Column: Independence Is Not For You

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Updated: Jul. 8, 2020 at 8:10 AM EDT
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It was July 4, 2020. This was Independence Day. But before I arose from bed and after I arose, a little voice whispered, “This Independence is not for you!” Virtually everything I said or did, the little voice whispered, “This Independence is not for you!”

I just wanted to celebrate Independence Day. The words of the Declaration of Independence kept running through my mind. We hold these truths that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness. However, the little voice whispered, “This independence is not for you.”

I still wanted to celebrate, but the little voice was persistent. I was persistent, so I said, “But the Declaration of Independence says, all men are created equal. Am I not a man?” It says, in so many words, God gave these rights and they cannot be taken away no matter what. The little voice whispered, “When those words were written, your people were not considered as man. In fact, your people were classified as subhuman.” Still, I wanted to celebrate so I pulled the time trick and said, “That was a long long time ago, nearly 250 years ago. That was even before this United States of America became a country.” Then the little voice whispered again, “Yes it was a long time ago for you and them. But this independence is not for you.” 

I still wanted to celebrate on Independence Day. So, I said, “Were we not declared independent by the Civil War after 600,000 people died so we could be independent. Did not tens of thousands of Black soldiers die as well? The little voice said, “I know you want to celebrate but winning the Civil War did not give you independence. At the end of the War, there were still provisions in the U.S. Constitution that protected slavery. There were also provisions in many state laws. Besides, slavery was still legal in the five border states. This independence is not for you.”

I persisted. “Ok, but didn’t they fulfill the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Didn’t the 13th Amendment abolish slavery? Didn’t the 14th make us equal? Didn’t the 15th give us the right to vote? Who else has three constitutional amendments? I want to celebrate Independence Day.”

The little voice said, “They changed the laws. They did not change the culture of White supremacy. Culture eats laws for breakfast! The promises of these three amendments were broken in no time at all with the Rutherford B. Hayes Compromise of 1876. This was just five years after the 15th Amendment was ratified. I tell you, this independence is not for you!”

I steeled myself, determined to persist. I said, “I’ve just got to celebrate. I know independence belongs to me. I just have to find it. I just want to celebrate with a clear conscience. I know we had that terrible segregation enforced by the terrorism of lynching and other harsh oppression for nearly 90 years, but all that ended with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.” The little voice whispered, “I know how bad you want to be fully American and celebrate. However, the law changed but the culture of White supremacy did not change. You have to get this through your thick head. This independence is not for you!”

I addressed the little voice: “You did not explain why my independence did not come in 1964 and 1965. I know they entitled me to celebrate.” The little vice whispered: “Do Black people have the same life span as White people? I believe White people on average live 10 years longer. Do Black people have the same wealth as White people? I believe the average wealth of White people is $170,000 while it is $17,000 for Black people. That’s 10 times as much wealth. Can’t you see. This independence is not for you!”

I went silent, but in my heart I still wanted to celebrate this Fourth of July Independence Day. I thought the little voice was finished whispering to me, but its voice started back whispering. “Look at how Black people are dying at more than three times the rate of Whites in this pandemic thing. Look at how Black people are arrested, jailed, and imprisoned at four times the rate of White people. Look at how your children, especially your Black boys and men, cannot walk the streets, cannot run the streets, drive the streets or just be in the streets safely. Are they equal? Do you have an equal chance at life? Do they have an equal chance at liberty? Do they have an equal chance at the pursuit of happiness? I tell you this, this independence is not for you!” 

The little voice was on a roll; it could not stop. “Do you see what is happening with your children in school? Do you see how hard it is for Black people to start and maintain businesses? Do you see how tough it is for Black people to sustain institutions such as Black colleges? Do you see how hard it is to sustain Black organizations without White support except for churches and Fraternal entities? Don’t you know that every single element of this society works together like a web to deny your independence? I tell you, this independence is not for you!”

I said, to the little voice, “You have convinced me that this independence is not for me. So I am just going to eat a lot of barbeque ribs and chicken and drink Kool-Aid and dance this day away. After all, I may not have independence, but I still have something to celebrate.” I thought that I ended the conversation. Then the little voice became a big voice, shouting, “You must declare your own independence. When you do, every day is Independence Day. Every day is a day to celebrate.” The big voice made sense to me. Instead of partying, I went to work and spent time with my family. I declared my independence that very moment. I am celebrating Independence Day.

Independence cannot be given. It has to be declared. It has to be taken. It has to be protected. It has to be grown. Then it is on the inside as well as the outside. It is real independence.

Henry “Hank” Sanders was a Democratic member of the Alabama senate for 35 years.

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