America The Enduring

We the People of the United States have endured a year of despair; but don’t despair, for we have endured. At the time of this writing, I don’t yet know who from our diverse and patriotic slate of willing servants have been elected to further our more perfect union. At the time of this reading, you—and I—likely will either have celebrated victory or suffered disappointment. But we will not despair, for together we are Americans.

We are inspired to continue the great experiment that is America because of the sacrifices we have made to claim her. From the moment we wrestled our independence from those who would dictate our beliefs, practices, and way of life, we have acknowledged that great things are built from the ground up—by the people, for the people. Our confidence in this solid foundation allows us to look head-on at the mistakes we have made and the grief we have caused our fellow Americans—and learn. Even those we have aggrieved have maintained hope and continued working for freedom and equality in the shadows of great suffering. Chief Joseph declared, “I will fight no more forever” upon his surrender to General O.O. Howard in 1877, though his heart was broken, “sick and sad.” Yet he recognized dignity’s power and the duty to care for his people and tend to their wellbeing. Despite the fact that he was “tired of fighting,” he spent his life advocating for a future where “we shall be all alike—brothers of one father and mother, with one sky above us and one country around us and one government for all.”

From human beings who lived their lives enslaved, to people granted the nation’s greatest political and financial powers, Americans have worked to advance this “new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Former slave, abolitionist, and great orator Frederick Douglass acknowledged to his white audience that “the blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common” when he asked them on the anniversary of our nation’s founding in 1852, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” After rebuking his listeners—his “fellow citizens”—for rejoicing while he must mourn, he went on to remind those in Rochester, New York’s Corinthian Hall that “we have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future.”

The future Douglass envisioned was not something that would passively happen but would be fought for with immense struggle and sacrifice. In 1939 South Carolina educator, activist, and daughter of former slaves Mary McLeod Bethune told fellow Americans on NBC’s “America’s Town Meeting of the Air,” “Democracy is for me, and for 12 million black Americans, a goal towards which our nation is marching.” To her, the fight for democracy would be “fearless, free, united, morally re-armed.” To her, and to you and me, her faith in democracy involved a vision of “mutual respect and understanding.” To her, America was both a “dream and an ideal.” Bethune’s work to extend America’s ideals to all citizens earned her appointment as Director of the Office of Minority Affairs in the National Youth Administration by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935. Just six years later, and only two years following her famous speech on democracy, FDR addressed Congress to declare war on Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Though he was referring to the literal victory of war, when FDR claimed “the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory,” he also was uniting Americans in their defense of freedom and democracy. He knew, as we all know, that as long as our country maintains “confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph.”

President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech would later be compared to the words of President George W. Bush when he spoke to the nation following the 9/11 attacks. On September 20, 2001, President Bush issued healing balm to grieving Americans by reminding us that the strength of our nation lay in our freedoms, unity, and resolve. America is a beacon to the world, and the fight against terrorism is a global fight. “This is civilization’s fight. This is the fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom.” These are values of which America leads by example, and “in a fight for our principles, our first responsibility is to live by them. No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith.”

I’m no historian, but I am an American. The words from the above fellow Americans who have experienced our nation in all of its horror and beauty are the reason we stand in line for hours to make a deeply personal decision we think will best serve us and our neighbors. They’re the reason we don voting stickers as though we’ve won a great prize—because we have. So let us not despair over disease, unrest, or disappointment. Let us instead work towards healing our bodies, souls, and communities, lifting up the weary and the sick, listening to the affronted, and allowing ourselves to be guided by wisdom. Let us forever be reminded that our neighbors are indeed ourselves, and that together we are America. While our enemies may resent our freedoms, let us remember that our greatest strength is that even in harsh disagreement, we somehow remain united. Our nation’s work is always unfinished, and may we never rest from establishing justice, ensuring tranquility, and securing the blessings of liberty.

By Tara Bailey