Friday, July 04, 2008

Two 4th of July Stories

Here are two July 4th essays by former members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Something to think about other than hot dogs, hamburgers, fireworks, flags and war...

Story #1 by Bruce Hartford

During the Vietnam War, Reber Boult and I were working with anti-war GIs at a large Marine base in Asia. Among many other endeavors, we helped them put out an underground, anti-war newspaper called the "Semper Fi." Of course, it was illegal for Marines to possess a copy of the "Fi" on base, let alone distribute it. Most of our distribution was clandestine, and the "Fi" was passed from hand to hand by Marines throughout Asia. But Reber and I did stand just outside Main Gate distributing the "Fi" to passing Marines, an action that brought back strong memories of handing out voter-registration and boycott leaflets in Selma Alabama and Grenada Mississippi.

One 4th of July, the brass decided to have a huge celebration on base and they invited the Lord High Admiral of the Pacific Fleet. We all felt that this auspicious occasion should be honored by a special edition of the "Semper Fi." On one side we reproduced the actual Declaration of Independence, on the other side we provided a modern-English translation of the few sentences in the Declaration that make it a world-historic document. And we discussed the relevance of those few sentences to the War in Vietnam and the conditions endured within the Corps by enlisted Marines. As I recall the text we preached from was:

"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. --- That to secure
these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving
their just powers from the consent of the governed, --- That
whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish
it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation
on such principles and organizing its powers in such form,
as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and
Happiness. When a long train of abuses and usurpations,
pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to
reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it
is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide
new Guards for their future security."

Six courageous Marines take this special edition of the "Fi" on base, and openly distributed, telling people that July 4th celebrates the Declaration of Independence and perhaps folk might be interested in reading what it actually says.

Instant pandemonium and hysteria! The six are immediately hauled off to the Brig for possession and distribution of subversive literature. Then a strange thing occurs, other Marines begin asking why brothers are being busted for handing out the Declaration of Independence on the 4th of July? Hello!?! An angry crowd gathers outside the Brig and there is ferment,
consternation, and disruption throughout the base. It becomes so widespread that it even makes the local evening TV news.

Reber begins planning a brilliant and aggressive defense of six GIs charged with the subversive "crime" of handing out the Declaration of Independence on the 4th of July. The Marine brass sees the hand-writing on the wall, and to avoid even more embarrassment they drop the charges and discharge the six from the service. But because they knew we would contest any Dishonorable or Bad Conduct discharge, they have to give the six a good discharge with all veterans benefits. On the day that came down they were the six happiest Marines in the Western Pacific War Zone.

Story #2 by Frances Beal

"Frederick Douglass’ Legacy for Our Times" (9 July 2002)

This year’s celebration of the 4th of July marks the 150th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’ presentation at the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? Douglass used the occasion to expose the full shame and treachery of slavery and in unmitigated terms castigated the nation’s pieties, in particular the cherished memories of its revolution, its principles of liberty and its moral and religious ethos. Fellow-citizens he proclaimed, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, ’may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!’ To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most s candalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world.

In all too many ways, the Douglass speech has as many lessons for us today as it did for people who despised racism and tyranny in 1852. One is reminded that the colonies suffered under the boot of the British crown, which gave rise to resisters who had not adopted the fashionable idea of this day, of the infallibility of government, and the absolute character of its acts, and who presumed to differ from the home government in respect to the wisdom and the justice of some of those burdens and restraints. They went so far in their excitement as to pronounce the measures of government unjust, unreasonable, and oppressive, and altogether such as ought not to be quietly submitted to.

As the fireworks and firecrackers explode around us this year, let us take to heart Frederick Douglass’s reminder that there was a time when to pronounce against England, and in favor of the cause of the colonies, tried men’s souls. They who did so were accounted in their day, plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men. To side with the right, against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor! Here lies the merit, and the one, which, of all others, seems unfashionable in our day. The cause of liberty may be stabbed by the men who glory in the deeds of your fathers.

And so it is today in the year 2002, when those who wrap themselves so tightly in the U.S. flag in order to justify the erosion of the civil rights and civil liberties are not the ones who carry the legacy of Independence Day. In fact, Ashcroft and friends and the rest of the Bush regime are the ideological inheritors of the Tories who opposed any alteration in the social and economic relations of society, who relished the privileges of the status quo, and hated all change except silver, gold and copper change! as Douglass declared.

One has to ask then, where is the Frederick (or Frederica) Douglass of the year 2002?

Though the voice may be muted, it is there. It can be heard in cities from Cambridge to Berkeley, which have passed resolutions that call the U.S. Patriot Act a threat to the civil rights of the residents of their communities. The unlikely town of Carrboro, North Carolina is among their ranks as is Ann Arbor and Detroit, Michigan and Denver, Colorado. The California City of Fremont is considering a similar resolution this week. It can be heard among Japanese Americans who are all too cognizant of their shameful internment in concentration camps during World War II brought on by a distorted and racist implementation of national security concerns. That voice is raised in organizations like the Black Radical Congress and Black Voices for Peace and among courageous congressional representatives like Barbara Lee, Cynthia McKinney and Jesse Jackson, Jr. among others. Even some voices from the Federal bench have been raised to curb the unrelenting and unconstitutional congression al abuses of immigrants, Muslims, South Asians and Middle Easterners, and to stem the resurgence of racial profiling as a legitimate police practice.

When all is said and done, however, many of our freedoms have been seriously curtailed. In conjunction with Independence Day, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU-NC) has released a scorecard summarizing the toll of the Bush Administration’s policies on constitutional freedoms. The tally: Bush Administration, 20; Constitution, 0. The scorecard and an accompanying chronology itemize dozens of government actions that have limited constitutional freedoms since September 11th. They include the expansion of wiretapping and secret search powers under the U.S. Patriot Act; the Attorney General’s directives ordering broad questioning sweeps of young men of Middle Eastern and South Asian origin; the erosion of attorney-client privilege, media freedom and immigrants’ rights; and the dismantling of regulations governing intelligence-gathering procedures.

Freedom is a constant struggle, says a well-known gospel, and so it is today. As we celebrate the courage it took to break the chains of colonialism in the 19th Century, as well as noting the lack of grit in allowing slavery to stain this nation’s history for years to follow let us ponder these final remarks by Frederick Douglass:

Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold [July 4th] in perpetual remembrance. I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ringbolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.

Frances M. Beal is a former political columnist for the San Francisco Bay View newspaper and commentator on national black politics.

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