The space of freedom is enlarged only because people are willing to risk their careers, livelihoods, social status, sometimes even their very lives for it. Freedom is never frozen in place, and is always contested and challenged by those who view privilege as something reserved for a certain kind of Americans, usually white, wealthy, propertied, male, heterosexual and cisgendered.
Let us express gratitude to those who give meaning to the Fourth of July through their personal sacrifices to enlarge the space of freedom, as we reflect during a time of political peril when powerful men pass laws to control which bathrooms we use, and exploit fear and resentment to whip up hostility against immigrants and Muslims.
Thank you to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the 99 other signatories to the Declaration of Sentiments who asserted at Seneca Falls, NY in 1848 in the face of certain ridicule and hostility: “In view of this entire disenfranchisement of one-half the people in this country, their social and religious degradation — in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.”
Thank you to Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Galloway for variously speaking out for the abolition of slavery, assisting slaves in their flight to freedom, recruiting black men and women to fight against the Confederacy and collecting intelligence to support the Union war effort.
Thank you to Gordon Hirabashi of Seattle for refusing to obey a curfew against Japanese-Americans at the start of World War II and for refusing to obey an order to be evacuated to a detention camp.
Thank you to the Barnette children, Jehovah’s Witnesses in West Virginia, who sued their school district and won a ruling from the Supreme Court in 1943 upholding the right to not say the Pledge of Allegiance.
Thank you to Velma Hopkins, Theodosia Simpson, Moranda Smith, Viola Brown, Etta Hobson and other black women who led strikes at RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. in Winston-Salem in the 1940s to improve working conditions and wages.
Thank you to George Simkins Jr. and five others for subjecting themselves to arrest simply because they insisted on their rights as citizens to play golf at Gillespie Golf Course in Greensboro in 1955, and knocking down the ludicrous custom holding that black residents could not enjoy the public accommodations financed by their own taxes.
Thank you to Robert F. Williams for insisting on the right to use the public swimming pool in Monroe County, NC in 1957 in response to the drowning deaths of black children who didn’t have the opportunity to learn to swim, and for repelling an attack by the Ku Klux Klan with gunfire.
Thank you to Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, Jibreel Khazan and David Richmond for enduring racist taunts and harassment to desegregate the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960.
Thank you to the Rev. George Lee, Lamar Smith, Herbert Lee, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Vernon Dahmer and countless other martyrs who died in the struggle to secure the right to vote.
Thank you to Muhammad Ali and all others who have refused to fight unjust and unnecessary wars against people with whom they have no quarrel, and thank you to John Kerry and other “winter soldiers” who spoke out about the realities of war as recently discharged service members.
Thank you to Sylvia Rivera, Raymond Castro, Maria Ritter, John O’Brien, Marsha P. Johnson and all those who participated in the Stonewall uprising in New York City for making it known that LGBTQ people would not be bullied by the police, demeaned and forced to live in the shadows simply for being open about their sexuality.
Thank you to Uriel Alberto, Estephania Mijangos-Lopez, Cynthia Martinez and countless other DREAMers across the country who have declared their undocumented status while subjecting themselves to arrest and risking deportation to demand the right to pursue their education, work and live their lives free of discrimination and second-class status.
Thank you to Tonya Rinehart, Andrea Angelo, Mark Maxwell, Timothy Young, Brent Morin, Jerry Morin and the dozens of other same-sex couples who presented themselves at the Forsyth County Register of Deeds Office in Winston-Salem in 2012 to request marriage certificates.
Thank you to the hundreds of North Carolinians in the Moral Monday movement who have been arrested since 2013 for putting their bodies on the line to protest the suppression of voting rights, the refusal to expand Medicaid coverage, reductions to unemployment benefits, assaults on public education and other acts by the North Carolina General Assembly.
Thank you. Your acts of boldness constitute the down payment on our freedom. Let us pay it forward with courage and compassion in whatever small ways we can imagine.