Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of the forthcoming book “The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century,” in addition to “Stokely: A Life” and “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
America seems a lifetime away from the evening of November 4, 2008, when Barack Obama, walking on stage as the first Black president-elect in history, extolled the fact that the “dream of our founders” remained thrillingly alive into the 21st century.
That dream, against all odds, remains alive in 2022. While it is, to be frank, an embattled dream, its tenacity can galvanize even the most cynical among us. Even as the Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion invites anger and disbelief regarding the stability of American democratic institutions, ripples of hope abound. On June 25, President Biden signed into law the only substantial federal gun legislation in nearly three decades. The bipartisan breakthrough came on the heels of mass shootings in Buffalo, New York and Uvalde, Texas that broke the nation’s heart and inspired not only anger and sadness, but action.
America’s democratic experiment, though bruised and struggling, continues and deserves to be celebrated – especially amidst the grave political divisions and growing despair of the present.
But this year’s July 4 celebrations come at a time of escalating political division, especially over the loss of women’s bodily autonomy. The Supreme Court’s frontal assault on Roe v. Wade forces into question some of the most fundamental precepts of American democracy: namely the right of individuals to take charge of their own destinies without external threats or interference from their government, law enforcement or fellow citizens.
On the eve of the United States’ 246th birthday, it feels like the country is unraveling, ripping apart at the seams. Americans now face the grim prospect of a nation where the public has increasingly expansive access to guns and military-grade weapons on the one hand, and more restrictions on voting rights, free speech in classrooms and reproductive rights.
Assaults on democracy are now a fact of life, whether in the form of these restrictions or the denial of the gravity of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, even as witnesses appear before Congress to attest to it firsthand.
This stark reality makes for a rather gloomy Independence Day celebration for the millions of true believers in democracy who – despite the GOP’s fervent efforts – remain hopeful for an expansive interpretation of the Founders’ dreams. The denial of women’s citizenship rights in particular fits within a larger assault on historically marginalized groups that has become so prevalent within our body politic.
The story of America continues to be one of becoming in service of a greater purpose than simple individual freedoms. The history of how Roe v. Wade came to be exemplifies the interconnectedness of various freedom struggles – women’s federal protections came in tandem with those for Black people, just as protections for Blacks laid pivotal legal groundwork for other marginalized groups. Black-led civil rights struggles opened doors for gender equality throughout the 1970s, with 1972’s Title IX legislation paving the way for women’s collegiate sports by ending sex discrimination in federally funded educational institutions.
Recent transformative movements for racial justice led by Black women activists, including the Black Lives Matter movement and the Women’s March, illustrate the intersectionality of struggles for citizenship and dignity in ways that have forged extraordinary solidarity across gender and race.
In this difficult moment for our democracy, this Independence Day is a moment to remind ourselves of that interconnected reality, and embrace its power.
This Fourth of July demands that we remember who we were and who we are, but also ask difficult questions about what kind of country we aspire to be. Do we trust ourselves enough to openly teach, discuss and debate the hard parts of American history with our children and future generations, or do we move toward an insularity defined by uncritical thinking that cheapens that very history?
Should we expand the right to vote or restrict access, rendering our country less democratic and a perpetual political tinderbox? Can we extend citizenship to all women by not only restoring Roe but safeguarding against other ongoing assaults on women’s rights and dignity?
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Is the story of January 6 an important chapter in the continuing saga of American democracy or will it be the nation’s epitaph – the beginning of an end that could have been avoided if we exhibited more faith in not only our founders but in each other?
At the heart of Independence Day commemorations have always been questions about who we are as Americans. The newly recognized Juneteenth holiday adds an important and unifying historical layer to this narrative; one that finally acknowledges slavery’s crucial role in the creation and transformation of the American republic.
Four short years from now America turn 250. We still have time to turn that day into a symbol of national renewal instead of anger and division. Getting there will depend on the efforts of those who believe in multiracial, gender-equitable democracy to organize, teach, listen and learn. After all, at its best, the grandeur of the American experiment is that we, collectively, get to decide for ourselves who we are going to be.