America is all about freedom, at least for some of us. And a look at our history
shows just how much we've struggled with what that actually means.
My wife Carol and I have traveled constantly for more
than a decade, soaking up everything this land has to offer. And we enjoyed the
2015 travel season. Perhaps more than any before, it was instructive. American
history is a complex web of conflicts, culture, economics, and human
psychology. And everything is connected to this web.
We visited Rhode Island and got to know Roger Williams.
An advocate for the rights of Native Americans, he called into question the
land charters of the Crown. He was arguably the first abolitionist in North
America, and that got him into a lot of trouble. Kicked out of Massachusetts in
1636 for being too liberal, Williams fled north and established Rhode Island to
ensure religious freedom and the separation of church and state.
We visited the Adams National Historic Park in
Massachusetts. We learned that John Adams was a devout Christian in the Puritan
tradition who believed in the separation of church and state as well as the
emancipation of enslaved Americans. His son, John Quincy, defended the
kidnapped Africans who commandeered the Amistad; his successful defense secured
Frederick Douglass declined John Brown's invitation to join the raid on Harper's Ferry
We visited the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
in Washington, DC. Douglass shared a common cause with John Brown, but he
declined Brown's invitation to join him in the raid on Harper's Ferry. By so
doing, he later found himself in a position to influence the policies of the
Lincoln Administration. The 13th, 14th, 15th, and 24th Amendments that later
defined freedom for African Americans connected Roger Williams, John Adams,
John Quincy Adams, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and the fight for civil
rights that followed.
We visited the Hampton National Historic Site and
compared the grandeur of the plantation house with the quarters of the enslaved
people. You wouldn't really want to live there, but as slave quarters go we've
seen a lot worse. In fact these were made to look very nice out the outside so
the view from the plantation house wouldn't be ruined. The folks who lived here
were enslaved in Maryland. Because Maryland was part of the Union, the
Emancipation Proclamation did nothing to advance freedom here.
We visited the Statue of Liberty, that American icon of
freedom. It was a gift from the French dedicated in 1886, during a time when
America's own gift of freedom was offered very selectively indeed. In the
South, Jim Crow laws had supplanted the freedom and promise of Reconstruction.
Elsewhere, pockets of nativism terrorized immigrants who were identified with
unfamiliar races or religions. But Lady Liberty forever defined the American
ideal of freedom without discrimination.
We visited Campobello, Franklin Roosevelt's family
retreat on the Bay of Fundy. It was here that Franklin lost his own freedom to
move about on his own legs. But his resolve was undiminished and he went on to
lead a nation to a broader economic freedom than it had enjoyed for decades.
And it may have been here that Eleanor developed into the champion of common
people that was so evident in later years.
We paddled around in the Great Dismal Swamp, and learned
of some of the communities that formed here hundreds of years ago. Enslaved
African-Americans sought their freedom here, away from the brutality of the
plantations. They found a hard life, but one that was sustained by the natural
resources of the swamp and the entrepreneurs on the fringes. The latter would
trade manufactured necessities for the timber that was needed elsewhere -
including the very plantations that drove the slaves to refuge.
We visited Montgomery, AL. It was here during the 1950s
and 1960s that the Civil Rights Movement came of age. Together, Rosa Parks,
Malcolm X, James Bevel, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, Stokely
Carmichael, and others moved Dwight Eisenhower, Jack Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson,
and Earl Warren toward recognition of the rights and freedoms so long denied to
We visited Selma, AL. Here blood was shed in 1965 to gain
a right already guaranteed by the Constitution - the simple right to vote. We
walked and rode the Edmund Pettus Bridge where it happened. We visited Brown
Chapel, where protesters assembled - and to which they were later pursued on
horseback with billy clubs and cattle prods. We met a young activist, Columbus,
who volunteers at the site of the Selma memorial to explain the importance of
these events to anybody who will listen. We listened.
We visited the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.
Here African-Americans were trained in aerial combat in preparation for service
in the Mediterranean Theatre during WWII. These airmen distinguished themselves
and earned the respect of the Italians in whose communities they lived. But
here in America, they were denied the rights of basic citizenship - let alone
the respect they had earned with their blood and service. We learned a lot, and
we cried a little.
(Image by Larry Butler) Permission Details DMCA
Years later Tuskegee Airmen turned up again in Selma,
marching to claim the right to vote. By 1965 many of them were influential
citizens - doctors, lawyers, and university professors. But even while enjoying
the freedoms that their success had brought them, they recognized a truth -
that we're not free 'til we're all free.
Years ago, I was privileged to meet one of the Freedom
Riders who came to the Deep South in the 1960s to demonstrate for civil rights.
His were the words I'll never forget - "We're not free 'til we're all
free." He understood that my freedom, even as a white privileged male, is
connected to his freedom as a black, retired, activist minister. We're
And our freedom is still a work in progress.
Following the 2013 Supreme Court ruling on Shelby County
v. Holder, a dozen states immediately set in motion their plans to restrict the
voting rights of their own citizens. Down in Alabama, a photo ID became
necessary to vote. They are available from local DPS/DMV offices, and they're
free. But 31 of these offices have been closed since the ID restrictions became
law. And most of these offices were located in Alabama's "black belt"
where the residents are impoverished, rural African-Americans. Many of them
would have to drive 50 miles or more to get an ID, even if they can't afford a
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