From the Declaration of Independence, Martin Luther King Jr., John Howard Griffin, Isabel Wilkerson… Readings on the Quest for Freedom for Independence Day


Come and sing a simple song of freedom
Sing it like you’ve never sung before
Let it fill the air
Tell the people everywhere
Simple Song of Freedom, Bobby Darin

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It’s a simple proposition. People who are not free want to be free. Free of whatever and whoever is keeping them from being free. Free to speak and move and work, and strive to live a better life. Throughout history, this is clear. Our country was born when one group wanted to be free from the “absolute tyranny” of another; another that would not heed the repeated “petitions for redress” of those not free.

In my lifetime, we saw the striving for such freedom by African Americans especially; but also by other groups… The struggle does indeed continue. Because, as Dr. King put it:

Dr. King, BirminghamWe know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
(The Letter from Birmingham Jail)

Here are just a few readings, from the documents that gave us birth, to Dr. King’s classic speech, and from authors that remind us of the appeal and human need for freedom. These are worth reading on this Day of Independence.

Declaration of IndependenceWe, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

 

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i-have-a-dream-speechI am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.
 
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
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.
Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
…many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.
 
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

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.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
                Free at last! Free at last!
                Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
 
Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have a Dream, Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

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mlkmountaintop1Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.

Martin Luther King, Jr., I’ve Been to the Mountaintop (April 3, 1968, Memphis, Tennessee – the night before his death)

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black_like_me200I sat in the monochrome gloom of dusk, scarcely believing that in this year of freedom any man could deprive another of anything so basic as the need to quench thirst or use the rest room. There was nothing of the feel of America here. It was rather some strange country suspended in ugliness. Tension hung in the air, a continual threat, even though you could not put your finger on it

I think I proved that, because as a white man I could go anywhere freely; but as a black man I was restricted by segregation laws and Southern white customs. I was judged entirely by my pigmentation and not by my qualities as a human individual.

John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me

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Warmth of Other SunsThe actions of the people in this book were both universal and distinctly American.  Their migration was a response to an economic and social structure not of their making.  They did what humans have done for centuries when life became untenable – what the pilgrims did under the tyranny of British rule, what the Scotch-Irish did in Oklahoma when the land turned to dust, what the Irish did when there was nothing to eat, what the European Jews did during the spread of Nazism, what the landless in Russia, Italy, China and elsewhere did when something better across the ocean called to them.  What binds their stories together was the back-against-the-wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were.  They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done.
They left. 

In the end, it could be said that the common denominator for leaving was the desire to be free, like the Declaration of Independence said, free to try out for most any job they pleased, play checkers with whomever they chose, sit where they wished on the streetcar, watch their children walk across a stage for the degree most of them didn’t have the chance to get. They left to pursue some version of happiness, whether they achieved it or not. It was a seemingly simple thing that the majority of Americans could take for granted but that the migrants and their forebears never had a right to in the world they had fled.

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

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