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Independence Days

By Mike Ruffin Every July 4, we Americans celebrate Independence Day. We do so because on that date in 1776, representatives of the thirteen American colonies adopted a document that stated the colonies’ grievances against the British crown and declared their independence from it. That Declaration of Independence contains this statement among its many stirring lines: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ That statement makes a bold claim to know the Almighty’s intentions for humanity. It also states an ideal that we should all commit ourselves to intentionally moving toward. If God has in fact created all human beings equal and has in fact endowed them with those rights, then we should do all we can to enable and empower people to live out their full equality and to gain and exercise their full rights. From its beginning, our nation had a long way to go in living up to those noble ideals. For a long time, free white land-owning males were regarded and treated as being more equal and more free than other people. Other people didn’t have the rights and privileges that they had. The institution of slavery was a particularly egregious offense against the ideals of equality and liberty. President Abraham Lincoln took steps during the Civil War to end slavery. On September 22, 1863, he issued a proclamation declaring that, as of January 1, 1864, enslaved persons in the states that were in rebellion against the United States of America would be free. There were limits to the Emancipation Proclamation. For example, it applied to only Confederate states and not to border states that remained in the Union but where slavery still existed. Still, the Emancipation Proclamation signaled the beginning of the end of slavery in the United States. As Union forces advanced into Confederate territory, more and more slaves became free, with some 200,000 of them joining the Union army, as the Emancipation Proclamation also allowed them to do. On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia. The war formally ended on June 2 with the surrender of the last Confederate army. On June 19, 1865, Union forces under the command of General Gordon Granger came to Galveston, Texas, where Granger read General Orders No. 3: ‘The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.’ While some months would pass before all slaves in Texas were freed, and while slavery would not be abolished until the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified on December 6, 1865, the date of Granger’s reading of the order freeing slaves in Texas quickly’”the following year, in fact’”came to be celebrated as the end of slavery in the United States. June Nineteenth’”Juneteenth for short’”has been celebrated ever since. And as of 2021, by act of Congress and upon the signature of President Biden, it is recognized as a national holiday. This is good and appropriate despite the objections some people have voiced. One such objection is that all Americans should observe July 4 as our common Independence Day and that having a separate observance of Juneteenth is divisive. First of all, all Americans can celebrate July 4. I would say that we all should do so for at least two reasons. First, July 4 marks the beginning of our nation’s existence’”it is our national birthday. Second, it marks the beginning of the long, arduous, and ongoing process of securing, maintaining, and increasing equal rights and freedoms for all Americans. But the fact is that July 4, 1776 marks the beginning rather than the end of that process. The further fact is that June 19, 1865 marks a crucial advance in our nation’s efforts to live up to its noble ideals. July 4 reminds us that we should all be free. June 19 reminds us that we need to keep doing all we can to enable and empower everyone to be free.

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