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4th of July

07/03/2020 07:35:17 AM

Jul3

Rabbi Samuel Gordon

We are living in a turbulent time. Long-held beliefs and assumptions are being questioned. Certainly, White America is being confronted with the reality of systemic racism that has been ignored for far too long. It is fitting that we are beginning to re-examine our nation’s narrative which ignored the lived experience of one-quarter of our population. On the 4th of July, Americans celebrate the Declaration of Independence and the birth of the United States. The Declaration of Independence states:

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.

But, as we all know, in 1776, those words were simply not true for all men or women, nor did they apply to people of all races and colors. That first 4th of July did not create a perfect nation or a country of equality. At America’s birth, not all people were free or equal. The authors of the Declaration were themselves, slave owners and failed to see the inherent conflict between their noble words and their inhumane actions and behaviors.

As a rabbi, I approach the Declaration of Independence from Jewish eyes. The overwhelming majority of American Jews arrived in America from Europe and quickly adopted the Declaration of Independence as their own sacred text. In 1790, George Washington wrote a letter to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island, saying, “For happily, the Government of the United States...gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” But that promise to the Jews of America was not made to the Black Americans of that time.

Black Americans could not look to the Fourth of July as the date of their freedom, which is why we celebrate Juneteenth, the anniversary of the formal emancipation of the slaves. July 4, 1776, was not a day of independence or liberation for African Americans. Slavery remained a defining element of the culture of the United States, and yet, the Declaration became a source of inspiration to those who sought to change America. At least two times in American history the Declaration has been reinterpreted and reformed. Four score and seven years after its writing, Abraham Lincoln redefined its meaning. As Gary Wills wrote in Lincoln at Gettysburg,

Lincoln not only presented the Declaration of Independence in a new light, as a matter of founding law, but put its central proposition, equality, in a newly favored position as a principle of the Constitution.

This people was “conceived” in 1776, was “brought forth” as an entity whose birth was datable (“four score and seven years” before) and placeable (“on this continent”), and was capable of receiving a “new birth of freedom.

Abraham Lincoln wrote:

"It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced...that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

One hundred years later, on August 23, 1963, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once more re-interpreted the Declaration in his “I Have A Dream” speech. He invoked the phrasing of Lincoln, built on the Gettysburg Address, and redefined the true promise of the Declaration. He began his speech, just as Lincoln had:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.“

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were 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." 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."

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.

In the words of Langston Hughes: That Dream is “still deferred.” The death of George Floyd was only the most recent occasion when the failures of the American promise were revealed and exposed for all to see. Two Score and 17 years after August 1963, Dr. King’s dream remains unfulfilled. On that day in Washington, Dr. King called out the inequality and disparity of American society, and he condemned this country’s failure to live up to its noble words and phrases. Now 57 years later, it is up to all of us to demand the fulfillment of those stirring words, that all people, no matter color, race, religion, gender or sexual identity—— All are created equal and endowed by our Creator with the inalienable right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. It is now up to us to fight and struggle so that the promise will be fulfilled.

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