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Celebrating freedoms without exercising them [Commentary]

As the holiday weekend draws to a close, please pause from the cookouts and fireworks to reflect on the meaning of this freedom we've been celebrating, knowingly or not.

When 50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he placed it in the context of "a long struggle for freedom" that began when the Founding Fathers adopted the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.

"They pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor, not only to found a nation, but to forge an ideal of freedom; not only for political independence, but for personal liberty; not only to eliminate foreign rule, but to establish the rule of justice in the affairs of men."

Now, we know that the noble ideal of 1776 did not really embrace blacks, women, Native Americans or whites without property.

"For revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival," Frederick Douglass, a former slave in the Eastern Shore who became one of history's greatest orators, told Independence Day revelers in Rochester, N.Y., in 1852. At the time more than 3 million of their fellow human beings were enslaved, treated as chattel.

"The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscious of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be denounced," Douglass thundered.

As President Johnson noted, people of all colors have died in every American battle "to protect our freedom," even when it was denied to them. So, as he dramatically signed the bill into law, using more than 70 pens that he handed out to men and women instrumental in bringing the nation to that turning point, he acknowledged the imperfection of 1776 in a televised address. "Those who founded our country knew that freedom would be secure only if each generation fought to renew and enlarge its meaning."

Fortunately for us — including the 75 percent of registered voters who routinely ignore primary elections like those held last month and 40 percent who do so in years when the presidency is at stake — there have always been people taking seriously that directive to keep on fighting.

In that same summer 50 years ago, hundreds of young people — many of them college students, some of them from Maryland — were doing that. They converged upon Mississippi to take part in Freedom Summer, securing for blacks the rights that a Civil War 100 years before had supposedly granted with the blood of 750,000 dead. So indifferent were Mississippi's leaders that not until last year did the state formally ratify the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery.

Just days before President Johnson's White House ceremony, three Freedom Summer volunteers — Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman — were ambushed, beaten, shot to death and buried in an earthen dam by a mob hell-bent on denying blacks the right to vote. The FBI and other law enforcement officers were frantically searching for the missing men. After their bodies were recovered on August 4, it was clear that Chaney, a 21-year-old black Mississippian, had been singled out for torture.

"I have never seen bones so severely shattered, except in tremendously high speed accidents or airplane crashes. It was obvious to any first-year medical student that this boy had been beaten to a pulp," a medical examiner told reporters.

All this was for a right to vote that is so taken for granted that it is blithely ignored in 2014, even as sinister forces conspire to close off the ballot box to thousands, perhaps millions. A year ago, when the same people who don't vote were probably not paying attention, the United States Supreme Court gutted another hallmark of the civil rights era, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, removing a key federal oversight role. Since then, as a new proposed law is working its way through Congress, cynical mischief makers have been having a field day throughout the land, restricting voter eligibility, canceling elections, changing voting places, limiting voting hours.

Even if you have experienced no problems at your polling place, you should still be alarmed about threats to voting rights elsewhere. If this is truly one nation indivisible, then the fight must be joined to renew and enlarge the meaning of freedom in our lifetimes. Complacency is not an option.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her email is er.shipp@aol.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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