Dallas, TX –
Janis Joplin once sang that "...freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." As much as I like Kris Kristofferson's song, "Me and Bobby McGee", I don't really think that those words are true. The people who have sacrificed for our freedom here in America have had a lot to lose and some of them lost everything.
I thought about that recently, as my wife and I watched the HBO special on the life of John Adams. The film is an inspiring look at the life of one of our founding fathers. In the film, we watch John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and the others vote on the proposition to declare independence from England on that famous Fourth of July. The vote for independancce is hotly debated and when the men complete the vote for independence, they sit in silence, not with the rousing cheers one might imagine. These men realized that they had just potentially signed their death warrants. I once heard Adams' biographer David McCullough point out about the founding fathers, that they faced torture and execution because of their actions. I'm embarrassed to say, I hadn't really thought about that before. Our freedom had the potential for costing those men everything. It cost John Adams an awful lot as he spent years away from his beloved wife Abigail.
In my pro bono work with political and religious refugees, I've met a lot of people who risked everything for ideas and beliefs much larger than themselves. I recall a Nigerian doctor, an Ogoni activist during the regime of dictator Abacha. He was treating people shot by the Nigerian military in their peaceful protests. He told me, that he and the other activists understood that some of them would have to die in order to make life better for their children. I recall the words of a Cameroonian woman, an activist in an opposition party. She was jailed and tortured repeatedly. She didn't stop protesting. I remember the judge being a bit incredulous at her bravery. My client understood that to change the government, someone was going to risk death. We Americans seem to have forgotten that. Just recently, Morgan Tsvangirai, withdrew from a runoff election in Zimbabwe, because he feared his followers risked their lives to vote.
It wasn't that long ago that Americans risked death for the freedom to vote. I grew up in Mobile Alabama. During my childhood, houses were fire bombed less than 100 miles from my house during the fight for African Americans to vote. I recall the words of the Freedom Riders, singing the Civil Rights anthem, "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn me Around". The Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hamer once said about registering to vote:
"When they asked for those to raise their hands who'd go down to the courthouse the next day, I raised mine. Had it high up as I could get it. I guess if I'd had any sense I'd've been a little scared, but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do to me was kill me and it seemed like they'd been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember."
Closer to home, my dad and other veterans of World War II risked their lives to fight for our freedom. Some of them paid the ultimate sacrifice. So, this Fourth of July, while I'll enjoy a day off from the office and maybe watch some fireworks. I'll also remember that first Fourth of July, the first of many times where people risked and gave their lives so that I could have the freedom to live mine.
William Holston is an attorney from Dallas.
If you have questions, opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call 214-740-9338 or contact us through the Radio page of kera.org.