The Rise of Patriotism

by on August 7, 2019 · 0 comments

in Civil Rights, Ocean Beach

Photo: 1960, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, “Youth in the Civil Rights Movement”

By Joni Halpern

Dear Ohio,

Patriotism is big among American politicians.  They wear patriotic clothing of red, white and blue.  They spout patriotism in their rhetoric.  They mouth the words of patriotic songs. They wear lapel pins referring to God and country.  They eat patriotism with their hot dogs and french fries.

But what is a patriot?

Is he or she a loyalist?  A nationalist?  A flag-waver?  A chauvinist?

I will go out on a limb here and offer my humble definition of “patriot.”  In the United States of America, the oldest representative democracy in the world, a “patriot” is a person who lives the values of our constitution, no matter the cost.  It is commonly — and wrongly — thought that a true patriot can only be someone who serves our country by putting on a uniform.  But that is not the only way to serve.  In fact, it can be just as life-threatening to live constitutional values right here on our own soil.  Many Americans have lost their livelihoods, savings, reputations, community standing, and not infrequently, their lives, by asking their countrymen to extend the promise of the Bill of Rights to all of us.

Which brings me to a question:  Who has been more dogged, more tenacious, more passionate, more courageous, more tireless in reminding Americans of this duty of Constitutional equality than Black people?

I know there are other great people who individually and together have sacrificed their safety and security, their fortunes and their lives, to demand that Americans live up to their obligations under this majestic document we call the Constitution.  But I call your attention today to Black people, whose efforts to be included in the body politic have been defeated so often, denigrated so ardently, punished so severely, and condemned so passionately, that it seems like a miracle they haven’t given up on the concept of America.  They still think Americans can live the values of equality and inclusion embodied in our Constitution.

It is a source of hope to listen to the call of Black people reminding us of our values.  I hear their voices at meetings, in news media, in conversations, amid the hum of the public dialogue.  I hear their pleas in courtrooms, school rooms, churches, and theaters.  I hear their shouts in the silent gestures of their athletes, their freedom marchers, their fists raised against the sky.  I read about their heroes who braved beatings, death threats and cold killing, not just in the old days of the slavery and Reconstruction, but in modern days, last year, last week, yesterday.  And still Black people call upon America to live our patriotism.

The most amazing thing about the Black community is that generally, they have not called for revolt against this great nation.  They have called upon all of us to be the America embodied in our Bill of Rights.  The America protected by constitutional discipline.  We hear the refrain of the Black community across the abyss that still divides us: “We are one people,” they say.  “We are all Americans.”

Since the end of slavery, Black people have tried consistently to show us how deeply they believe that all Americans are part of the same national fabric.  They worked hard even when the opportunities left for them were the worst ones at the lowest pay.  They sent their kids to public schools when America permitted it, even though the schools were often inferior.  Black people built churches, then supported and attended them, which they do even to this day.  They enriched white culture with innovations in language, music, literature and the arts.  They contributed mightily to our sciences, even though they were given few opportunities.

Hundreds of thousands of Black people persist in voting even today, despite legislators passing laws purposely to devalue or deny their vote.  They have borne the suffering of disparity while pursuing peaceful processes to provoke change.  Even so, they still languish unfairly in prisons, suffer inordinately from homelessness and hunger, send their children to underfunded schools, and in great measure, have nothing to sustain their efforts at inclusion except the call for mercy from a compassionate God.  But they still volunteer for the military, even when we send our soldiers to war on a pretext, even when we treat them with the same contempt when they return.

Black people have played a pivotal role in defining what “equal protection” means in our Constitution.  They faced threats, beatings, imprisonment, and death to tell their stories in courtrooms across this nation, losing in many cases, but finally giving substance to the most patriotic value we hold:  that all human beings are created equal, and therefore, should enjoy the same inalienable rights.

How can we call Black Americans anything but patriots, Dear Ohio?  They never give up on America.  They constantly ask everyone to live up to our Constitution, to deliver on its promises, to make it more than a lapel pin or a long red tie against a white shirt in a blue suit.  They still think we can achieve the promise of a nation in which we are all equal.  A nation in which we all rise.

It is so easy for politicians to wrap themselves in the flag, Dear Ohio.  But ask any one of them whether they can live patriotism with the endurance and intensity that Black people have demonstrated throughout our history.  Then we’ll find out who the real patriots are.














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