On Saturday Americans will once again celebrate Independence Day and what is certainly one of the greatest and most inspiring political documents every written: the Declaration of Independence — a document that Frederick Douglas once called “the ringbolt to the chain of (our) nation’s destiny.” Indeed, since shortly after its adoption and signing, the document, with its eloquently crafted words, has become a symbol of liberty and equality to freedom-seeking peoples around the globe. But perhaps before we celebrate once again we ought to pause, reflect, and ask ourselves if we are really living up to its principles — both in our communities, and in each of our own hearts.
Throughout the years I have often searched my own conscience in an effort to purge my thoughts of those words and symbols that keep me mired in old ways of thinking, words and symbols that might denigrate and offend others and corrupt my own character. Some may choose to ridicule this as an exercise in political correctness, but I prefer to think of it as an exercise in moral correctness.
Symbols have the power to create unique structures of reality from the world around us, structures embedded with particular values, emotions and connotations. The Confederate battle flag is just such a symbol. Once adopted by Gen. Robert E. Lee’s forces in Virginia, the battle flag, by default, symbolized the assertion by the newly seceded Confederate States of America that they had the right to decide for themselves whether one group of citizens can declare themselves superior, by nature, and therefore enslave another group of citizens.
After Reconstruction ended, and the Supreme Court issued its infamous decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), ushering in the Jim Crow era, for many citizens the Confederate battle flag became the symbol of an American apartheid, a symbol of racial hegemony lurking behind the veil of state’s rights. As such, the flag is an abomination to those principles contained within the Declaration of Independence, and to every citizen who embraces notions of justice, equality, and human dignity. Two hundred and thirty-nine years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence there are still citizens who do not see their reflection in those self-evident truths contained within the document. While we’ve made strides in some areas, this nation of ours is forever a work in progress — a melting pot that is perpetually turning and blending and changing color.
We will never be a perfect nation, much as none of us will ever be perfect individuals; but we must never cease aspiring to great and noble ideas and principles. Only in this are we lifted beyond the mundane to our fullest possible measure of virtue, justice and happiness.
In the arena of human freedom and dignity, the battle is eternal and vigilance is everyone’s duty. We are not a great nation, nor are we a great people, merely because of our military might, our economic prosperity, or the “parchment principles” upon which we are founded. We are a great nation, and a great people, only to the extent that we strive to live out our founding principles — every day, and to all people. Until every American has the freedom to make what she will of herself — unobstructed by conventions, both social and political, and free of any prejudicial preconceptions — our much celebrated Declaration of Independence, along with the timeless principles it embodies, will never reach its full bloom. In the meantime, we will hold onto that ringbolt and struggle forward, much as we always have.
Happy birthday, America. E pluribus unum.
Kenneth Winkleman is a McNair Scholar, and a recent graduate of Boise State University with degrees in English literature and political science and lives in Boise.