named in his honor.
This lack of equal access was far reaching. Restaurants back in the day wouldn’t serve nonwhite diners, but required them to pick up food at a to go window out back. There were two water fountains, two waiting rooms, and two of everything, just so the races never mixed. I never saw the sense of it, but it was a strict rule my parents carried forth from the past generation. As they often reminded me, “As long as you live under our roof, you abide by our rules.”
This was probably why they wanted me to live at home and go to college in town, but I wanted to go up north. They weren’t having that, so we compromised on a fine girls’ school in Georgia. At least it was below the Mason-Dixon Line. There I participated in marches for peace and justice, or as my parents called it, “Mixing with a bad crowd that was up to no good, just a bunch of hippies and commies, every last one of them.”
One thing about our family, we say what’s on our mind. At least my education was doing me some good, for my friends and I chose not to be on the front lines in case the police or the marchers began to get angry. The middle of the crowd was safer, especially after the 1968 assassination of Dr. King and angry demonstrations which broke out in some cities. Curfews and the termination of liquor sales finally dampened everyone’s energy, but the same cause for equal access still remains today.
Dr. King has been dead over fifty years, but his dream hasn’t yet died. He spoke in Washington D.C. of the Declaration of Independence as the “signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Unfortunately, as Dr. King went on to say, the founders wrote a check they couldn’t cash for all people, and certainly not for persons of color.
King then offered hope, for God is the author of hope to the hopeless, the lifeline to the drowning, food for the hungry, and the defender of the weak:
“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
While this document is yet imperfectly fulfilled today, we are called to work toward perfecting it, so we also may truly say with Dr. King:
“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…(and)
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.”
So with St. Francis of Assisi I offer this prayer for each of us at this half way point of 2020:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in self-forgetting that we find;
And it is in dying to ourselves that we are born to eternal life.
Joy and Peace,
Text of the Declaration of Independence
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Boston Massacre” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1870.
Boston Tea Party
Dudley L. Poston, Jr., Professor of Sociology, Texas A&M University:
Fredrick Douglas: The Race Problem
Martin Luther King, Dream Speech
Lynn, Louis August andrew, “A History of Teachers’ Institutes of Louisiana: 1870-1921.” (1961). LSU Historical Dissertations and Theses. 676., P. 107.
Jefferson’s Deleted Passage
Original notes and diaries from Trials of the Boston Massacre Participants
Trial of the British Soldiers from the Boston Massacre
Charly Palmer: “Good American,” giclee print on paper, 38×28 inches, 2016. A limited edition work of art depicting a an African American solider walking with his wife as the celebrate the United States of American on July 4th. The print is meant to convey the message that African Americans have helped build this country, are a part of this country and celebrate this country like any other Good American citizen . We are America!