The Values We Profess
The hypocrisy of America’s Founding Fathers — let’s go with the traditional gendered version here — is self-evident. All men weren’t created equal. The rights they were born with were totally alienable, especially at birth. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — “property” in the original Lockean — were only conditionally available.
Yet those are the words they wrote, and signed their names below, large enough for the King to see it, in one case.
Those are the ideals of our nation, however much our nation has failed them in the centuries since. And some of us are damnfool enough to take them seriously.
You live under a monarch, you’re a subject. You live under a republic, you’re a citizen. And as a citizen, well, you rule. Not by yourself, not as a crank in the wilderness, but collectively, among other citizens, a majority of whom can make the rules.
Within limits, of course. You can’t rule away other citizens. You can’t restrict their citizenship. You can boss them around a good deal, as long as you don’t change the nature of who they are as citizens.
That’s the idea, anyway. That’s the ideal. And, last we checked, that’s still the ideal our nation aspires to, even when it’s just lip-service.
Kind of like touching the stump at the Apollo.
You may not know about that tradition. When you go on stage to perform at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, you rub a shellacked tree stump off to the side. It’s from the Tree of Hope, which grew outside another theater six blocks away. Performers used to touch the tree itself, until it died. There’s a plaque there now. It was placed by Bill Robinson — Mister Bojangles.
His signature’s on it. We sign what we believe in.
The genius of the civil-rights movement was that it held up a mirror to us, to our values as a nation, to our self-evident truths — to our beliefs. The mirror revealed our failures, the hollowness of our beautiful words. It was a national guilt trip.
It worked because it shamed us. It worked because we were capable of being shamed. We still — collectively, enough of us anyway — bought into the language of the Declaration, never mind the flawed men who wrote it. If we’re all created equal, what the hell are those guys doing with firehoses?
John Lewis lived that moment. He lived those values — our values, the values we profess. His life was a monument to those values, his very visage living granite. He never gave up on our values, never gave up holding a mirror to the rest of us. John Lewis was an exemplar of what makes our country great, often despite ourselves.
John Lewis lived for a simple principle: That any citizen, as a citizen, should have the same rights and privileges as any other citizen.
It’s amazing how hard it is for us to get there, as a nation. You’d almost think a lot of us don’t believe in that shit.