I’m about halfway through Raymond Arsenault’s Freedom Riders, an astonishing history of the 1961 rides to de-segregate Trailways and Greyhound bus lines and stations across the South. For those who don’t know this history, a racially mixed group of a dozen or so riders left Washington, DC in May 1961, with the aim of traveling across the South and ending in New Orleans. They never made it, at least not by bus. On the way they were mobbed, beaten, their bus firebombed, all of this assisted by the governments of Alabama and Mississippi and documented in newscasts that shocked the nation. More importantly, it’s an incredibly story of courage in the face of hatred and violence that is hard to imagine and often harder to read through. It’s a story I hope to properly tell my children when the time is right. It’s a story about a group of students and activists who put their lives on the line not only so that states in the South would live up to the letter of federal law, but because the country was failing to live up to the promise enshrined in The Declaration of Independence, which we celebrate today.
It’s good to keep perspective on why The Declaration is important. It’s not because it spawned the strongest, most special, he-man nation in the world. It’s not because the Founders were demigods (we can start debunking that just by counting how many owned slaves). But through Jefferson’s words, John Adams’ oratory in support of it, and the votes of the majority of the Continental Congress, we fixed a great idea, one better than we have ever been in trying to live up to it. It’s an idea to which we return, generation after generation, trying to make it real in “more perfect” ways. It’s the trying that matters. Virtue is not something inherited by a people, no matter how special we think we are. We have to take it on and try to live, each generation to each. It’s when we stop trying, when we take it for granted, that the game will be over. More than a day for fireworks, today should be a re-dedication to a good ideal that remains timeless.