Reasons to celebrate July 4 abound for all Americans

June 30, 1999|By Linda R. Monk

FOR MANY Americans, the Fourth of July has not always been a time for celebration. Frederick Douglass, a runaway slave who became a brilliant orator and leading abolitionist, gave this impassioned address in 1852:

"What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: A day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.

"To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy -- a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States."

Almost 100 years later, Mary Tsukamoto, a Japanese-American citizen, celebrated the Fourth of July in an internment camp:

"We had our Fourth of July program. Because we couldn't think of anything to do, we decided to recite the Gettysburg Address as a verse choir. We had an artist draw a big picture of Abraham Lincoln with an American flag behind him. Some people shook their heads and said it was so ridiculous to have that kind of thing recited in a camp. It didn't make sense, but it was our hearts' cry. We wanted so much to believe that this was a government by the people and for the people and that there was freedom and justice."

Yet even Douglass was able to say, at the end of his speech, "I do not despair of this country," instead "drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains." Even in an internment camp, Tsukamoto and her fellow citizens believed in their hearts what they were denied in reality. That is the great hope of America: that the people who have the least reason to believe in her promises do so nonetheless, and call the rest of us to fulfill them.

Independence Day is dedicated to the self-evident truth that all people are created equal. It is the heart of the American dream, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us in his "I Have a Dream" speech. What we celebrate on July 4 is not only the "Miracle at Philadelphia" that happened 223 years ago, but also the everyday efforts to live the American dream today.

Such a celebration is happening this July 4 in Washington, at the newly developed Townhomes on Capitol Hill, the public housing dwellings closest to the U.S. Capitol. The development replaced condemned housing units and, under a program instituted by former Rep. Jack Kemp, residents have an equity share in their homes. During several years of planning and often contentious public hearings, the atmosphere at times became racially charged.

"White people didn't want black people in there," says Constance Smallwood, a public housing resident and former advisory neighborhood commissioner who participated in the planning process. Ms. Smallwood, who is black, now says of the racially mixed development, "It shows you how people can come together and live together . . . People are people, all you've got to do is say your rights and fight for them."

Ms. Smallwood's daughter, Juanita, is one of the new residents of the Capitol Hill Townhomes. "I was an SSI recipient 10 years ago," she said, "and now I'm a social worker." And a homeowner.

Tom Wells, the white advisory neighborhood commissioner whose constituents include Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott as well as the residents of the Capitol Hill Townhomes, helped organize a July 4 celebration as a "housewarming" for his new neighbors.

Mr. Wells believed July 4 was an appropriate date because it was "a celebration of all of us coming together, that we're all part of one country." He added: "That's why a lot of us choose to live on Capitol Hill, because we'd rather live in a diverse community rather than in segregated neighborhoods."

This July 4, scores will throng the Washington Monument to watch the fireworks, but the real party will be some blocks away, just past the Capitol.

Linda R. Monk is the author of "The Bill of Rights: A User's Guide," which won the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award.

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