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.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, in Congress, July 4, 1776
Today is Independence Day. At the heart of this longing for, and the declaration of, independence, is that idea that all are created equal, and among those unalienable rights is one called life and another called liberty.
Recently, my wife and I took a vacation trip that was moving beyond words. We are both interested in how this country, so obsessed with freedom, withheld it for so very long for those among us who were of a different skin color, solely because of their different skin color.
We went to Atlanta, Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery. We re-read portions of essential writings of Taylor Branch. We went to multiple Civil Rights museums, each adding new layers of depth to our understanding. We saw the spot where the dogs and firehoses were used by Bull Connor, we walked across the bridge in Selma, and we saw the many sites in Montgomery where the struggle was so visible, and important.
But in Montgomery, a young man (an African American young man) working at our hotel told us to go to the museum at the Equal Justice Initiative. This was right in the heart of downtown Montgomery. Right around the corner from the exact spot where Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955.
I had read (and presented a synopsis of) Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. From the book:
I was uncertain about what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew it would have something to do with the lives of the poor, America’s history of racial inequality, and the struggle to be equitable and fair with one another.
It turned out that the “museum” at the offices of the Equal Justice Initiative is not yet open. But another very thoughtful young man led us to the room that will soon open to the public. I want you to take a very close look at these two photographs, one taken by my wife, the other taken by me:
This is from the EJI site on Lynchings in America:
This site features painful stories of America’s history of racial injustice. In order to heal the deep wounds of our present, we must face the truth of our past.
After slavery was formally abolished, lynching emerged as a vicious tool of racial control to reestablish white supremacy and suppress black civil rights. More that 4,000 African Americans were lynched across twenty states between 1877 and 1950.
These lynchings were public acts of racial terrorism, intended to instill fear in entire black communities. Government officials frequently turned a blind eye or condoned the mob violence.
The effects of racial terror lynchings are still felt today.
In that room at their offices are shelves filled with jars. They are gathering the dirt from the spots where human beings were lynched. The dirt is filled with the DNA, what is left of the remains of the ones who died with their life and liberty taken from them.
And, by the way, such lynchings occurred in Dallas, and in Waco, and in… likely your city or county.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” said Dr. King.
So, on this day, the day we celebrate our independence; independence gained so that we could share those unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – we remember that we have been uneven – unjust — in protecting these rights in our country.
And, there are those who still seek to take away life and liberty of some. Sadly, the Equal Justice Initiative is the perfect name for an organization in these United States of America.
So, as the fireworks and the celebrations remind us of our great victory of independence, let us all remember our responsibility.
A personal note: My wife and I are people of modest means. But we are donating $14.00 on the first day of every month to the Equal Justice Initiative, and another $14.00 to CitySquare. The EJI is leading the fight for equal justice for the many; CitySquare is a wonderful, effective local nonprofit that is seeking to give folks, including many people of color, a closer-to-equal opportunity.
Why $14.00? That is the amount of the fine imposed on Rosa Parks when she was arrested on December 1, 1955.
A request/challenge: though I am high on my “formula” for two donations, one to EJI, and one to a local nonprofit, you choose your own donation recipients. And consider donating $14.00, especially on December 1, in memory of Rosa Parks.
(And, if you are in the Dallas area, click here to donate to CitySquare).