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, 1776
“Was that a go find your Mom?” Sam leaned over and yelled in my ear as a firework lit up the sky. “Not yet. Just wait,” I answered as more fireworks burst in quick succession. Then minutes later, a few “go find your Moms” exploded to the delight of the crowd. It was the grand finale with the biggest and brightest fireworks, the fireworks that light up the entire sky and surroundings, the fireworks so bright that potentially lost kids can now find their way back to their family. It was the 4th of July.
Like many Americans, we were celebrating the day with friends, sparklers, stink bombs, potato salad, beer, and fried chicken. July 4th has a way of bringing people together in a way not characteristic of any other day during the year. Perhaps it is the true meaning of the day, our nation's birthday, that entices people to spend time together. Or perhaps it is the warm summer weather, or the parades, or even the juicy watermelon that pulls neighborhoods and communities together for this one special day. Whatever the reason, the 4th of July is truly about people being together.
As guests of friends, we sat on lawn chairs on the putting green at the local country club in Rockford, Illinois together with a few hundred others and watched the firework show. Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” played and pride washed over me. I am proud to be an American. I am grateful for the freedom I have in this country to pursue my dreams, live as I choose and where I please. I realize not everyone has these freedoms. I am free to travel the country, live in my van and educate my daughter. However, despite the freedoms we do have in this country and the togetherness we celebrate on the 4th, sadly the reality still remains that we are a country very divided.
Although the Declaration of Independence declared that “all men are created equal”, they are not treated equally. Yes, we have the freedom to do, act and believe as we please, but it comes with a price. Divisions have existed, do exist and will exist in our country as a result of exercising our freedoms. Although immigration is currently being challenged, throughout history, our country has opened its doors for most to enter and find opportunity and freedom. Hence, we became the “melting pot” with many divisions. Unfortunately, there is always going to be the “in crowd” and the “out crowd”, the “haves” and the “have nots” and the “rights” and “wrongs”. These labels placed out of fear and ignorance sadly build larger and stronger divisions within our country, our communities, and even within our own families. What would Thomas Jefferson think about our country today, 241 years after writing the Declaration of Independence? I think he would feel proud but also sad.
In the early 1950s in Topeka, Kansas, a young black girl named Linda Brown walked four miles to school to attend kindergarten. At the end of the school day, Linda had to walk four more miles home. Education was provided much closer to the Brown’s home, but due to her race, Linda was required to attend Monroe Elementary, an all black school. The divisions were up, and “separate but equal” thinking drove this unjust rule. Last week, I entered this same building holding my kindergarten daughter’s hand and imagining having just walked four miles. We walked down the main brick hallway, had a drink in the water fountain and entered the kindergarten classroom. Sam started to play in the kitchen just as Linda once did. I sat at the small classroom table, and my heart ached for Linda. She was an innocent victim of fear.
Not only in the south, but throughout the country, strong divisions were built during this time. Segregation was a way of life in many places including hospitals, pools, restaurants and on busses. Divisions erected both then and now come at a high psychological price in the form of crushed spirits, lowered moral and the devastation of dreams. Thankfully, Linda’s father, along with others, had the courage to step forward and demand change. History moved forward. Sadly though, we are slow learners, and we continue to divide ourselves today. Divisions built quickly take much longer to crumble. Acceptance comes slowly.
As I enjoyed the firework show, I glanced at the metal fence off to my left surrounding the Country Club. Outside that fence, in an empty grass lot, hundreds of neighbors had crowded into the lot and set up lawn chairs early to catch a glimpse of the Club’s firework show. They did not have the required orange wristband needed to enter the Club. They watched the show behind the trees with the music muted in the background, catching partial views of the fireworks. The division was up. I was inside the fence this evening. Many were outside. We can only come together so much. Too close is uncomfortable, even on this 4th of July.