News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion
MONDAY, JULY 4, 2005


Effort to achieve 1776 ideals continues in America today

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. ...

—Declaration of
July 4, 1776

When he sentenced Edgar Ray Killen last month to 60 years in prison for manslaughter, Judge Marcus Gordon said something that a Southern state judge might have kept to himself 41 years ago.

Judge Gordon was speaking of Mr. Killen's victims, three civil rights workers — one black and two whites — who were killed in Mississippi in 1964.

"Each life has value," the judge said. "Each life is equally as valuable as the other life, and I have taken that into consideration. The three lives should absolutely be respected and treated equally."

Incredibly, some Americans did not embrace that doctrine well into the 20th century. By the 1960s, only a few criminals were committing race-based acts of violence, but too many people were standing by, failing to speak up and letting it happen.

Jimmy Carter's novel of the Revolutionary War, "The Hornet's Nest," reminds readers that not all Americans felt this war was their fight.

American Indians and black slaves sometimes helped Britain because there was no liberty in sight for them at the end of the war. Even many white settlers did not get involved until the war touched them personally when family members were hurt or killed, their property was seized or destroyed, or their ambitions were thwarted. (Some of those took the British side.)

The founders of 1776 set up a government with the goal of making liberty possible — not with the illusion that liberty would be instantly achieved for everybody.

... That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed ...

On this Fourth of July, we can be proud that more Americans enjoy the blessings of liberty today than 229 or 41 years ago. And we should continue self-criticism and the peaceful, creative conflict of ideas. These will identify more ways we need to expand opportunity to everybody.

America! America!

God mend thine every flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

Thy liberty in law.

—Katharine Lee Bates,
"America the Beautiful," c. 1893

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