Do I celebrate the fourth of July with the enthusiasm as my other fellow Americans? Not really! I understand the reason for the season but a celebration for the birth of our nation that did not include giving my ancestors the same freedom and actually measured them as Three-fifths of a person (although the Three-fifths compromise did not happen until 1787), does not get me excited.
As Fredrick Douglass proclaimed in his speech given in Rochester, NY on July 5, 1852 The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro. I know some people feel that this is a cynical view of things and that African Americans “should get over it”. But it is not that simple and this year’s 4th of July was even more ironic.
On Wednesday, July 2, 2014 we celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which finally gave people of color the freedoms implied in the Emancipation Proclamation of 1865. The duality of this country’s historic memory amazes me but what shocks me even more is that it continues to thrive to this day. My Fourth of July celebration is about freedom and the love of this country, but that freedom did not begin in good ole 1776.
What helped me to appreciate this American holiday in earnest was the wonderful opportunity to assist the newly Naturalized American citizens with voter registration. I have been a member of the League of Women Voters since I was 18 years old. They came to my high school and made sure each student who was going to be of age for the election season was registered to vote. I also use to see these ladies in my community, Newark, NJ registering voters at the Penn Station train and bus depot, the movie theaters, libraries, churches, on the Rutgers University campus and all over the city.
I believe I was born with the Social Justice “itch” and when I turned 18, I registered to vote and became a member of LWV; and no matter where I have lived I joined a chapter. Currently I am a member of the LWVDC chapter. But back in 2007 I was a member for the LWV Charlotte, NC chapter. This chapter had the honor of attending the monthly Naturalization ceremony at the US Citizenship and Immigration Services Field Offices located on Tyvola Centre, in Charlotte, NC.
It was our job to set up a table for voter education for NC residents and registration forms for each new American citizen to fill out and become a part of the most important role of the honor. My first time doing this was on the 4th of July 2007 at the Charlotte courthouse. It was a special celebration where the Mayor and many of the city council leaders joined these amazing people who worked so hard to become United States citizens.
I arrived early for that first time and each time I did this later in the year. I would set up the table of information and registration forms with my fellow LWV members, while the room would fill with families and people who had come to watch the ceremony. We had an opportunity to talk with the candidates for Naturalization and their guests, not only about voting, but also about their journey to this most important day. Each one had a story that led them to this decision. Some of those stories were heroic, emotional and tragic. It was always great to see the soldiers who were not Americans, yet served this country and went to war in the hopes of obtaining their citizenship. They were usually the first to our table following the ceremony eager and ready to register to vote.
It was on that 4th of July watching the ceremony, that I realized that the beauty of living in America is that I am allowed to have these feelings about the Fourth of July and openly discuss it with anyone. It is in the meaning of the famous Emma Lazarus’ quote:
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
The experience of watching the ceremony and assisting the new American citizens with voter registration made me truly enjoy the Fourth of July, for each year it is the first independence day for many.
To read Frederick Douglass’ speech go to: http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/douglassjuly4.html
To learn more about League of Women Voters and to join your local chapter go to: www.lwv.org