“They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace! Peace!’ when there is no peace.” Jeremiah 6:14
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 affect their Safety and Happiness.
These truths are self-evident. There is no need to justify them. There is no need to validate them. There is no need to debate them. These truths, the very foundation of our republic, are indeed the absolute and universal axioms to which all of our justice appeals, by which all of our conclusions are validated, and to which all of our debates look for moderation. These truths, self-evident, are the thread which should run through every seam in the fabric of the United States of America.
Two-hundred and two-score years ago, the founding fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to this self-evident proposition:
All people are, by virtue of their very existence, equal and, by that same virtue, equally possess rights which are inherent to them and of which they can never be dispossessed. These rights include, but are not limited to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We needn’t validate this claim as it validates itself. It is evident, if nowhere else, in the ways in which human societies naturally organize themselves all over the world. Indeed, all of the governments which we organize for ourselves as citizens of the United States exist for the purpose of securing these rights and to the degree that such governments fail in this endeavor, it is incumbent upon us, the people, to act in whatever way we deem necessary to cause these rights—our safety, freedom, and happiness and that of our local and global neighbors—to be secured. This is the conception and dedication of our new nation.
And make no mistake. She is still new. Oh, it may seem that we’ve come a long way. “After all,” some may say, “it’s 2016! It’s been a long time since 1776.”
Yet, in 1852, fully three score and sixteen years after the British Colonies of America made this formal declaration, Frederick Douglas stood to address powerful white men who had assembled to hear a free Negro sing the praises of America and posed to them this question: “What, to a slave, is your Fourth of July?”
What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?
I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me…
…Let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people:
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”
Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, 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 scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world.
You see, Brother Frederick had been called upon to sing the songs of a Zion he had never seen. Brother Frederick, a free man who lived and worked among free men in a free city, had yet never seen freedom. The Zion for which he longed was a land of the free which did not yet exist. Though he longed to climb that holy hill singing in call and response about self-evident truths and unalienable rights he could not sing Zion’s songs by the rivers of Babylon.
“They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace! Peace!’ when there is no peace.”
But that was way back in 1852. It’s been a long time since 1852.
Yet, in 1938, One-hundred, three-score, and two years from the declaration that all are created equal, Langston Hughes looked around at the poverty, racism, and homophobia faced by people like him and found:
…only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
…that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!”
…the millions shot down when we strike,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
You see, Brother Langston looked around at the America in which he lived and recalled the America about which he had been taught. He saw an America in which a wave of evictions were creating an entire indigent class with whole families thrown out in the street at the whim of deep-pocketed landlords, where poor black and brown men were being dragged in chains to the rock quarries and the cotton fields for so much as speaking of Alcohol and Reefer while speakeasies were bursting with white men reveling in prosperity, where people who did not conform to established gender norms were excluded from society, if not tortured and murdered. Brother Langston looked at that America and recalled the Land of opportunity he had heard about in legend and song and spoke into the chasm between, crying out “O, I say it plain! America was never America to me.”
“They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace! Peace!’ when there is no peace”
But that was way back in 1938. It’s been a long time since 1938.
Yet, one hundred, four score, and seven years following the penning of that great Declaration of America’s forefathers, Martin King, another dreamer of an almost-dead dream, went to our nation’s capital to cash a check.
Then, as now, it was obvious that, insofar as her citizens of color were concerned, America had defaulted on the promissory note by which she pledged unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
…But 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. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
You see, Brother Martin, check in hand, possessed by Brother Frederick’s question—What, to a slave is your fourth of July—recited with Brother Langston that great resolution, “America has never been America to me. Yet I swear this oath: America will be!”
And so, here we are, siblings, sisters, brothers. Two-hundred and two-score years hence, here we are to issue our judgement upon the delinquent account of these states and to demand what we are owed.
This is our judgement: Give us what is due us or be found in contempt.
Our demand is simple: Stop killing us!
And when we have secured for ourselves our right to life: Secure with us our right to pursue our happiness and well-being.
This, dear friends, is why we march and kneel and chant and sing and sit and dance and gather in protest.
Now, there are some who would ask, “Where is the slave in my town? Show me the poor soul who has unjustly lost their life because the governments of Cookeville, TN or Johnson County, Wyoming or the state of Rhode Island have failed to perform the duties for which they were commissioned.”
And one may be right to assert that the most immediate threats to the lives of the members of their community are not slavery and state violence, but—in the case of my town, for instance—poverty, addiction, domestic violence, and homelessness. So, if I can go on for a few more moments, please allow me to answer that concern.
Setting aside the inescapable network of mutuality in which Dr. King said every human is bound, the fact that “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” that “None of us is free until all of us are free,” there is also the simple reality that every human community in every age faces real and terrible social problems which must be addressed with the utmost urgency. But what if the problems which are most evident to us in any given moment are not entirely separate from the ones which we have been protesting over the last couple of years in particular?
Allow me to present a resolution:
Whereas the right to life depends on the availability and accessibility of quality Healthcare and American states’ refusals to expand Medicare in compliance with the Affordable Care Act has dumped thousands of our children and neighbors into the dreaded Medicare gap; and
Whereas our bodies are broken and our lives are cut short because of our inability to perform such simple tasks as routine trips to the dentist or the obstetrician or to purchase prescription medication which among our sister societies around the world is free to anyone in need; and
Whereas our War on Drugs, which has been proven discriminatory, ineffective, and counterproductive, is splitting our families, making orphans of our children, and leaving our former addicts with no recourse but to work upwards of 300 hours a month well into their seniority just to maintain debt and secure the necessities of life; and
Whereas inability to pay bail and to hire the best lawyers means we must choose between, on the one hand, pleading guilty to a crime which we did not commit and, on the other, spending months in jail before ever being tried, convicted, and much less sentenced; and
Whereas our refusal to pay a living wage means some of us must put off the founding of the families which we were born to build because children have become a liability rather than a blessing; a luxury for those who can afford them, violating our right to pursue our own happiness; and
Whereas we work countless hours, spending decades of our lives producing wealth which is distributed to men in New York and Washington who did not labor for it, who do not value our labor, and who can not return to us our years; working 40, 50, or 60 hours and still living in poverty; and
Whereas our teachers and students are arriving to school every morning hungry and exhausted and are told that they must simply work harder; and
Whereas our refusals to lie, cheat, charge interest on loans, go without hijab in public, shave our faces or cut our hair, fund wars and executions, our commitments to the family bond, to simple living, and to welcoming the widow, orphan, and stranger who seeks refuge from terror abroad can all mean that we must forfeit the American Dream if not live in perpetual civil disobedience in violation of our right to freely exercise our religions; and
Whereas capital-oriented economic development without expansion of the social safety net raises some from poverty but simultaneously drives those who remain in poverty farther and farther to the extremities of society, both economically and geographically; and
Whereas they have treated the wounds of my people carelessly, saying “Peace! Peace!” When there is no peace;
We do hereby declare that Black lives have not yet begun to matter to the extent which they must if Black lives are to be saved from poverty, intransigence, imprisonment, sickness, and death. We must, therefore, continue reciting that old creed that all are created equal and calling out the places where we have failed to live up to that creed, giving voice to those on the margins of society. We must proclaim that Arab lives matter, Immigrant lives matter, Trans lives matter, convict lives matter, mentally-ill lives matter, poor lives matter, and Black lives matter!
Therefore, be it resolved that we will continue to explicitly and publicly proclaim the value of Black life.
We will not stop until no citizen of this country or of our community who dedicates a third of their lives to the production of wealth through labor lives in poverty.
We will not stop until no citizen of this country or of our community lives in fear for their life because of the way that they peacefully express their religious identity.
We will not stop until no citizen of this country or of our community is made to live in poverty because of their parents’ poor choices.
We will not stop until no citizen of this country or of our community is presumed to be a criminal because of their ethnicity, accent, or attire.
We will not stop until no citizen of this country or of our community is made homeless because they were not included in the growing prosperity of their home’s community but were nevertheless subjected to the increased cost of living.
And when we have achieved those things, we will not stop. Because we know that the problems which we face come not from some outside evil but from within us. Each and every human being is capable of great good and great evil.
As a child is born without hatred or animosity toward those who look different than them, so a child is also born with a preference for the facial features of their primary caretaker. As a child is not born with racial slurs on their lips, so a child is born with biases toward the scales and cadence of their mother’s culture’s music.
This is not just about isolated incidents and bad apples. This is not just about the KKK and rogue cops. This is not even just about our policies and programs and social systems. This is about us. This is about humanity. This is about recognizing that the capacity to become ground zero for another hashtag rests not in the misfortune to have a so-called “killer cop” on our force, but in our refusal to honestly address the danger which lurks within the social, economic, and political systems and structures we have erected and the danger which lurks within our own unseen potential.
We are the enemy and we are the hero. We are the problem and we are the solution. But we cannot be that solution so long as we fail to recognize the wounds of our own people. Let us not treat those wounds with carelessness. Let us be the solution together. Let us work together to make the America and the Cookeville and the Johnson County and the Rhode Island which never was. Let us march together up old Zion’s hill clapping our hands and singing of liberty and justice for all! My friends, let us love one another. For love, the official currency of the bank of justice, is also endowed by our creator. And love alone can fulfill all of our obligations to one another.
My friend, Ashley, once said a prayer that has become part of my daily morning meditation:
This is my family
We are humanity
Lord, have mercy
And teach us to walk with eyes open
To those who walk alone
And destitute among us
Yes, let us walk with eyes open to the open wounds around us. Let us not simply say “Peace! Peace!”. Let us be the makers of real and lasting justice and peace.
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!