(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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July is a fascinating month. Whether by coincidence or because of the summer season, this month has witnessed some of the most significant events in human rights history. America celebrates its founding on principles of human rights in July. France remembers its embrace of the same ideals this month. The women’s rights movement began in July, and President Johnson signed into law, in July, a sweeping enactment of Civil Rights that helped end the worst of Jim Crow racial discrimination.
Whatever reasons that make July such a monumental month in the advancement of human rights, I believe Americans in particular should pause to reflect on these events and what they mean to us today.
In the midst of summer vacations, fireworks, and picnics, time spent thinking about our rights and how they were derived can give summertime increased significance. In other words, July means more than playtime. In American history especially, July is when we’ve grown as a people. July marks events when America became even truer to the spiritual ideals of freedom, dignity and equal opportunity.
In that sense, July is rightfully a human rights month not just for America – but for all people. As imperfect as this nation has been and still is, America has often set the benchmark for human rights. It has done so not from a political standpoint, but from what I claim is a spiritual one. America has implicitly declared human rights as something that all must enjoy based on the sacredness of every person.
And yet, as we know, America has yet to fully implement that ideal. Two-hundred and forty-three years after this nation was founded, we cannot say discrimination of any kind no longer exists in America. But just because America does not perfectly practice all that it says it believes, that does not mean its human rights ideals are any less important. Americans may be hypocrites about some of our values, but most of us we know we are, and so we continue the struggle to be better. In my mind, our flaws and our ongoing effort to fix them is what makes us great.
The Declaration of Independence famously says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Who, one might ask, comprises “all men”? It’s quite likely many founders believed the phrase to literally mean males, and only white men at that. But the phrase was purposefully NOT limited by its writer Thomas Jefferson to say only males are equal. “All men” has thus been able to evolve to indicate “all humanity.”
And that phrase has a profoundly spiritual meaning. Without naming who or what our Creator is, Thomas Jefferson and the founders clearly intended to say that our rights come from the gift of humanness offered by some force bigger than us. We have intrinsic worth because we are human.
If we think about it, that’s a belief found in the Bible and in numerous other religious Scriptures as well. It’s also the ideal stated in the first Unitarian Universalist principle. People have dignity and worth because as humans we are able to reason, feel, and innovate in ways far beyond other species. For whatever reasons, we are special, we have unique responsibilities to care for our planet, and we thus have value.
As Thomas Paine wrote in his famous revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense, America opposed the British King not for political reasons, but for spiritual ones. Paine said that King George’s insistence on his divine right – that he was appointed by God to rule over others – that this was an affront to human reason, common sense, and the created order of things. Everybody, Paine implied, is equal before God, or whatever it is that created us.
James Madison, another founder, said the assertions of human rights in the Declaration of Independence were NOT new discoveries. Instead, they were merely declarations of already existing natural rights. We were born into the one human family and by that biological specialness, we each have rights nobody can take away.
As I earlier said, many historians have noted the seeming hypocrisy of the founders. Many of them never contemplated the full meaning of the Declaration’s statement of unalienable rights for all men. But many founders perceived their hypocrisy such that American imperfections were known even then. Abigail Adams, the famed wife of founder John Adams, wrote to her husband when he served in the Continental Congress, “Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them.”
Thomas Jefferson, who wrote most of the Declaration and was a slave owner, pointedly included in his original draft an accusation that the King “waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere…” As a slave owner, he has rightly been accused of hypocrisy for writing “all men are created equal”, but the truth is that, like America itself, he was complicated and flawed but nevertheless one who consistently fought for human rights.
His passage stating that sacred rights of life and liberty applied to slaves was angrily opposed by delegates from Georgia and South Carolina. Their opposition threatened the colonial unity that had been carefully nurtured. And so his first draft statement in favor of human rights for slaves was deleted from the final Declaration of Independence as a compromise to preserve the rebellion against Britain.
Most historians note the flaws in the Declaration of Independence but they also claim they do not diminish the moral significance of the document. Philosophers going back to ancient Greece have asserted similar human rights, but never before had a large set of people, and their government, claimed equal rights for all humanity. Governments do not give people those rights the Declaration said. Whatever created humanity did that.
While we usually celebrate July 4th as the anniversary of our nation’s founding, what the founders did was vastly more significant. They declared a human rights revolution that still resounds today.
Less than fifteen years after the Declaration of Independence, the French Revolution shook the foundations of Kingdoms and aristocratic systems everywhere. It owed its impulses to America and its human rights revolution.
On July 14, 1879, a huge crowd stormed the infamous Bastille fortress in Paris. It was the headquarters of the French army which protected the King and the French economic system of feudal inequality.
The Bastille was taken over by the protestors leading to the overthrow of King Louis the 15th. Barely a month later, a legislative assembly of French common people published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Its writers intentionally capitalized the word ‘Man’ to signify all humanity. Thomas Jefferson was a consultant in its writing.
The document declared that all people are born free and equal in the rights they possess. People have the right to vote for their leaders, the right of free speech, religion, and press. Leaders are to be chosen according to their merit – and not their wealth or social status.
Once again, a July date led to a major assertion of human rights – ones that are granted not by a King, but by the simple virtue of being born. The French Revolution specifically stated humans have natural rights which many people equate to belief in a little ‘g’ god of nature. The Declaration of Rights of Man was thus a spiritual statement much like the Declaration of Independence.
Sixty years later in 1848, once again in July and taking place on the 18th and 19th of the month, multiple American women assembled in Seneca Falls, New York to discuss the rights and social conditions of women. Led by Quakers, who had long supported the equality of genders, the Seneca Falls convention was the first of its kind in history.
Common law at the time did not allow women to inherit property, sign contracts, serve on juries, or vote. Few jobs were available to women and those that were available paid them less than half that of men. Fathers and husbands controlled the destiny of women – deciding if they could be educated, when and to whom they could marry, and whether or not they could divorce an abusive husband.
The Seneca Falls convention adopted a Declaration of Sentiments, purposefully written to be similar to the Declaration of Independence. It was another spiritual statement of human rights. It emphatically stated that God created men and women as fully equal – but that men had selfishly contradicted God’s intentions by denying women their rights.
While women are still fighting for full equality with men, Seneca Falls is a landmark event in history. Like all other human rights efforts, it appealed to spiritual ethics of equal treatment, justice, and opportunity for all.
A final significant July date in human rights history took place on July 2nd, 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act which rendered illegal almost all forms of Jim Crow segregation. Initiated by President Kennedy before his death, the Civil Rights Act made it illegal to use race as a reason to discriminate in employment, housing and education. Of greatest significance, it made it illegal for any business to discriminate on the basis of race, national origin, or religion.
Passage of the Civil Rights Act required the Senate to break the longest filibuster in US history – one conducted by 11 southern Senators who took turns speaking non-stop for over 75 days . Hubert Humphrey, the liberal lion from Minnesota, proposed a compromise on a few provisions of the Act in order to win the votes of three filibustering Senators. The Act then passed Congress and was signed into law on July 2nd – a date significant for its nearness to the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. (Pause)
I imagine most of us recently saw the picture of a young El Salvadoran father, and his 23 month old daughter, drowned and lying on the banks of the Rio Grande river. Oscar Martinez fled El Salvador with his wife and daughter 4 months ago. They left in order to come to America and realize what the Declaration of Independence promises – the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
After waiting for three months in the Mexican border town of Matamoros for an appointment to seek asylum in the US, Oscar and his family were finally given a date and time. They arrived at the US border station as scheduled only to find it closed. They were told to make another appointment. In desperation, after living in hellish homeless conditions with temperatures regularly over 110 degrees, Oscar decided to swim his family into the US.
He and daughter safely made it across the river to Texas. He then patiently instructed his small daughter to sit on the shore and wait there while he returned to Mexico to help his wife swim across. Soon after he began swimming back to other side, his daughter panicked and jumped into the river after him. She was carried away in a strong current and Oscar swam after her. With his wife watching in horror from the Mexican shore, he reached his daughter but then he too was caught in the swift current. With the toddler panicking, Oscar flailed to stay afloat. While still clutching his daughter, he soon went under the muddy waves. Their bodies washed ashore the next day.
This horrific tragedy prompts many of us to consider just what America is doing at its southern border. For me, the US must insure it acts in loving concern for those who simply want to enjoy the rights we too often take for granted.
This tragedy also causes me to ponder the amazing human rights I enjoy – and yet how fragile they are. Tyranny, I realize, can snatch my rights away at any moment. Tyranny can also look indifferently at those who risk their lives to gain the rights I have. Tyranny cruelly denies different people the basic human worth every person is owed.
And so this July should remind us what America represents to millions of people around the world. America is not great because of its wealth, or its powerful military. America is great precisely because it has fought a long history of Julys to insist that everybody has the right to be treated equal, and to live with the freedom to pursue their basic well-being.
Oscar Martinez was not a criminal. He was not illegal in any way. He was a human being, a loving and tragically desperate dad, who yearned to be free so he could assure he, his wife, and his daughter could live in simple dignity.
And yet I so often take for granted the rights Oscar Martinez died trying to gain. May we remember all those like Oscar, and may we also remember, honor, understand, and never take for granted the human rights we each have – all of them due to a history of July efforts to win for every person equality, freedom, and opportunity.
Wherever and whatever god is, she weeps for Oscar Martinez and his small daughter. More ominously, she also weeps for an America that has forgotten the many July struggles for human rights – all while this nation steadily diminishes its ethical and spiritual values. We must work very hard to stop that.
Peace to each of you.