Happy Fourth of July! I feel honored to address you on this symbolic day. My love for our country, our Constitution, and those who have gone before me runs deep.
In May of this year, people from across the state of Utah gathered in Vineyard to speak about their love for our country; our freedoms and liberties. Groups from different parties (Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Independents), diverse backgrounds, varying ethnicities, and economic situations, all came and spoke about their love of the U.S. Constitution.
It was an historic event, which may have been unprecedented by its formation in our area. Elected representatives of the people from across Utah at local, county, state and national levels extemporaneously shared their appreciation for and dedication to the high ideals and principles this nation was founded upon, has molded into, and continually strives to forge.
I will not forget that day. It was unexpected and grassroots-driven. It came in a time of global disarray with people struggling to understand and cope with the unknown and unexpected experience we were all now sharing. I stood there watching people around me; some shaking hands, others holding each other close, some physically distancing ... but all striving, speaking and working toward a common theme — the importance of individual freedoms, our country’s fundamental system for governance, and its checks and balances that allow each of us to live as we do today.
As a child, I remember singing the song “God Bless the U.S.A” in my kindergarten class, right before stating the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. The line in the song, “The flag still stands for freedom” emanates powerful words, which have a profound meaning. Since the founding of the United States in 1776, there have been 27 different versions of the flag. Each new flag represented the additional states, and the growth and progress of our young experimental form of government and country. A state in which supreme power was held by the people and their elected representatives. It was something new in the world in 1776. It was the most free place. As we continue to be better, and work toward more fully realizing the promises of this nation’s founding, building on the freedoms of the past, the stars and stripes remain a symbol of freedom and hope, continually expanding and widening the truth that these unalienable rights are for all people.
As the founders of our nation separated themselves from Great Britain, a representation of our flag formed. Thomas Jefferson sent our Declaration of Independence, which laid out the reasons as to why, after being united with Great Britain, they were impelled to separate. Great Britain was the leader of the world economically and politically, and it was the most powerful and free state of its time. Despite their love for their country, Great Britain, and the stability it provided, the founders of America petitioned to have the rights that had been promised to them by Great Britain, after centuries of oppression, preserved to them, but to no avail, and as such, they severed their ties.
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “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.”
It’s strange to me to think that there was a time when the norm was that the majority of people were not able to own land, to believe what they wanted, to marry who they saw fit, or to speak out when their government was placing undue burdens on them. The freedoms and norms I’m accustomed to in 2020 make it strange to me to think that there was a time when people of different races, sexes, and religions were marginalized out of the expanded freedoms established in 1776. It is alarming to me that in 2020 there are places in the world where it persists today.
The flag was created to represent the formation of our country, our new-found freedoms, Constitution, and its structure, which allowed us to amend and improve upon it, turning it into what we see today.
The flag represents Mumbet, a young woman also known as Elizabeth Freeman. She was the first enslaved person to be freed in Massachusetts as a result of the Bill of Rights addition to the 1780 state constitution. Following the court decision that granted her freedom, Mumbet became a paid employee for Theodore and Pamela Sedgwick and their children.
The flags represent the blood shed in the Civil War, when once again we had to fight to take back human rights because of uncompromising differences between the free states and states that enslaved people. While Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was brief, its plainness called upon the principles of human equality contained in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution. It was a statement that America was united, and again stood for freedom, a freedom for all people.
The flags represent the Civil Rights Movement when Martin Luther King Jr. came to collect on the promises presented in the Constitution and exclaimed that he had a dream that “his four little children would live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He was employing John Marshall Harlan’s (sole) dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that the Constitution did not see color, nor class, and was petitioning for proper treatment.
He explained “In a sense, we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness ... “
Martin Luther King Jr. understood the meaning of the Constitution, and that he could fight for the freedoms it had codified. “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
As our flag has evolved and America has grown, the meaning of that symbol has deepened into a more representative truth as to what we all stand and strive for. With each change that codified our natural rights, each fight that extended freedoms to entire groups of people, and each change that allowed for the rights to own land and to vote for not only men, but women, and not only white people, but black people and those of every race and background, we embodied the meaning of that Declaration. With each person that took the extra steps to make these changes, the people that knocked down the walls to freedom, the people that gave their lives to make sure that the idyllic Constitution and human rights natural to every person were brought to the doors of every American, we can see that the flag still stands for freedom. A day and a flag that changed the world in 1776, and has been a glorious anniversary and symbol to some; has deepened to be a symbol for so many more because of the foundations and structure this great nation was built upon, which has allowed people to take back their natural freedoms and rights.
The changes and challenges we’ve overcome are not wholly represented in the few examples shared. The flag has come so far. I’m grateful for those who were brave enough to challenge the norms of the day, to experiment with something greater, so I could be free today, and fight for a better tomorrow. I’m grateful for the explorers, for the founders of the country, for those who gave their lives in wars fought for freedom, for the abolitionists, and the suffragists, and suffragettes. I’m grateful for the people today who continue to fix the things still broken, those who stand up and will not yield, continually striving to protect against the loss or restriction of freedoms. Today we live in a country where petition is our liberty, where freedom of speech and expression is protected, where peaceful assembly makes real change, and is not shut down, and where freedom of religion or consciousness is ours.
While these rights are ingrained in me as part of my natural rights as a human being, it may be an afterthought to some, because America is a place where no person is greater than another person, and because it has been codified into the legal system. However, it’s good to remember what has provided those rights to us. It symbolizes our Republic and the Constitution of our great nation. Today, is a moment to remember that they are ours, and should never be surrendered. It is by remembering our history, that we can see how far we have come, and the failings and successes that brought us to where we are today, and keep us safe from the defects of the past. One cannot judge the past with the vision of our lenses today. It does not, and will not make sense. However, we can learn from it. If we are not better off than our ancestors, then why not? What can be done today to make that difference? What is holding us back, deep within each of us, within our homes or communities, within society, within our government and our laws?
The challenges today are complex. We do not always agree on how to solve these issues, but together we will get there. Common ground brings people together. As the whole world shut down in the global pandemic, people united in sacrifice to support our health systems; they stood strong to rebuild industries and jobs that support our country’s infrastructure; together they supported black lives and rooted out oppression; and stood by our officers who protect our cities and country. As lives have been torn apart by intense discord and natural destruction, there have been groups in 2020 that joined together, united to sustain the principles that have continued to give us a better tomorrow.
In a world where there is a narrative for division, strength can be drawn from remembrance of the symbols of our flag; one of unity, freedom and hope. A deep reminder of a personal responsibility to focus on what brings us together, to give grace and be civil, and that every shared perspective makes us stronger. As you celebrate your freedom and independence today, reflect on the changes that have occurred throughout our history. Our flag is a prompt to continue marching forward toward success, and in the dark mist that comes around each of us at some point, a beacon of virtuous principle that we can hold tightly to; one that will lead us safely home.