The Declaration of Independence sets forth America’s essential promise: that we are all created equal and endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that governments are instituted by and derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.
In the 240 years since the signing, that essential promise has never been a fully realized condition of America’s existence. Rather, the promise has served as America’s preeminent aspirational goal, illuminating, motivating and guiding our progress. The greatest Americans have been those who most advanced our country closer to realizing that essential American promise, especially those who paid for such progress through immense personal sacrifice in the face of persistent and brutal repression.
This week should be counted among the most sacred in the American calendar, as we celebrate two exalted members of that pantheon of greatest Americans: Dr. Alice Paul on January 11, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on January 15. Dr. Paul and Dr. King did not merely advance America’s progress toward fulfilling its essential promise; rather, they dramatically transformed and enlarged Americans’ conception of that promise and of the populations to whom it applies. Indeed, they fundamentally expanded the meaning of the word “American”.
Dr. Paul and Dr. King were instrumental in creating the America of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. “Voting rights,” “equal protection,” “equal opportunity,” “equal rights,” “civil rights,” and “nondiscrimination” are words that have resonance and meaning that did not exist before the efforts of Dr. Paul, Dr. King, and the movements they led. Dr. Paul, Dr. King, and the unsung multitudes they each inspired, paid dearly for their efforts, suffering violence, imprisonment, hostility and repression from all levels of government, and, as in the case of Dr. King, loss of their lives. They knew the dangers they courted, but would not allow their fears to overcome their moral conviction and sense of personal responsibility to push America toward fulfilling its essential promise. Their selfless sacrifices and courage truly made America the greatest that it has ever been; it is only by preserving and extending their missions that we can preserve and extend America’s greatness.
Reacquaint yourself with their lives and works. Teach your children about their struggles and sacrifices (Ridgefield Library is the preferred resource, but there is no shame in looking to Wikipedia for a quick head start). Attend (hopefully with children in tow) the Ridgefield League of Women Voters Celebration of Alice Paul on January 10, at 10:30 am, and the Town of Ridgefield’s 21st Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration on January 16, at 3 pm.
The recent spike in public expressions of misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism and intolerance, and accelerating efforts across the country to roll back so many of the fundamental rights to which they dedicated their lives, make it more important than ever to reaffirm and re-dedicate ourselves to Dr. Paul’s and Dr. King’s unfinished callings.
The Ridgefield Democratic Town Committee provides this column.