Why not celebrate the Fourth of July? Why the hesitation over an image of the Statute of Liberty, that classic symbol of our nation’s promise of ‘liberty and justice for all’? Because this year, of all years, that promise rings hollow and that symbol has lost its luster, since for too many of our fellow Americans, there is neither liberty nor justice to be found.
In 1985, Ken Burns created a documentary on the Statue of Liberty in which he interviewed writer and activist James Baldwin. Burns’ first question to Baldwin was about the nature and meaning of liberty. Baldwin replied, “Liberty is the individual passion or will to be free, but this passion or will is always contradicted by the necessities of the state, everywhere…for a black American, for a black inhabitant of this country, the Statue of Liberty is simply a very bitter joke, meaning nothing to us”.
The Statue of Liberty, for many immigrant communities of the late 19th and well into the 20th century, was a literal beacon of hope, a guarantee of a better life, a life of freedom and opportunity. But those immigrants by and large were voluntarily, even eagerly, leaving behind poverty, oppression, violence, and war.
How vastly different was the experience of Africans who were unwillingly ripped from their homes, their families, their liberty, and dragged to this place where they were enslaved and oppressed. The legacy of that oppression is with us still today, woven into the very fabric of our society. No wonder, then, that James Baldwin saw the Statue as a hollow symbol, holding no meaning.
Statues are nothing more nor less than symbols of our ideals as a nation. But symbols only have significance if the ideals they reflect are lived out in real life, not merely enshrined on a pedestal. We are challenged today to bring to life the ideals of liberty and justice which the Statue of Liberty embodies, to make them meaningful for all peoples, not just for some.
This moment in history is ripe for change. According to a Pew Research Center poll, two-thirds of Americans say they support Black Lives Matter. The same poll showed seven out of ten say they have had conversations about race in the last month. Millions across the nation have come out to demonstrate on behalf of justice for George Floyd and to stand against racism, far more than ever took part in civil rights demonstrations in the 1960’s. Even the NFL and NASCAR have expressed support for Black Lives Matter.
Most significantly, these efforts have already begun to bear fruit. “Defund the Police” has come into everyday conversation, not just as a slogan but as a serious issue to be addressed. People in positions of authority are looking at what it means to take the police out of our schools, to divert funding from militarizing our police departments to funding mental health services and community-based programs, and to banning chokeholds and other deadly tactics.
So much more needs to be done! In the wake of the pandemic and economic collapse, highlighted by the recent protests, the vast inequities in our society have, at long last, been brought into the glare of public scrutiny. Disparities in health care, education, poverty, and incarceration rates; disenfranchisement at the polls; access to services such as transportation and the internet; and so much more, can no longer be denied or ignored.
It is past time for each of us to stand up, speak out, and take action! We must hold our elected leaders accountable, and hold ourselves accountable, so that this moment does not pass us by but instead becomes a catalyst for real, meaningful, lasting change. Let us remember how far we have come, look ahead to how much farther we have to go, and pledge to work together to fulfill the promise of this country ‘conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all [persons] are created equal’. Then can we observe a New Independence Day, one which truly celebrates Liberty and Justice for All.