Showmen benefactors, the Lions have reached for the stars, giving us a slew of days this year for celebrating our country's beginning instead of some ordinary celebration of the Fourth alone. With a host of fellow countians, we rejoice at this bacchanal of patriotic fervor. Boom it loud as a Sousa march. Lob it higher than a Roman candle. And in the rockets' red glare, we can only wonder that there was ever a time this time was not celebrated here.
It's true, you know. From the Civil War to World War II, the Fourth of July wasn't much celebrated in the South. There were reasons. We had lost a war seeking our own independence from the country the Fourth celebrates. In the aftermath, we did not so much return to our mother country kicking and screaming as we were made to stand outside it devastated, humbled.
For a time we endured occupation troops, a relatively brief but predictable imposition to be visited upon a conquered country. That ended with the political wind shift that brought an end to Reconstruction during the 1870s.
A more paralyzing hardship remained. The economic disparity between the conquered South and the rest of the nation persisted––and persisted by federal design well into the 20th century. Always an agrarian land, the war-havocked, industry-poor, postwar South became a colonial market for the capital-fat industrial North embracing its "Golden Age" in the late 1800s.
On average, desperate and poorly educated, Southern backs became exploited labor in mills, mines and quarries freshly capitalized from sources above the Mason-Dixon line.
They went to it willingly, these Southern workers, hungry for even a meager cash wage or company scrip, the regular pay that proved their narrow escape from the nearly cashless hand-to-mouth subsistence they had previously eked from the ground. With few choices, many Southerners continued to farm, as bound to the land as European peasants.
Sound feudal, medieval or Dickensian? It wasn't far removed. By federal design? Believe it. Until the 1930s, by federal regulation, railroad freight rates were stacked from Washington to serve industrialists of the North. A Southern manufacturer paid more to ship finished factory goods to market by rail than a Northern manufacturer did. The intent was to maintain the South as a consumer colony, to hinder it from becoming an able competitor.
True, with the end of Reconstruction, we ruled at the statehouse again––our opportunity to impose racial segregation with a heavy hand. The economic backwater of the nation, relegated to the back of the class, we became the schoolyard bully, pressing down on someone weaker to mask our own shame. And the South saw the heyday of the scoundrel politician, villains empowered by their ability to bait us on the race issue.
We needed a fixing. And by the grace of God, it found us.
First a great depression put all Americans in the same boat. Southerners were still at the back of the boat, but at last we were all together in our looking for a way up.
And there was this man Roosevelt. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he later wore steel on his legs. He later wielded a wheelchair. And somehow he understood that even the poorest American black or white deserved dignity. He set about finding ways Americans could achieve that.
A great war helped him, creating many important jobs when they were needed, jobs that moneyed American workers and jobs vital to defeating imperial racism at both ends of the Earth. The South gained industrial opportunities as never before.
Many, many Southerners fought in that war, that most moral war of modern memory, fought it with their whole heart, with their life's blood. Southerners did their part, and the scapegrace cousin South was restored to the bosom of the national family.
It was along then that celebration of the Fourth returned to the South. Another two decades would pass before the nation would "rise up and live out its creed that all men are created equal." If reluctantly, the South went first in that. As that struggle unfolded, were there some Southern veterans of World War II ready to see the racism they fought overseas finally ended at home? There must have been.
This Fourth as our American banner moves down Main in the passing parade, many tiny hands waving tiny flags as they second that motion, remember those stars and stripes stand for more than the spirit of '76. They are the spirit of '45 and the spirit of '65 that made all of us Americans again––one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.