On July 4, America’s promises remain unfulfilled

On July 4th, the day that commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence, my heart is once again filled with a storm of emotions.

F. Willis Johnson

F. Willis Johnson

I am in awe of the noble ideals enshrined in this sacred document and deeply grateful for the freedoms we enjoy. But I am also filled with sadness and righteous indignation.

Like the great Frederick Douglass, I am pained by the stark contradiction between the celebration of our nation’s birth and the painful reality that the promises of true freedom and justice remain unfulfilled for far too many of our fellow citizens.

In his famous 1852 speech, Douglass asked a burning question that haunts us to this day: “What does the Fourth of July mean to the slave?” His answer, a bitter indictment of our nation’s hypocrisy, still resonates: “I answer: a day which, more than all other days in the year, reveals to him the blatant injustice and cruelty of which he is constantly the victim.”

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Although the bloodshed of our Civil War formally abolished slavery, Americans must still confront the inconvenient truth that its evil legacy endures in the systemic racism that continues to disempower people of color and deny them true equality and justice. From the persistent wealth gap built on stolen labor to the biased institutions that perpetuate inequality, the echoes of slavery reverberate through our society.

We live in a time when voter suppression, ethnic profiling and mass incarceration disproportionately affect communities of color, depriving them of their basic rights and dignity.

These are not just “glitches” in the machinery of our democracy. They are a stark reminder that the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness remains a false dream for those whose skin color is the wrong color. They are the bitter fruit of a tree whose roots are still fed by racism.

But the threats to our republic go far beyond the persistence of racial injustice. The foundations of our democracy are eroding beneath our feet. Unjustified attacks on the free press, blatant attempts to undermine the integrity of elections, and the demonization of those who dare to disagree are just a few examples.

Such practices are not the acceptable norms of a healthy, just, or representative democratic republic. They are the desperate grasp for power of those who fear losing control. They are a poison seeping into the veins of our nation and threatening to destroy the body of our democracy from within.

Yet even in the face of these profound challenges, I refuse to give in to despair, knowing that America’s true strength has never lain in its institutions or its leaders alone. It has always lain in its people – in our capacity for moral outrage, our determination to demand better, and our unwavering commitment to the ideals of liberty, equality, and justice. From the abolitionists to the suffragettes, from the civil rights movement to today’s activists, it has always been the people who have been the engine of progress.

So let us not just celebrate another Fourth of July. Let us make this a day of reckoning, where we revisit the unfinished work of our democracy.

Let us declare with one voice that we will no longer tolerate the erosion of our rights, the suppression of our voice, and the disregard of our dignity. Let us resolve that we will fight tirelessly and fearlessly for a nation in which every citizen, regardless of race, creed, or class, can truly pursue happiness and live freely.

If we remain silent in the face of injustice and abandon our founding promises, we risk losing America’s soul. But if we rise up, demand better for ourselves and our leaders, and recommit to the radical idea that all men are created equal, we can overcome any challenge.

This Fourth of July, let us not only celebrate our past. Let us build a new future in which the promises of the Declaration of Independence become a reality for every American. Let us show the world and ourselves that we remain a people capable of greatness and will never stop striving for a more perfect union.

We are a nation that can look at itself in the mirror and admit its mistakes, but never stop working to improve. We can remain a nation of people who can achieve great things when we come together to pursue a common goal – liberty and justice for all.

Johnson, of Columbus, Ohio, is a pastor in the United Methodist Church and program director for the Bridge Alliance. He wrote this for Fulcrum: